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Remembering Ambassador Stevens

Christopher Stevens

Christopher Stevens (U.S. Department of State)

Jennifer Clinton

Editor’s note: Jennifer Clinton, President of National Council for International Visitors (NCIV), authored this essay on the NCIV Web site. Reprinted with permission of NCIV.

October 2012.

Our nation and the international community experienced a great loss last month when violence erupted in Benghazi, Libya and took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues.

As I listened to and read the stories of Ambassador Stevens, I was particularly struck by the way in which his colleagues described his approach to diplomacy. It was an approach that looked and sounded much like the way that citizen diplomacy is carried out in far corners of the United States by thousands of volunteers who make up our network. It was a kind of diplomacy that prioritized listening, engaging, and adapting to the preferences of those from the host or visiting country. Ambassadors Stevens was known for putting personal contact first, often over personal security. He also made it his goal to speak Arabic as he recognized that common language was the path to finding common ground.

Elizabeth Dibble, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, talked of Ambassador Stevens saying that he knew that “It takes a lot of tea.” Chris did “not rush into talking points, [he] developed a relationship and a personal connection, and a series of connections becomes a network. Many Americans, we start at A and work down the list to F. But A to B is not a straight line, and Chris had an instinctive feel for this, how to get things done. ” (New York Times, ‘A U.S. Envoy Who Plunged Into Arab Life,’ September 15, 2012).

The New York Times described his type of diplomacy as “a style of diplomacy already on the decline.” I say to the contrary—this style of diplomacy is in fact on the rise; one just needs to look throughout our network. The principles that made Ambassador Stevens so successful—connecting on a very personal level with a wide range of individuals from senior officials to shop keepers—is precisely the type of approach our network takes every day with every interaction. It is our job to make sure that Ambassador Stevens’ approach lives on in perpetuity. It is our job to ensure that it grows and flourishes in such a way that every American adapts the very principles he lived, and ultimately died, upholding.

Our nation and the international community have a choice in the weeks and months ahead. We can take the events that occurred in Benghazi and look at the violence as reason to disengage with the world out of self-preservation or fear. This is exemplified by a measure that was brought to the Senate floor just last month to cut U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, and any country that fails to secure American embassies. The proposed bill was rationalized by the notion that “the Arab Spring is a direct consequence of us sending foreign aid and lavishing it on people who don’t respect the freedom of their constituents, who don’t allow constitutional freedoms.”

The other choice we can make is one that Ambassador Stevens made. We can learn from this tragedy and commit to finding even more opportunities to engage with the world. We can build even stronger networks of people across borders and across ideologies where mutual respect and understanding takes precedence over political or financial gain.

The best way to celebrate Ambassador Stevens’ life is to keep turning on the teapot time and time again, because global engagement is a long-term commitment. It will take a lot of tea and it will be a long and winding road from point A to point F. As a network we must persevere. We must encourage our friends, neighbors, and the naysayers to continue to engage with the world even when, and especially when, things get difficult.

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