An Interview with Phillip Carter, U.S. Ambassador to Cote D’Ivoire

Phillip Carter is the U.S. Ambassador to Cote D’Ivoire, where he has served since August of 2010. He received an M.A. in international and development economics from Yale University and earned a B.A. in economics and history from Drew University. Prior to his current appointment, Carter served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and shortly after as a Senior Advisor to the Africa Bureau. He also served as Africa Bureau’s Acting Assistant Secretary during the transition between the Bush and Obama Administrations. Among his many honorable postings, Carter has served as the Deputy Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Canada, vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Madagascar, Deputy Chief of Mission in Gabon, and as an economist for State Department’s Office of Monetary Affairs in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. Carter also served as an Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea from 2007 to 2008.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

The timing is the thing. My own personal background is such that I grew up in the Caribbean and was the first one of my family to go to university. I had the opportunity when I was a student to travel to Europe and when I was there I was exposed to Foreign Service officers, and it was the first time I had seen them. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I was fascinated by the work and what it entailed. And then the whole thing about the Foreign Service hit the screen in the United States in television, in a very, very obvious case with the Iran hostage crisis. And as anyone was at that time, we were glued every day to watching what was happening and the drama that was unfolding with trying to get our hostages and the crisis going on. So we followed that for 444 days — I remember that. And after that experience I saw that it was something I wanted to do. So in my junior year and my senior year in college, I took the Foreign Service exam and passed it. And then I took the oral examinations and I passed that. And then I proceeded to wait. I waited for a while, I graduated in 1980, and eventually I got a phone call from the Foreign Service in August 1981. So during that period of time, I bounced around for a little bit, tried my hand at different things, was vaguely unemployed for a little while, but I joined the Foreign Service at 22. And I have been in it ever since. And it is fascinating. Outstanding career.

The Politic: There are many Yale students who are interested in Foreign Service. What sort of recommendations do you have for them, and for anyone interested in international diplomacy and the Foreign Service career?

One, there has to be a kind of recognition that a Foreign Service career is not just a job. You have to live it. It is a lifestyle. You have to look at your life and at the sacrifices you have to make. There are a lot of parallels to being in the military or being in industry or just being in a life in medicine. You have got to embrace that lifestyle. Like I said it’s a vocation. So you have to take that on board first: that you will be moving all the time and you will not necessarily be spending your life in very cushy places. You have to be worldwide. You are going to be living a life with your family, and literally you will be moving yourself, your spouse, your kids, your cats and dogs, every two or three years. Learning different languages, cultures. The fundamental role is that you are serving the government and representing our country and our government abroad, wherever you go. And you have to have that understanding first of all. You’re not going to be working in Paris, London, Rome, or Tokyo all the time. You will be working in other places. You have to accept the fact that you may be separated from family. You take that on board and you recognize that your job is to advocate as effectively and as forcefully as you can for the interests of the United States’ government. That is our job.

So, how to be an effective communicator? The preparation comes in, for example, when you’re a student at Yale, as an undergraduate or graduate student: the best thing is to be as well-rounded in your education as possible. It may be old-fashioned to say this, but a liberal arts education is perhaps the best preparation for engaging the planet, engaging the world. To engage in the Foreign Service, or in development work, or in international relations itself, you have to have a broad understanding of so many different disciplines to have an appreciation for where you are, what you can do, and where can you go. Being as well-read and well-rounded as possible is what is important — if you are not interested in the world, if you are not interested in foreign culture, then the Foreign Service is probably not for you! And it isn’t just for students studying political science or economics — all disciplines are adaptable to the world of diplomacy. It is just that for all areas you have to be able to understand it in a global context — in an interdisciplinary context. So you have to have that appreciation.

Basically, being well-rounded, having global views, and being good in communication — you have to be able to communicate clearly. You would be surprised by how many people have difficulty with the essay portion, so having a good grasp of writing skills and communication skills is absolutely essential. If you have a foreign language, that is great. If you don’t, the Foreign Service will give you one. In our career you must know a foreign language or two. Speaking of preparation, you should take interest in all things — culture, disciplines like development economics or international economics, or whatever it is, and not just focusing on one region of the world. You have to have an appreciation of being global…

The Politic: Well that sounds like many Yale students could maybe fit that!

[Laughs] Oh I think a lot of them could!

The Politic: So, what has been the most challenging experience you have faced as a Foreign Service official?

As a Foreign Service officer, I would have to say that the most challenging thing was during my current time. Towards the end of 2010 and the first part of 2011, Cote D’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, was going through a political crisis. And it was very difficult, very violent. We had to draw down, we got smaller and we got smaller. We had to play a role in terms of looking for an international partner to ensure that a democratic election that would take place would be honored. And it was very difficult. The difficulty was due to great violence. Following that we tried to get ourselves together, along with our donor partners, to help rebuild and help the new government establish itself beginning with the process of introducing national representation. So that was a difficult time, and during that one period we were stuck in the Embassy and we had to be without our families. That was probably the most challenging experience.

The Politic: Regarding the political unrest in Cote D’Ivoire, how have the effects been impacting daily life? I mean, since the new president has already taken power, how has the civil war impacted the way culture is shaped in daily life? 

Street market
Street market

That’s a very good question. If you look at the crisis in Cote D’Ivoire, it’s not just that period of the civil war – it’s a long-term process. The political crisis has its roots back in 1999, 1998. What you have is a crisis that essentially developed into a lost generation. In terms of education, public services being provided, and infrastructure, the country became impoverished. As a result of it [the civil war], a lot of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, the government was undermined, corruption became entrenched; you had a period of essentially negligence, and corruption, and poor-governance. And now the government is trying to turn it around, is trying to change it. The country had been experiencing negative growth for years and is experiencing 9 to 10 percent growth, a lot of infrastructure projects that had been going on for a decade are now being restarted and they’re actually working on them. Building bridges, roads, those kinds of things. Universities are being reopened. But the challenges are daunting. You have to look at healthcare, education… there are a lot of challenges. But the government also has a situation because for the average Ivorian, it is difficult because as you know, when you start these economic reforms, it takes a while for those benefits to affect the daily lives of people. Expectations are there, so I think it’s a question of trying to do what they can do, come up with programs that can affect unemployment and things like that. There is an effort. The violence has stopped, and there have been more unified efforts in the country. Things are more secure, there is more regulation, some of the infrastructure projects are evident now, so things are improving — but they have a long way to go.

The Politic: Do you think that there are high chances in the foreseeable future that another conflict might break out or is the situation improving? 

Well, you know, predicting the future is not a good idea. But what I can say is that if Cote D’Ivoire, or any country for that matter, is to avoid conflict, it has to get to the roots of the problem. And the government, for better or not, is already beginning to look at these questions. I mean, one of the fundamental problems with this country has been with land. You know, who owns what part of land is a question of national citizenship. Who are our citizens? The people who were born here, or people who have been here for generations? Who has the right to citizenship? Those are questions that they are beginning to grapple with right now. And so you have that. Getting your youth educated and trained, and not just vocational training. Creating an economic environment where they can work in the private sector. That has to happen. If you do not deal with these things, conflict will arise. And that is not unique to Cote D’Ivoire. That is not even unique to Africa. That is true anywhere. I think in some ways the challenges to Cote D’Ivoire are larger than to other countries because it’s come out of this decade — this lost decade — and the reconstruction is going to take a while. You know, it took 10 to 15 years to damage the country, so it will take 10 to 15 years to rebuild it.

The Politic: What role did the U.S. play in backing President Ouattara’s victory over Laurent Gbagbo during the political unrest?

First of all, we participated actively in supporting the UN Peacekeeping operations in ensuring that the presidential election was to be a free and fair election. We helped financially but also with our own participation in observing the election. We were supporting various non-governmental organizations, such as the Carter Center, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the National Democratic Institute — all of our partners. We worked very closely to ensure that we were sharing all the information we were getting from these partners with our development partners, the French Government, the other donors, the Chinese government, and everyone else who was participating. We had a very clear role of coordination amongst the donors and information sharing. Consequently, as a result of that, the rounds of the election held here, with the cooperation of the U.N. and the agreement from all the parties that were overseeing the elections, were completely free and fair, with some of the highest participation rates in electoral history. It was amazing. We were out there — I was out there personally — monitoring the election. We sent 44 people from the Embassy to monitor the election, the Carter Center was out there, the U.N. was here… we all were monitoring the election, and it was clear that the result of the election was that Alassane Ouattara had won and Laurent Gbagbo had lost.

As a result of a free and fair election, you had to honor the results, respect the results. And we had made a commitment prior to the election that both candidates would respect the results. Unfortunately, Gbagbo didn’t honor that. We choose to continue to provide whatever support we could for Ouattara’s government to establish itself. We played a role in trying to encourage the process to move further. We provided whatever assistance we could, and we played a very public role in supporting the election of Alassane Ouattara. President Obama was publicly adamant about that in that context. I played a very active role in all of that. We monitored the situation very closely, worked very carefully to ensure safety here. We played an active role, but we did so because the results were obvious. The quality of the elections was obvious. Alassane Ouattara had rightfully become the president of Cote D’Ivoire.  And now we are working with his government to hold them on task.

Laurent Gbagbo at a rally
Laurent Gbagbo at a rally

The Politic: How did the U.S. relationship with Cote D’Ivoire change from Gbagbo to Ouattara?

The relationship changed with Ouattara because there are only a couple of embargoes left, and we are working on these. Cote D’Ivoire is now participating in international forums and they’re very active participants. Our bilateral dialogue is very, very good. We have extended our bilateral programs beyond HIV campaigns, we are working to help reestablish the National Assembly, and we’re working on national recognition, trying to help them with their justice program to ensure that it’s equitable with international standards, helping some reforms, and definitely helping with economic growth to take people out of poverty.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Cote D’Ivoire that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

Well I think that the event that has most affected our policies and our engagement here was the character of that election and the brilliant effort made by the United Nations in certifying that presidential election. There was no question that Outtara won that election. If you could say that there was any event or any effort that influenced our policies with Cote D’Ivoire it was that free and fair election.

The Politic: How has the country reacted internally to the ICC ruling on Gbagbo, that they will keep taking time to judge his case?

The reaction has been muted. There has been a lot of discussion in the media and a lot of talk in the press, but there have not been any public demonstrations about it. It has being examined in a public discourse without people making political hay out of it. I think people are still trying to evaluate, and I think for most Ivorians they’re looking at it as what it means for the ICC. There is a lot in the press about it, even locally. People are talking about it.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad? Are there any elements in American foreign policy that you would like to change?

The United States is a complex country. It is a great country! It is a great nation. But we are complex and many people don’t appreciate the country. A lot of people rely on pop culture and cinema, film, music, and also focus on events of where we engage, that we think define how we engage around the world. I think that there is a greater appreciation of the U.S., and that people expect more from the United States. Our foreign policy is based on our values. Democracy, freedom, liberty — those are the cornerstones of American society and American government. And those are the cornerstones of our foreign policy. There is always expectation from the outside that we can do more than we are doing. But I think that generally there is a positive appreciation of the United States contribution in international activity, commerce and diplomacy.

Obviously, some countries disagree with our policies, some more than others. Around the world, the United States has more friends than people who are not friends. That is part of our policy — we want to have friendly relations with everybody. The other thing that surprises people about the United States is how open we are about ourselves. About how critical Americans are of America. I think that what also surprises people is how normal Americans are. The average American is concerned about his or her job and the local community, as is anyone around the world. What also surprises people is the actual generosity. How much Americans give to the world — charity. It might be a kind of cheap answer, but I do think that the United States is a country that is generally appreciated.

Embassy of the United States to Cote D’Ivoire:

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