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Ambassador Kenton Keith

Embassy Inspector, US Department of State, 2010-present

Career Trajectory

Meridian International Center, Senior Vice President, Washington, DC,1997-2010

US Information Agency (USIA), US Department of State

Director, Near East, North Africa, and South Asia, Washington, DC, 1995-97

US Ambassador to Qatar, Doha, Qatar, 1992-95 Public Affairs Officer, Cairo, Egypt, 1988-92 Senior Cultural Affairs Officer, Paris, France, 1985-88 Deputy Director, Near East, North Africa, and South Asia, Washington, DC, 1983-85 Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Brasilia, Brazil, 1980-83 Special Assistant to Deputy Director, Washington, DC, 1977-80 Public Affairs Officer, Damascus, Syria, 1974-77 Branch Public Affairs Officer, Fez, Morocco, 1973-74 Western Arabic Training, Tangier, Morocco, 1972-73 Branch Cultural Affairs Officer, Istanbul, Turkey, 1968-72 Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1967-68 Junior Officer Training, Baghdad, Iraq, 1966-67 US Navy, Officer, 1961-65

Academic Background

George Washington University, Graduate Work (Comparative Politics), 1978-79

University of Kansas, BA (International Relations and French; Navy ROTC), 1961

How do you define your cause?

I am still inspired by engagement with people from different societies, especially in the cultural and academic realms. Something very interesting and important happens when people meet in those circumstances. I am particularly interested in helping healthy exchanges at all levels—high school, university, and professional—continue. It is critical in a globalizing world for Americans to know the rest of the world and for the rest of the world to know us.

But my cause didn't appear all of a sudden. I grew up in a Cold War environment, in Kansas City, Missouri. We actually had nuclear attack drills. I realized that our lives were somehow connected to what happened in other parts of the world. Even as a youngster, I knew I wanted to work abroad. I didn't know why, but I knew that. I had the feeling that becoming a foreign correspondent or a diplomat would be a fascinating way to lead my life.

When I went to university, I was advised by a treasured mentor, a man named Cliff Ketzel, my political science professor. He shaped my understanding of this country's relations with the outside world and the possibility of my personal involvement. He's the one who urged me to take the Foreign Service exam.

I went into the Foreign Service after the navy. It wasn't until I got to Turkey that I realized cultural and educational exchanges are extremely powerful tools. They create a mutual understanding among participants. Something magical happened when people engaged at that person-to-person level—something almost totally separate from government-to-government relations. That realization has been an engine for my career and what I have tried to accomplish in government and after.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

Very simple things. I remember once at my church being introduced to an international visitor from Indonesia. I was in junior high school when that took place. Mind you, I went to an inner-city school in Kansas City. We didn't have that many international visitors. But that interaction with this intelligent man who came and tried to get to know us, I thought, was a pretty interesting thing.

I began to think about foreign countries. There was a neighbor who had been in the war and showed pictures of Southeast Asia. That piqued my interest as well.

Then television came. Television brought with it these black and white images of foreign intrigue, and I was fascinated with the fast cars and beautiful women, with living overseas. In high school I began to study French. A teacher who had spent some time in France described a different lifestyle and different attitude. All of that went into the mix.

My parents certainly did not discourage me and my two siblings from pursuing any career we wished. They had a lot of confidence that we would do just fine. They knew that whatever our career paths, we wouldn't be in Kansas City.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?

The US embassy inspections I'm doing now generally last six to seven weeks in the field and require work a couple of weeks beforehand and a couple of weeks afterward. A total of three months or so. It turns out that I'm regarded as good at it. My job as team leader is to evaluate the performance of the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission and to judge the quality of the embassy's interagency relationships. I also make sure that all of the basic elements of mission operations are thoroughly and fairly evaluated. I am not a consular officer, but I need to be satisfied that my consular inspectors are doing a good job.

What awards and honors have meant the most to you?

The first award that meant a lot to me was a Presidential Award I received for work in Egypt trying to get public and private sector cooperation in USIA programming.[1] It meant a lot to me because it was at a time when the US government was spending less and less on cultural programming, and I thought it was more and more important. I was in Egypt with an extraordinary ambassador, Frank Wisner. His leadership created an environment in which the private sector—both American and Egyptian—understood that the embassy wanted and needed their cooperation at a critical juncture in our bilateral relationship. In October 1988, the Egyptian government was opening a new opera house that the Japanese government built for them. We saw this as a moment when American presence would be important as a gesture in support of the Egyptian economic reform policies. We wanted to help American companies in Egypt be viewed by the Egyptian population as good corporate citizens, not as exploiters.

So we raised a million and a half dollars to bring a Houston-based opera troupe to perform Porgy and Bess as an opening presentation at the Cairo Opera House. This was one of several projects that created momentum for the kind of public-private partnership that had real payoffs for both the private and public sectors. This was seen as a model, and, on that basis, I received that Presidential Award.

Another honor that gave me a lot of satisfaction and a sense of pride was receiving a Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters for my work with the Fulbright Program. When I arrived in Paris as the senior cultural affairs officer, I became cochair of the Fulbright Commission in France. The other cochair was a senior member of the French Ministry of Education, a man who eventually became a senior ambassador. The Fulbright Program had been eclipsed, at that point, by the French government's own academic exchange programs, and they only paid lip service to their participation in the Fulbright Program. Not many resources were devoted to it. My goal was to try to breathe some life into it, which I was able to do with help from many people. We accomplished this by going to French companies and convincing them that it was in their interest to sponsor academic exchanges, that it would eventually benefit the participants, the individual companies, and their country.

Thus the Fulbright Program in France suddenly took on a different complexion. The French got on board very quickly I worked closely with Jacques Chirac and his team at the mayor's office. He was mayor of Paris at that time [Chirac held this post from 1977 to 1995]. I had very close relationships with the minister of culture, the minister of education, and the university system in Paris. In fact, it was the chancellor of the universities of Paris who actually pinned on my Chevalier.

Paris was a great canvas for me. It was open, I had resources, and I had a receptive host government. I was in a place with intellectual openness . . . there were a lot of special circumstances that have rarely coincided. I did my best to take advantage of them.

Are you involved in community service?

Board Member, AFS Intercultural Programs

Board Member, Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)

Board Member, Partners for Democratic Change

Advisory Board Member, University of Kansas Office of International Programs

Vice President, Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs

Member, American Academy of Diplomacy

President, Association of Black American Ambassadors

I've always believed that African Americans have a perspective that is important in our international relations. It is also vital that we have a voice to share our views with the government; thus my involvement with the Association of Black American Ambassadors. We believe it's important for us to take our collective views and feed them back to the government and to American citizens at large who are interested.

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

I think that the implication of the word "networking" is that you are part of a network. In the Foreign Service, you've got to have a wide circle of contacts. That's a different thing from networking for your personal growth. And I would make the distinction there because I've prided myself, in all of my posts, on knowing the people I needed to know.

Networking is a vital aspect of the work that we do, not just because it has to do with connecting with the people who are "influence multipliers," the people you really need to know. I think the most important thing for me, when looking back on my career in the Foreign Service, was knowing the right people. Identifying the important players in the field, identifying the influence builders, and finding the appropriate ways to get to know them. When I was in Egypt and Syria, for example, I made it my business to work with people who were not particularly easy to get to know, and who were not drawn to Americans. You have to avoid just taking the easy route. The temptation is to get to know people who are comfortable to be around. That may not be—and, in fact, very often is not—the network you need.

In a Foreign Service career, career planning is as important as networking. You must clarify your goals, recognize the gaps in your experience, and bid on jobs that will bridge those gaps. All of my jobs in the Middle East, in the early part of my career, were small posts. What I lacked in order to reach the next level was management experience at a large post. The opportunity arose for me to go to Brazil as deputy political affairs officer, a major management role supervising branch posts and program coordination. It was a career move that was absolutely critical for me. From there I went on to larger posts and responsibilities.

Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?

Cliff Ketzel, my professor at the University of Kansas . . . he was an iconoclast. Ketzel had been a part of the State Department Reserve. Remember, we're talking about the Cold War, and we all thought it was highly possible that a bomb could wipe out Washington, DC. During an emergency, the country's internal affairs might have to be conducted somewhere other than Washington. There needed to be a group of wise experts who would meet and make decisions. He was in that group.

My time in university was a period when not much was happening. The campus was anything but activist. So for Ketzel to be an iconoclast in that period was quite impressive. But he was somebody who was much loved. He was a good professor, a good lecturer, and he had an effective approach to teaching students.

One day after class, he asked me what I intended to do. I said, "Well, I have my military obligation, but I've always been interested in working abroad." So he said, "I think you ought to take the Foreign Service exam. You ought to take the USIA option." At that point, it all sort of snapped into place in my mind.

Do you consider yourself a mentor to others?

I can honestly say there are people who would consider me a mentor. Half of those who are managing US public diplomacy operations round the world are people I consider my protégés.

If you believe in something very strongly, if you think you have an important mission and you know that you are able to influence others to support that same mission, then it's your duty to mentor. I was in a particularly privileged position to be a mentor because I could recruit, assign, and reward. I see the public diplomacy officers at the State Department and I am very happy that some of my favorite protégés are doing well.

What lessons have you learned as your career has evolved?

A critical lesson I have learned is that all of our exchange programs depend on an asset that we have here: the American citizen. If we weren't sure that the "product" we have to "sell" is a good product, then our exchange programs would sink under their own weight. But in fact, the interaction with the average American is such a positive thing for foreign exchange participants. When you meet them, Americans come across as open, hospitable, and hardworking. People in the United States are remarkably nonjudgmental. International visitors are often bemused that Americans can be working next to someone for over ten years and not know whether that person is a Republican or a Democrat or a Christian or a Jew and frankly not care.

It is, on the one hand, very positive that Americans are unprogrammed. On the other hand, foreigners find it strange that Americans don't know anything about the rest of the world. If they knew more, maybe they would be more programmed. But it's not part of our DNA. That's not to say that there isn't prejudice or ethnic difficulty or racism—those things exist. But, as a nation, we are generally tolerant. That's a pretty important thing. It's a great strength.

A lesson I learned in the navy that has served me well is that if at the end of the day you have not achieved what you committed to achieving, that's what will be remembered. No matter how justified you may be in not living up to your responsibilities—you know, even if you fell under a combine (laughs)—the fact will remain that it didn't get done. If it becomes a pattern, that will influence your career. I have seen talented people who were not achievers. Something always seemed to come up. There was always some "reason." But at the end of the day, they had failed. I tell people that if you're supposed to get something done by Friday afternoon, don't think that it's okay to work over the weekend and get it in Monday morning. That's not good enough.

Any final advice?

For people interested in foreign affairs, twenty years ago, I would have said you need to explore the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, or USAID. But now, I think that NGOs may have more personally rewarding work to offer, in particular for people who have a passion in one specific area. If your passion is environmental protection, you can have an international career in that. If your passion is educational exchange, if your passion is sports . . . it is possible now, with the proliferation of NGOs, interest groups with deep connections and multiple activities, to have a job in nongovernmental work that is every bit as rewarding as being in the Foreign Service.

  • [1] In 1999, the US Information Agency (USIA), formerly an independent government agency that employed many Foreign Service officers, was absorbed by the US Department of State.
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