Baccalaureate 2013: Voices from Bowdoin’s Past

Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster delivered “Voices from Bowdoin’s Past,” a Bowdoin Baccalaureate tradition, in which he highlights “Bowdoin and Diplomacy” — a familiar theme among the College and some notable alumni through the years.

Next weekend, the Bowdoin Class of 1953 will celebrate its 60th Reunion right here in Brunswick. Among them, will be Tom Pickering whose career in the U.S. Foreign Service included ambassadorships in Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, the United Nations, India and Russia.

Tim Foster

Tim Foster

Today, he holds the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the Foreign Service. As Ambassador Pickering said:

“My mom was proud of my career, but wondered why I couldn’t hold a job.”

Not only did the Ambassador hold those jobs, in taking on these duties he earned the respect and gratitude of presidents, kings and prime ministers.

Known for his credibility and integrity, he was chosen last year to chair the panel investigating the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and in 2005, the College awarded Ambassador Pickering its highest honor — The Bowdoin Prize — in recognition of his exemplary career. Not bad for a history major from New Jersey who came here thinking he would become a minister!

Tom Pickering’s story has been repeated many, many times at Bowdoin. A student arrives with plans for a particular future — or no plans — takes courses outside his or her comfort zone, develops important relationships with faculty, and sees a new path.

It happened to George Mitchell, Class of 1954, who thought he would teach history. Instead, he continues to make history as a negotiator and peacemaker.

It happened to Chris Hill, Class of 1974, who came here thinking mostly about lacrosse. He studied resource economics and demography, learning about lesser-developed countries. That led to the Peace Corp, the State Department, and ambassadorships in Macedonia, Poland, Korea and Iraq. Today he is dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver — named in honor of Secretary Albright’s father.

There are so many Bowdoin graduates who have devoted themselves to the common good through diplomatic service that I can’t possibly list them all in the time I have today. Names like Hawthorne and Hildreth, Odembo and Weil, Butler and Appleton, Fessenden and Snow. In years past they served in places like Spain, Cuba and Pakistan.

Today, Bowdoin grads serve in France, Africa and China, among many other locations. The Deputy Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is David Pearce of the Class of 1972, and the person sent to Libya after the murder of Ambassador Stevens is veteran diplomat Laurence Pope of the Class of 1967.

Foreign service has been associated with this College from the very beginning. In 1804, Thomas Jefferson named our original benefactor, James Bowdoin III, Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Spain. Napoleon was dominating Europe and in Bowdoin’s opinion, the French posed a potential danger to America.

Trouble is, he was never sure if his warnings got through. In December 1806, just weeks after the College graduated its first class of seven students, Bowdoin wrote to Secretary of State James Madison:

Sir, I have the honor to enclose to you a very important decree of the Emperor of France. I have not time to offer any observations upon the subject of it: But shall content myself with forwarding a number of copies to different sea-ports, in hopes that by some vessel which may be found ready to sail you will receive the earliest intelligence of it.

Talk about hoping for the best in the days before email and Twitter!

Eventually, Bowdoin grew frustrated with foreign service, but not the lure of foreign society. He gave up his position but remained in Europe for a time with his wife, Sarah, taking in all that Paris had to offer and amassing a collection of art and furnishings, many of which are now in the collections of our Museum.

Diplomacy also requires a deep understanding of other cultures. Secretary Albright was the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, and that meant many challenges her predecessors hadn’t faced, including the art of diplomatic kissing.

“This was more complicated than it sounds,” Secretary Albright wrote in her memoir, Madame Secretary, “because different places had different styles.”

In some countries, she explained, they kiss on the left and in some on the right. The French kiss on both cheeks, the Belgians and Dutch kiss three times, and in Botswana, there are four kisses. A lot to keep track of, and sometimes, as with Yasser Arafat, you never knew what you were going to get! “He could only be described as dogged and unpredictable,” Secretary Albright remembered.

Sometimes he would do one cheek, sometimes two, at other times both cheeks, the forehead, and the hand. He also tried to kiss President Clinton, who towered above him, so Arafat ended up laying his head beneath the President’s chin.

This work requires knowledge, judgment, and yes, a sense of humor, and it is not a job for the faint hearted. As events in Benghazi clearly illustrate, diplomatic service can also be dangerous. Today, in an age of sophisticated weaponry, unlimited reach and ideological intransigence, the stakes can be immense.

That’s why a global education and a commitment to the common good are so important. Education provides perspective, optimism, and the judgment necessary to confront the vexing issues of our time. Our graduate, George Mitchell, chaired the negotiations that eventually brought peace to Northern Ireland. He described that work as “700 days of failure and one day of success.” Sometimes, that’s really all it takes — one day. One day of success.

As Senator Mitchell once said:

There’s no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.

To the Class of 2013, I wish you many days of success and the courage, determination, and confidence necessary to change the world.

Thank you for listening.