This past Monday, the US Ambassador to Chile, Mr. Paul Simons, chatted with a group of Yale undergraduates at a Master’s Tea hosted by Jonathan Edwards College. A JE alum, Mr. Simons studied philosophy at Yale and even took English 125 with Penelope Laurans, the current Master of JE, when he was a freshman. At the tea, Mr. Simons shared his experience and stories as a career foreign service officer.
Before his November 2007 appointment to the Embassy, Simons served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy and Sanctions, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Earlier in his career, he served at U.S. Embassies in Ecuador, Malawi and Colombia, as a speechwriter at the State Department, and as international economist at the Treasury Department. These Foreign Service positions were preceded by a career in international corporate lending.
Ambassador Simons was careful to point out that these impressive appointments only came after working his way from the bottom up. He entered the Foreign Service as a visa interviewer in Colombia, during which he screened around 150 visa applicants every day. “Of course it is tedious,” he responded to a student, “but this is the boot camp of Foreign Service—everyone has to go through it; you don’t really get to choose.” Simons assured students that the jobs get better and more interesting as one accrued more experience. When he moved to work in Malawi, his responsibilities grew to include oversight of commercial projects. His other adventures included accompanying President Clinton in Middle East and working on drug regulation in Columbia.
Throughout his diverse experiences, Ambassador Simons has maintained faith in diplomacy as the best way to solve international problems. To him, the most pressing issues now are climate change and the Middle East, as he has spent several years in Israel. He told students that “we need policies that make sense and sell them properly if we want to make an impact.” He believes that climate changes must be regulated diplomatically, even in light of the difficulties that the U.S.’s high expectations are bound to cause during negotiations. Simons remains hopeful of future diplomatic potential in the Middle East as well: “We have the tools and the credibility to solve the problem, all we need is time and a lot of attention over the next few years.”
What I find particularly interesting about Mr. Simon’s career path is the fact that he has worked on almost every important issue. Finance, energy, drugs, the Middle East….the list doesn’t miss any popular buzzword. He told me that he found rotating from topic to topic very enjoyable and even more challenging. Working in so many different fields allowed him to see more connections and view every situation more comprehensively.
Many Yalies have worked in the Foreign Service, but Mr. Simons is one of the few that have come back to tell Yale students how it is from the inside. Sure, you start in the trenches, but as long as you put in enough time and energy, your effort will pay off. Even if you end up somewhere outside the Foreign Service, it seems like a helpful starting place from which to see the intricate web of international affairs more clearly.