An Interview with Christopher McMullen, Former U.S. Ambassador to Angola

Angola AmbassadorChristopher J. McMullen served as the United States Ambassador to Angola from November 17, 2010 to June 12, 2013. He is a distinguished graduate of the National War College and earned a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, McMullen was a senior analyst at the Pentagon and worked as a Foreign Affairs Fellow in the Office of Senator John Glenn. Before his ambassadorship, McMullen served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. McMullen is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, having served in various positions in Brazil, Panama, Nicaragua, Malaysia, El Salvador, Tanzania, and Colombia. McMullen is currently a member of the faculty at the National War College.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

For me it was pretty straightforward. I was a history major in college, and I particularly liked diplomatic history. I had a Foreign Service Officer visit the university where I was studying history and talk about his experience as a Foreign Service Officer. I thought, “Wow, that sounds really cool, it sounds like a real adventure.” That stuck in the back of my mind, and then I went on to get my Masters and then my PhD. I was at Georgetown getting my PhD, where I had a lot of contact with the State Department and the Foreign Service. It led me to the State Department and I have not regretted it. It has been a great career.

The Politic: That is wonderful. I am very interested in the Foreign Service too, so I have loved hearing about Ambassador’s career paths this summer.

Well, it was not quite as linear as it sounds. I worked awhile for the Defense Department. I think if you really like foreign affairs, and if you like learning new cultures and languages every couple years, and doing something different functionally — whether its human rights or climate change or political-military issues, whatever — it is a nice option for a career. There are very few careers like it.

The Politic: Angola is a major oil exporter, yet one of the poorest countries in the world. The average citizen makes less than a $1 per day. What measures are the U.S. — or when you were working there, you personally — taking to help promote economic growth and development in Angola?

It is imbedded in your question, but the basic problem in Angola is that it is such a skewed economy. About 80 percent of government revenue comes from oil and a good part of the other 20 percent comes from natural resources — such as diamonds and other minerals. So it is an economy that is heavy on capital investment but not labor intensive, and that is the fundamental problem. I tried to work with the Angolan government in its efforts to diversify the economy beyond just oil, gas, and the mining industry. The United States government has a lot of tools to do that – we have the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is currently engaged in Angola’s agricultural sector, the banking sector, and also in areas of education. All of these things are key to diversification. We also have a Treasury Department representative who provides technical assistance to the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank, with the ultimate goal of trying to advance this process of diversification.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also approved a new position in the embassy, which we hope will allow us to work more closely with the Angolan government on agricultural issues. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office negotiated a trade and investment framework agreement with Angola. The goal is to overcome some of the impediments to greater trade and investment, with the aim being to help Angola diversify its economy. Our investments during my time in Angola increased significantly in areas outside of oil and gas and I think that trend will continue.

We also tried to encourage the Angolan government to take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA is a preference-based, non-tariff system in which most African products come to the U.S. without paying import duties. At present, 99 percent of Angola’s exports to the U.S. are in the oil and gas categories, so we are trying to get them to think more creatively about exporting other products to the United States. To be honest, we have had limited success so far.  I think they have a real challenge, because first they have to increase production so that they can provide for their own domestic market. They currently have more than enough domestic demand for their agricultural products without exporting to the U.S. or other markets.

The other area where we tried to help lay the groundwork for a diversified economy was through our public affairs section’s robust English language program. We worked with the private sector and to a certain extent with the government, trying to improve English language capacity, which is the key to international business and the use of the Internet. We also helped them focus on math and science. We worked with U.S. oil companies in that regard because they had a vested interest in hiring English-speakers, particularly ones that were in science, math, and engineering. We worked with U.S. companies on public-private partnerships in that area.

The final area that we worked on was the public promotion of economic diversification. For instance, we gave public visibility to various agricultural projects, whether USAID or other projects, which were successful in diversifying the economy. We also used our International Visitors programs, where we pay for Angolans to visit the U.S. on various programs — usually the programs range from two weeks to four weeks. A lot of those programs focused on business innovation and public-private partnerships, things that we thought would help the Angolans diversify their economy. The other area where I worked very heavily was coordinating with the U.S.-Angolan Chamber of Commerce and American companies on the Angolanization of the workforce — trying to promote more U.S. investments that would increase employment of Angolans. That was a big focus during my time there.

We also tried to leverage the work of American citizens in the area of education. A big problem in Angola, and in most Third World countries, is that the workers do not always have the skills to fill the jobs that exist. So, we tried to focus on improving education and English language skills, and a number of Americans were teaching English in Angola. Also, we tried to work with Angolan universities to improve the educational base.  These were all areas where we were trying to build a better foundation for economic diversification.  I hope that our efforts will get at that issue you were talking about, which is a small elite that enjoys a lot of prosperity and a very large part of the population that is outside the economic mainstream.

The Politic: There have been numerous allegations that oil revenues are being squandered through corruption and mismanagement. Did your office do anything to fight corruption in Angola?

As in other parts of the world, we characterize this problem as a ‘lack of transparency’ or a ‘lack of accountability.’ During my time there [Angola] the IMF conducted a major review of Angola’s Ministry of Finance. In some cases it is an accounting issue — not knowing how to account for things. In the case of Angola, its parastatal oil organization, Sonangol, was acting as a source of revenue for other parts of the government, subsidizing areas that should not have been subsidized — whether it was fuel for the national airlines, or other things like that. It is not always people putting their hands in the till and just taking money — sometimes it is simply not following proper accounting practices. And sometimes it is just a lack of transparency — they may be doing things for the right reason, but they are doing it the wrong way. The way we tackled this issue was by talking to the Angolan government about greater transparency and accountability, which we found to be a much more constructive way than simply beating them over the head for alleged corruption.

Also, we worked with the IMF and the World Bank to coordinate efforts, plus our Treasury Department representative worked with the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance. This issue was also a topic of conversation within the context of our trade and investment framework agreement. A core theme of the agreement was promoting greater transparency and accountability. I also always made the point in media interviews that lack of transparency, lack of accountability, is a disincentive to U.S. investment or other foreign investment. We had U.S. officials, whenever they visited Angola, hit on that theme. Again, I worked very closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. companies because this affected their core interests, and they sometimes had greater leverage over some officials than the U.S. government. As I mentioned, we did a lot of press interviews in which I hit home the importance of transparency and accountability — not just in Angola, but in any country that hopes to develop economically.

An aerial view of Luanda, Angola's capital city
An aerial view of Luanda, Angola’s capital city

I think the other thing that is very important to understand about this problem is the need for a strong civil society. We worked very heavily on that.  Angola had a weak civil society, due in part to the lack of education. So we worked closely with civil society and helping to focus the light on this. Also, we gave a lot of training to the media in Angola. One of the purposes of this press training was to expose the lack of transparency and accountability. We talked to political parties about their role as advocates for this process. But, at the end of the day, whether it is Angola, whether it is India, Thailand, or wherever, it is those countries that have to deal with the problem. There is limited leverage that the United States government can exert alone, or even acting with international institutions like the IMF and World Bank. It ultimately has to be the will and commitment of the government. It has to be positive pressure by key interest groups — whether it is civil society or political parties, or the private sector. In the end, a country has to want to do it. We have a lot of tools to help them if they want — the World Bank and IMF are experts at this.

The Politic: Can you recall any particular moment during your time in Angola where that limited leverage that you had, and that the U.S. had, frustrated you and made it so you could not necessarily accomplish everything you wished to?

I have worked in the Foreign Service for 25 years and served in eight overseas posts, and in every embassy this was always an issue for us to varying degrees. I do not think it is as frustrating for us, as it is for the people in that country. Small businesses are affected by it. Certain companies, if they have scale and size, are not touched by it. No one is going to ask General Electric, or ExxonMobil, or Chevron for a bribe. They are above the fray that way.  In most cases, it affects the citizens of that country more than it affects direct U.S. interests. It can be, as I have pointed out to the press, a dissuasive factor in deciding on investing in a country. In Angola there are other impediments to the market, such as the high cost of doing business. Luanda, I believe, is ranked number one as the most expensive capital in the world, again, because of the skewed economy. That is a more of a bar to entry for American companies than perceived corruption.

The Politic: The current Angolan President has been serving for I believe 30 years now, and Angolan elections are based off of a parliamentary system. How does this difference in political systems, as compared to the U.S., affect methods of policy-making?

Let me put it this way, we have limited leverage in countries — either they want to change or they do not. If a government is elected, whether you like that government or not, it is the government you have to deal with. In terms of Angola, it is more like a parliamentary system, and the President has an assured two-thirds majority in Parliament. Our ability to work with the opposition bumps up against that reality. Nevertheless, we worked with the opposition.

Obviously, we do not take sides, we side with the democratic process — we want a balanced, democratic system in these countries. When we meet with the opposition, it is a tremendous advantage for them with their own constituents. We also meet with the ruling party and engage them.  I often had meetings, usually behind closed doors, in which I encouraged both sides, but particularly the ruling party, to reach out to the opposition and try to get some things done constructively and for the greater good of the Angolan people. I can’t say that their type of political system really affected our goals or the way we went about doing business in Angola. How they set up their electoral system is really a decision made by the Angolan government.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Angola that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?

I think it is the demographic reality of Angola, combined with the history of U.S. policy towards Angola.  During the Cold War, Angola was caught between the Soviet bloc and the U.S. bloc. We sided with what is now the main opposition party, and the Soviets sided with the party that is now the ruling party. So we have a history with the opposition party. For this reason, there are still suspicions on the part of the ruling party that we have a bias against them — which is not true. None of our statements — public or private — are going to persuade them differently about that perception. The demographic fact, which really affected my whole strategic approach with Angola, was the fact that 42 percent of the population was 14 years old or younger.

My whole public diplomacy strategy was focused on the next generation of leaders and how to identify them, how to cultivate them, and try to work with them to have a more democratic society and a more open economy, and to work more closely with their neighbors for peaceful ends. So, I would say the demographic factor definitely affected my whole approach to policy there. Even though I had read the statistics, it wasn’t until I got out there and I started traveling in the countryside and visiting schools and universities, that it hit me how profound a factor that was in terms of that country’s future and our future relations with Angola.

The Politic: Do you have any advice for young people, such as myself, who are interested in a career in the State Department or the Foreign Service?

People come into the State Department from all kinds of backgrounds. I have had friends that were mathematicians and some that were cultural anthropologists. There are a lot of lawyers, though not the majority. I am biased but I think that having a sound grounding in history, whether it is U.S. history or some other history, is good; having a foreign language or two — particularly a hard language such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, is a key asset to the Foreign Service. I have Spanish, Portuguese, and Swahili, only one of which anyone would be considered a hard language. If you can get a hard language, and I would say today that particularly Arabic or Chinese would be very valuable. You have the written exam and the oral assessment, and then the medical and security checks.

There are definitely advantages to entering through the exam process, which is how I entered, but there are other programs. The Pickering program and the Rangel program are two ways also to enter the Foreign Service. You can go to the State Department website and find out more about those options. Having a background in a regional area, as well as having a sound understanding of the United States is very useful. You would be surprised how often you are called upon to explain the U.S. Electoral College, or the federal system in the United States — things that are very, very different from other countries. Having a solid grounding in your own country’s politics and history and culture is a great advantage because many times you are explaining the United States to other countries while, at the same time, trying to understand how those countries work and where their interests and our interests intersect.

The Politic: Well, we have made it to the very last question I have for you. How do you feel America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I think the public face of our representation is good. We are getting increasingly diverse as Foreign Service Officers, in terms of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, and educational background. It used to be that Yale, Princeton, Harvard and other elite schools were the primary source of Foreign Service Officers. Today, state universities — I was a graduate of a state university but ended up getting my PhD at Georgetown — are adding to the diversity in terms of educational backgrounds. And I think that is good, as it allows us to represent the United States broadly.

I think we still need to work on balancing our security needs. You probably followed the tragedy in Benghazi last year when our Ambassador was killed along with several other Foreign Service Officers. Clearly there is a need for security, but there is also a need to get out and talk to people. There is a certain amount of risk-taking with the Foreign Service, but I think that is just the nature of the job. We live in a dangerous world, and that risk is an issue we are going to continue to face.

I think we need to get better at leveraging the work of American citizens overseas — whether they are working for U.S. companies, faith-based organizations, or secular NGOs. I tried very hard in Angola to reach out to all the American citizens that were doing good work there because I think they had a lot of insights into the country. They are like ambassadors in many ways in remote areas, and they are doing a lot of good things and we should shine a light on what they are doing. We need to try and leverage them because they generate a tremendous amount of goodwill in the countries that they work in.

We have to get better at coordinating our economic and commercial diplomacy. We have organizations like the U.S. Trade Development Authority, U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, and USAID — I think we need to learn how to use those tools more effectively and in tandem — not just developing other economies, but also opening up markets for our investors and our companies.


Embassy of the United States to Angola:


The views expressed by Christopher McMullen in this interview are personal ones, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Defense University or the Department of State.

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