A Discussion with Robert A. Seiple, First U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom

With: Robert Seiple

October 29, 2009

Background: In 1999 Robert A. Seiple became the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF). Responsible for establishing the new post within the U.S. Department of State, Seiple and the IRF initiative were not always eagerly received at home or abroad. Interviewed by the Berkley Center's Thomas Farr on October 28, 2009, Seiple muses about how his Christian beliefs and life experiences prepared him for this job, why he took it, and how it challenged him personally and professionally. He also discusses the "battle over China" and his thoughts on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Obama administration, and his most important legacy.

Over the last decade, your work has been associated with international religious freedom. But earlier in your life you were involved with endeavors not directly related to religious freedom—a Marine aviator in Vietnam, a college president, a college athletic director, and head of World Vision, the world’s largest privately funded relief and development organization.

What in your professional and personal background led you to the field of religious freedom?

It starts with a worldview that acknowledges a supreme being who demonstrated a love for me and others such that his only son would be allowed to go through a painful, humiliating death for my sake—so that I might look to be righteous in the eyes of a holy God. If that’s your worldview, and it’s mine, then you do things not necessarily out of obligation but out of a sense of responsibility that leads you into certain pursuits. With the exception of the Marine Corps, which wasn’t part of my forward looking resume but came up because my generation was called to serve in that way, everything else was trying to fulfill the space that I occupied with something as positive as I could do, especially given what had already been done for me.

The Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Wolf succinctly states what has been done for us must be done by us. If someone else was going to serve me—namely fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ—I needed to fulfill my end of the bargain. Not necessarily as a painful obligation but as something that was both good for me in terms of how it would utilize my gifts and interests, while also meeting the needs of others.

A number of my professional positions don’t directly correspond to human rights; they come down to service—education, athletic director, World Vision. These jobs gave me a chance to engage not only in a responsible way, but also gave me a platform that was difficult to exhaust—a world vision. This was the highlight of my professional life and gave me personal experiences I can go back to and apply a few more times.

One of the things you did at World Vision was go back to Vietnam, and you wrote about that experience in a book, A Missing Peace. Tell us about how your experience in Vietnam affected your worldview on religious freedom.

Vietnam was an event that most completely impacted my generation, including those who said they weren’t or were going to go. The results have been with us for most of our lives. I would liken it to the American Civil War in terms of its pathos. There were no winners and no losers, just victims. It was an interruption for me; I didn’t go to college to end up in the Marines. But my four-year stint in the Marine Corps included 13 months in Vietnam. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It was an honest environment. It strips you bare. People know if you’re a hero, or if you’re afraid—it’s known by everyone. Vietnam was a place where your character was totally exposed. It’s the most honest environment you could create, although you wouldn’t want to. I came to acknowledge Churchill’s statement: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” It was also my first real experience with another culture at a critical time, i.e., at war, where lots of people were vulnerable. People were dying in bunches on all sides. It was the worst that man could create.

I was excited to be able to go back to Vietnam in 1988 as head of World Vision. I’ve been going back yearly since. It was a different place, and I was at a different place. How do you bring war to closure? How do you reconcile what happened there? I became a student of reconciliation. When you look at models of reconciliation, it takes you into the question of what constitutes human dignity. Inevitably it took me into places where there was vulnerability—vulnerable children, people being oppressed because of who they worship or how they chose to worship. It was service on one hand but opportunity on the other. Who would fill that kind of a vacuum?

It seemed I had the whole world to work with. There was a huge global need to work on. Now I wasn’t such a triumphalist that I thought it would come through me and I’d make the world a better place. For me, faithfulness is required as opposed to success. Be faithful, obedient, let someone else keep score. In my worldview, that person is God.

You also visited dens of persecution like Rwanda and Sudan. What did this kind of experience contribute? Was it a sense of calling? Did you begin to fashion solutions that you later drew on when you became ambassador-at-large for religious freedom?

I obviously didn’t look ahead at the ambassador’s position. But I was unconsciously preparing myself by encountering intractable problems, working at them with a spirit of faithfulness, and developing relationships that had the best chance of making faithfulness, in a human sense, pay off. To me, this was all part of developing methodologies that work in the real world, in the difficult places of the world.

An important methodology emerged from my experience at the State Department combined with my time at World Vision. At World Vision we worked with people and groups from the bottom up. At the State Department we worked with government officials, i.e., top down. The question was, what do you do with that? It was a unique set of relationships, a fairly unique set of circumstances where I knew the people on the ground and I knew the people at the top. How do you become a steward of these relationships? Out of it came the bottom up, top down method we use at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). This is effective because it keeps track of two stakeholders—one with power and one without. This was the best chance of bringing the two camps together and be able to create win-win situations.

You've mentioned some of the lions’ dens out there in the world. What about the lions’ den at Foggy Bottom, the State Department? You once told me that you had people at World Vision who could move mountains to get the job done. Then, when you arrived at the State Department to take over the international religious freedom office, you not only did not have hundreds of employees to move mountains, you had no employees. Talk about the transition, the culture shock—not just of moving from CEO to ambassador-at-large, but the broader changes it meant for you.

For most of my jobs during the 20 to 30 years preceding the State Department, I was in charge. I enjoyed working, the decision-making process, and looking at what we were able to accomplish as a member of a team. I came to the State Department where they were trying to derail the international religious freedom bill. Ultimately, we got the legislation anyway.

Let me give you an illustration of the problems I encountered. At the time that the religious freedom bill passed, I thought it was important to bring the various stakeholders together in an op-ed. As I drafted the op-ed, it told the story of how we had fought the battles over the legislation—some won, some lost—but this is where we were. And now the goal was to have opponents and supporters move forward together. What I found is that in the department, 55 different people had to clear such a document. Everyone wanted something edited. Unfortunately, I allowed that to happen and ultimately had an op-ed that I wasn’t very pleased with. A good deal of the core was taken out, and the result was a kind of 5-day-old piece of provolone. But we sent it in and it was published.

Then came the other half of the problem. People from the outside, who had always been against the State Department, had to throw their pot shots at the op-ed. It wasn’t fun, and I was upset with some people, formerly friends, who suddenly decided that I was on wrong side of the religious freedom fight, and that I had been co-opted by the State Department. I learned some lessons from that exercise. I found the State Department a perplexing mixture of ambiguities, not having grown up in the culture. In my previous lives, the decision-making process went a lot faster. It was a difficult time for me personally. But I’m glad I did it. It’s nice to say you’ve been there.

But I would advise people going into the foreign service to do it earlier in their lives. I had this conversation with Madeleine Albright—that I never did figure out the State Department. I was in the land of the great unwashed—a middle ground that knows neither victory nor defeat, buffeted on all sides. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience.

I do think that anyone going into the position of ambassador-at-large should have a finite number of things, perhaps three, that he or she wants to accomplish. Focus on that and don’t let anything else distract you. Most of my productive time was spent outside of Washington.

How did you become ambassador-at-large?

I was an unintended consequence. I was asked to come and take on a position that, if done with a lot of publicity, would probably be able to stave off the international religious freedom act altogether. That is, if the State Department could point to a credentialed person in that job, that would counter the need for the legislation. In the end, however, they got both me and the law.

The Clinton administration wanted a reason to avoid a religious freedom law?

That’s right. At the end, most State Department officials had come to accept the legislation, but there were those who were still trying to derail it. I thought the legislation would give the office a lot of attention, although I didn’t feel it appropriate to be a one man stand for it. I spent my time listening and bringing up issues where they were appropriate: “I’m the new guy, but you do need this.” It was not bad legislation at the time. I felt and still feel it was pretty good.

As the first ambassador, you had to do everything for the first time. You had to do the first round of designations of countries of particular concern. Some were clearly going to be on that list, for example, Sudan, Iran, Burma, Iraq. There was some pushback, but it was not very effective. But there was one country that clearly there was going to be a fight over once you decided it should be on the list: China. Tell us about the battle over China.

The countries that you mentioned were fairly easy to put on. We also put on the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan under the Taliban—no arguments there. It was obvious from the beginning that if you pick on China, however, you’d better have your ducks in a row and be expecting that a lot of things will get thrown back at you. You probably won’t get what you’re after. That said, the mandate and language of the law gave us no choice given what was going on in China. Systematic, ongoing egregious religious persecution was not simply an annoyance. In my mind, given a careful reading of the legislation and of what was happening in China, there was no reason to not put them on. I knew, however, that this issue would make or break the credibility and viability of the office. There were high stakes for us if we failed. We would never be able to touch any other country with multiple interest points for the United States: commerce, consumerism, economics, etc.

We talked with members of the secretary’s staff. We were given good advice that this probably only had a 10 percent chance of working. But the longer we would wait, perhaps chances would magnify. That’s exactly what happened. It went from contentious meetings to where we could count on people in the National Security Council, the State Department, the White House, those with credentials, relevance, some on the commission—we were collectively able to present the case that got us to the tipping point. But the Chinese helped us at the ASEAN conference held in New Zealand that year (1998). They dissed the secretary and all she was trying to do and made her mad. Now we had not only facts but also emotion, and the rest became history.

Steve McFarland, executive director of the IRF Commission, is quoted as saying that he had already drafted a press release criticizing the administration for leaving China off the list. When the list appeared, people were stunned that China was on it. There was one contentious meeting in which the China desk argued it was not religious persecution against Tibetans—the persecution occurred not because they were Buddhists, but because they were separatists. Is it useful to separate out religious issues?

I think it is useful. If things were not done properly, it was very possible for people who are being oppressed, such as the Hmong in Laos—Christian, living on the border, who helped the United States in the Vietnam War—to attempt to find protection under this law. Is that a religious freedom issue or a border security one, and are they just coming to us because of our legislation?

How do you sort that out?

I’m a big believer in identity issues, and I know that religion is a key, a major component in how people see themselves. When people tell us we’re being beaten up because we are Hindus, Christians, etc., we need to put a lot of stock in that. Normally, you can tell fairly quickly if someone’s trying to use you. I put stock in self-perception.

Looking back, what is your most important contribution as ambassador-at-large?

Probably the fact that I came. You need to start somewhere, and there are things that we did, were allowed to do, that nobody knew we were doing. We laid the groundwork for an office that could be taken seriously. At the time I left, a critical mass had developed in the State Department, interagency process, and overseas governments that together highlighted the need for international religious freedom. It was taken seriously, a relevant force. It may not have been loved, and there were problems with the legislation. But I was there and I wasn’t going to go away, and we were getting traction. That’s not to say it was an all-time deal. The education process has to be continuous. New people need to take advantage of opportunities, The world has a lot going on. You’re going to have to stand up to a lot of people fighting for their agenda.

Someone wrote that you during two years—you or your staff—visited 40 countries, mostly unpleasant places. (Actually, now that I recall it, Paris wasn’t very pleasant either.) Your legacy includes what you did in those dens of persecution, in particular, places like China, Vietnam, Laos, and the Middle East. You spent a lot of time there, partly because of your frustrations with the State Department bureaucracy. Where do you think you made a difference?

I take a different perspective on the legacy issue. I think legacy is determined by the success of your successor—what you leave him/her to move forward. When it’s time to meet my maker, my primary legacy will be determined by how I dealt with my primary responsibility, namely my wife and three kids. I thought we laid good ground work in Laos and Uzbekistan. Both are examples of how the promotion of religious freedom, as opposed to threatening people with a fist, is helpful in establishing relationships that create win-win situations in both countries. We saw people released from jail, churches registered, yokes of oppression being lifted before people’s eyes, bilateral relationships strengthened in addition to human rights relationships. Vietnam also came a long way. We look at short-term programs, but the problems are long-term. We need modesty in what we do. Successes demonstrate the value of relationships built, the desire to take required time to get things done that stick, to give my successor a good running start in his time at office.

As you look back at it, how would you rate the performance of your successor? Tie it to the legacy you left.

Being first is kind of like following an 0-10 football coach: win one game and you’re a hero. I was not close enough to the day-to-day and cable traffic and the one-on-ones, which are so important to rate my successor, except in the area of Vietnam. Here, time was put in, the right questions were asked, relationships were built—and we ended up with a positive outcome.

Laws were passed at the national level forbidding persecutory acts at the local level. Your successor, Ambassador John Hanford, worked with IGE on the ground to make this happen.

It’s best when likeminded people in government and non-government work together. I went back a year ago to the central highlands where 450 churches were bulldozed. It was the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of a church. Twenty thousand people came out to celebrate. Hmong and other tribalists who were so instrumental in the Vietnam War, and now suffered because of it, were standing in rows of choirs representing youth of the area, singing at the top of their lungs, in unison, the "Hallelujah Chorus." In lots of places we take two steps forward and three steps back. We must be patient to make progress. When you see that—20,000 people gathered—you know something good is happening in terms of religious freedom.

The partnership between the U.S. government working with the Vietnamese government and an NGO like IGE working at ground level...was that a government-NGO partnership model for the future?

Absolutely. We always had NGOs when I was at the State Department, but they weren’t really operational. They were the advocates in Washington—important and necessary—but you need people on the ground. They know what’s happening and probably how to fix it and what to watch out for. It’s a model to be pursued.

Looking to the future, as we talk today we are 10 months into the Obama administration, and there is no ambassador-at-large nominated. Most assistant secretary and other senior positions in the State Department are filled, but this position isn’t. Does this worry you, and what are your hopes and fears about this administration’s treatment of the issue?

Hopefully, 20-20 hindsight will answer the good, bad, and indifferent. But it’s a troubling sign that the position is yet to be filled. It shouldn’t be the hardest to be filled. The passage of so much time speaks to either a lack of interest and prioritization or an attempt to figure out operational reporting relationships and how the office will function. Regardless, there needs to be an explanation given as to why it’s taken so long. I’m assuming work has gone on, but people fall in line once the secretary makes an agenda statement, and this secretary [Hillary Clinton] hasn’t made an agenda statement on religious freedom, which has made it worse. Soon she has to. It didn’t take them long to get an ambassador-at-large for women’s issues; it shouldn’t take any longer for religious freedom issues.

One of your legacies was the physical growth of the office staff. When you arrived it was you and no one else. Gradually, under you, the office began to grow. Today there are about 20 staff in the office due to the hard work of your successor and people on the Hill who pressed the State Department to add staff. It’s important for laying tracks for the future to have good, smart people working from inside, helping to move the culture. Do you agree?

I hope it’s true. There’s something to be said for critical mass. You can get more done. The biggest thing I had going was a travel budget and interest in meeting people face-to-face. We should all be grateful for positive pressure put on by the Hill to have more folks and greater budgets. The commission budget was assured, but the State Department budget was up for grabs depending on whose ox was being gored. We need, certainly, to maximize our efforts in terms of the mission, fiscal capacity, and manpower.

What’s your view of the role of the commission? How is it doing? You once called for its dismantling.

I called for dismantling to get attention. The specific incident that triggered the problem was a high-level visit of Laotian officials to this country sponsored by IGE. No one from the commission would talk to these officials. Then the Laotian delegation went back and began opening up jails. A major positive thing was happening. The commission later sent to Laos a delegation of one person and then had a discussion and voted to put Laos on the country of particular concern (CPC) list. All this after the Laotians had come to the United States and spent 15 days with IGE and then opened up their jails (and freed 34 religious prisoners). There was only one vote against putting them on the CPC list—the one person who had made the trip! Everyone else was more interest in making it look like they were doing their job.

I wrote to Secretary [Colin] Powell, and the letter was printed in a newspaper in Laos. And I heard from them—they knew I was their friend and they could trust me, and they knew who they couldn’t trust. If this is how you’re going to do business, you’re doing more harm than good. Calling for it [the commission] to end didn’t make me popular.

Have you changed your mind? Do you see a useful role for the commission?

With manpower and budget there should be, but I don’t see the commission’s role in terms of “good cop/bad cop.” For example, they should use some money to bring delegations from recalcitrant countries here and show them what religious pluralism looks like, that here in America we don’t feel a need to oppress. Introduce them to believers, non-believers, churches, synagogues, mosques—let their eyes open up.

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