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November 1, 2021

Ambassador David JohnsonThe diplomatic career spans more than three decades where he has gained valuable experience in political leadership, congressional relations, public affairs planning and crisis communication.

This semester he is teaching a core course on “US National Security Policy” for the inaugural cohort of International Affairs and Leadership Master of Arts students.

Ambassador David Johnson (left) and Ambassador William B. Taylor during the Washington Week for ASU Online Master of Arts Students in International Affairs and Leadership.
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The Masters program, offered through ASU Online and hosted at Arizona State University School of Politics and Global Studies, enables graduates to be future leaders on the world stage. The degree program establishes a dynamic and active learning environment led by seasoned international business professionals from the public and private sectors.

“Ambassador David Johnson is a ‘Washington insider’ with crucial assignments as Assistant Secretary and Ambassador to the US Department of State,” said Ambassador Edward O’Donnell, who is the director of the master’s program and a member of the Leadership, Diplomacy and National Security Laboratory at ASU.

“He was directly responsible for policy decisions and their implementation in critical parts of the world for decades across many US administrations, O’Donnell said. “This semester, he mentors his graduate students on national security, current and future challenges, and prepares them for careers serving our country.”

Unlike some of his colleagues, Johnson said he didn’t grow up aspiring to be a diplomat. However, an academic advisor suggested that he meet with a foreign service recruiter who was visiting the campus because of his interests in politics, foreign policy, and economics.

He was immediately intrigued and in 1977, a year after graduating from college, he joined the US Foreign Service.

Although Johnson says his experience is not unique to his fellow American diplomats, it shows how Americans differ from their professional counterparts in other countries.

“American diplomats are broadly representative of American society,” Johnson said. “What we all had in common was that we were well educated, we were curious about life abroad and America’s place in the world, and we wanted to be part of a team that would advance America’s interests. “

When two of his former colleagues asked about his interest in teaching the course as part of the International Affairs and Leadership curriculum, he said he saw an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the education of a curious and diverse group of students.

He added that he could also learn something from the experience.

“Diplomacy and education are not that different activities,” Johnson said. “In either case, you are presenting information in an accessible manner to someone who you hope will grasp it, understand it, and come to a common understanding with you of what that information means and the actions that it takes. they require. “

As he neared the end of his first semester of teaching in the Masters program, he took the time to share some of his expertise and knowledge about his course.

Question: You have held a wide range of roles during your 33 years of service as a diplomat, with increasing responsibilities in global national security. What are some of the challenges you have encountered in shaping US national security policy and implementing US foreign policy agendas?

Reply: While no foreign policy issue is self-defining, the challenge in most cases is policy implementation. As Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, I carried out programs aimed at building effective criminal justice institutions – courts, prosecutors, bar, police and corrections. And, as you can imagine, we didn’t have the ability to run these programs in the easy places. My colleagues have worked in many countries, but focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico and Central America. The self-defining part – logistics, programs, recruiting trainers and students, designing programs – was hard enough. But the hard part was taking all of these individual elements and combining them into a criminal justice system that worked, that had the support of the country where the work was being done, and that was sustainable. This is when you learn that this foreign policy job can be really tough.

Q: If you were still Assistant Secretary in the State Department, what would you advise the President and Secretary on how to strengthen national security and deal with threats from the great powers, China and Russia?

A: This is a very big question, so I’m going to focus only on China. There has been a lot of political noise about partisan differences over China, but there isn’t as much of a partisan difference as it seems.

Containing or coercing China – in the model of American policy towards the Soviet Union – is not in the cards, because to do so requires a clear unity of purpose not only within the United States but between the actors. of the region. This leaves you with the opportunity not so much to “manage” China as to take action with your allies and partners to address the risks to the rules-based system. This system has served the world well, including the United States, and must be supported and preserved. So this administration, or any administration, has to do more or less what it’s doing now, just a lot more. The creation of the “Quad” group of India, Australia, Japan and the United States is a clever move, but it is a group that will need to be exercised on an ongoing basis, both in terms of diplomatic consultations and ‘military exercises. Similar activities, perhaps not with catchy names or such a high profile, need to be pursued with other real and potential regional partners as well as with our allies and partners around the world. And US diplomats must constantly discuss with governments and the public in the region and around the world how we can work together to remedy any unnecessary Chinese action.

At the same time, we need to have a constant conversation with China on these issues not to “confront” China but to engage China in an active conversation about how the major world powers can work together to strengthen the based system. on rules that serve their interests as well as those of the rest of the planet. But I would also recommend a national step hitherto impossible: the United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the document which makes customary international law concerning freedom of navigation a recognized component of the international system. rules-based. Such a move would put the United States on a much more solid footing to deal with efforts by China, or any other state, to move out of those borders. Describing these actions in general is hard enough, but the hardest part is deciding exactly what to do, in what order, with whom, and – no less important – what we’re not going to do.

Q: This semester you are teaching a course on US National Security Policy. How will your professional experiences apply to what you will be teaching? What is your goal in teaching national security to your ASU students?

A: In my class, we look at some of the really tough national security issues America faces, and we put ourselves in the shoes of the people of Washington who systematically work on the development of a national security policy. In short, we examine how agency heads come together, under the aegis of the National Security Council, to shape these policy decisions.

For most of my career in the Foreign Service, I have been involved in this policy development process. In the mid-1980s, I was what is called an “action officer,” writing the first draft of instructions for a conventional arms control negotiation. In the mid-1990s, I was the president’s foreign policy spokesperson in the White House. At the turn of the millennium, I led the American team in Europe in an organization focused on conflict prevention and the development of democratic institutions. Back home, I led the Afghan reconstruction group. And in my last foreign service assignment, I led the United States team working to build criminal justice institutions in some of the most difficult places in the world. But in all of these endeavors, I have been part of this larger and organized process of shaping and executing our country’s foreign policy. So whether you aspire to work in or outside government, understanding how policies are made can give you real insight into how government works.

Since the US government communicates with itself in writing, in English, in a very focused manner, an important goal for students in my class is to learn to participate in this work by writing in a clear, succinct, knowledgeable manner. and well documented. guidance documents that focus on real world issues.


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