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An Interview with Ambassador Ross Wilson

Professor and former Ambassador Ross L. Wilson is a longtime foreign policy official who has served worldwide. He began his work as an intern with the State Department in 1979. Early in his career, he worked in the offices of the Soviet Union and Egypt and as an economic officer in Moscow and Prague. He also served as an aide to the counselor, undersecretary, deputy secretary & secretary of state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was the principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the former Soviet states.

Wilson was first made ambassador in 2000 and served in Azerbaijan before moving within the South Caucuses to Turkey in 2005. While working as ambassador, he was chief negotiator of the Free Trade of the Americas and continued his economic work.

After his work abroad, he directed the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and lectured at George Washington University. However, he returned to foreign service in 2010 as Chargé d’Affaires to Turkey in 2014 and Georgia from 2018 to 2019. His final position before retirement was in Afghanistan.

Now, he is the chair of the Board of Governors at the Institute of Turkish Studies — a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to supporting Turkish studies in the USA — and the chair of the Board of Directors for Global Minnesota — a nonprofit organization enabling Minnesotans to connect with international events.

Now, Wilson teaches at Carleton. After leaving foreign service, he “looked around for things to do that [he] thought would be interesting and stimulating,” which drew him to teaching. Beyond working with students, he finds lecturing rewarding because of his noticeable impact on others’ lives. For example, when he arrived in Afghanistan, a former student “sent [him] an email [because] he was serving there for the NATO mission as an analyst, so it was cool to see [the student].” When posed the classic question— “why Carleton?” — Wilson explained that Carleton was once his dream school. However, he ended up attending the University of Minnesota for financial reasons. So, “there was always that little bit of nostalgia” regarding his arrival in Northfield.

Wilson has taught Statecraft and the Tools of National Power at Carleton since 2021. One of the course’s other instructors, Jon Olson, reached out to him and explained the concept: a course that explored academia’s thoughts about international affairs taught by those with career, not merely academic, experience. Wilson covers the course’s economic aspects; Olson, the military; and Tom Hanson deals with the diplomatic.

Wilson believes the course helps prepare students for the reality of working in international politics beyond academia’s “ivory tower.” While working in foreign service, Wilson quickly learned, “when you and maybe your whole country have to live with the consequences of your decision, when you have to make trade-offs among bad options, or painful options or options that may not work […] that’s hard.” He wants to help “students here of international affairs, especially those… thinking potentially about spending some or much of their career [in international service] and that feeling to kind of make the shift from the abstract studying of issue […] to focus on what actually happens in formulating decisions.”

Wilson believes the course is valuable for all, not just those interested in this career path, because “all of us as citizens try to influence and shape…what our country does or what our government does,” and it is important to be informed by a wide array of opinions and experiences. He hopes that any student who takes the course will “come away with a better appreciation of the complexity of the world around us and of the instruments and means that countries use… to try to protect the American people.”

Wilson also hopes that his own personal experiences “[give] a picture to students of what public service is like, in its good senses. And…its not so good senses, whether policies that you’re uncomfortable with or, on a more mundane level, the kind of difficulties and complications of a life abroad and dancing from subject to subject and country to country.”

For students interested in foreign service, Wilson advises “knowing a little about a lot” above all else. Fundamentally, foreign service is about “represent[ing] the United States. And so you need to be able…to talk knowledgeably, incredibly, to foreigners about what our country is, what our values are.”

For example, Wilson spoke about his interview for the foreign service exam, during which he was asked to recommend films that would showcase American filmmaking and cinematography abroad. He answered “Casablanca” and ended up failing his first exam. Afterwards, he spent years studying the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times and preparing to explain American culture to others worldwide.

The diversity of what a foreign service officer needs to know reflects the nature of the field. Wilson knew officers who were physicians, English majors, bankers and lawyers who all incorporated their unique perspectives into their work. However, the common thread that united them was their strong oral and written skills. An officer’s writing about any given problem “doesn’t go on for pages and pages and pages and doesn’t have footnotes. We don’t care about footnotes, we care about sources, but being able to accurately [and] quickly…describe a situation, or problem or whatever it is you’re reporting on and doing it in a compelling way that people will actually want to read.”

However, he recognizes that this line of work isn’t for everyone. When asked how he would recommend any Carleton student or citizen to remain informed about international politics, he praised local organizations — like Global Minnesota — that allow individuals to get involved and understand current events.

“Dealing with opponents has to involve more than calling people out or confronting or hectoring others. It involves the painful work of trying to put together a solution that will work for a reasonable period of time that will be effective, that will protect our interests, that helps others where we can.” Wilson explained. “[This requires] odious compromises. That’s the world we live in… I think the more well-educated people who… approach international problems come with that sort of mindset, the more readily we’ll be able actually to effect change that we and others in the world need.” Wilson believes that a liberal arts education provided by schools like Carleton is “what all Americans should be getting” to be able to make those compromises.

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About the Contributor
Bea Culligan
Bea Culligan, Social Media Manager and News Editor
Bea (she/her) is a sophomore intended political science major from Los Angeles, California. She is interested in all things news, but most of all, what is happening at Carleton! Bea was previously a Staff Writer.

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