Five Minutes with Ambassador David Passage

Ambassador David Passage (Retired) (Georgetown MSFS ’66) corresponded with Barrett Helmer (MSFS ’13) about US foreign policy in Latin America, China's rise and the upcoming US presidential election.GJIA: You spent a large portion of your career (and part of your childhood) in Latin America.  What are some of the diplomatic opportunities for the US in Latin America?

Ambassador Passage: In recent decades, Latin America has been undergoing the same sort of revolution of rising expectations we are now seeing in the Arab world.  Given the history of US relations with many of our Latin American neighbors and the “baggage” we carry of economic exploitation and support for less-than-democratic dictators and other jefes and caudillos in the region, the US has frequently been the target of Latin Americans seeking to reform their economic and political institutions.  The US needs to work harder to support democratic elements and to build economic and trading opportunities that lead to job creation through trade and the strengthening of a middle class in Latin America which has a stake in the kind of government that they live under.  Expanding job creation through such means as the free trade agreements recently reached with Colombia and Panama (and South Korea) is vital to the development of free, democratic and prosperous relations with our Latin American neighbors.  And, in due course, we will need to face up to the unpleasant fact that the US has waged a 40 year “war on drugs” that has by now cost in excess of one trillion dollars, tens of thousands of lives (mostly Latin American), and has nothing – repeat nothing -- to show for it in terms of street-corner availability, purity, or price in the average American market for illicit narcotics.  

GJIA:  Now that you’re retired, how do you view the upcoming presidential elections in the US?  

Ambassador Passage: It is difficult to take much encouragement from statements made by virtually all of the candidates to replace President Obama.  One almost wishes for a law, regulation or constitutional amendment forbidding candidates for the presidency from expressing views on subjects when they so clearly and obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.   In fairness, it is not just the current crop of Republican challengers to a Democratic incumbent.  President Obama was once a Democratic challenger against a Republican candidate and dug himself into some equally dangerous holes, such as his promise to close Guantanamo if he were elected.  He was, and he hasn’t – and for very good reason:  he hadn’t come to grips with the reality that fealty to “rule by law” and the desirability of civil trials flies in the face of the need to continue to detain people captured on the battlefield but for whom you can’t build court cases under our judicial and jurisprudential legal system but who you know perfectly well will return to the battlefields from which they were captured to shoot American military personnel another day, if released.            

GJIA:  What is the greatest challenge to the United States today?

Ambassador Passage: The greatest international affairs/national security challenge to my generation and the generation that preceded mine was to contain an expansionist Soviet Union and prevent it from embarking on a war to increase the territory, population and resources under its control. The challenge for today’s generation is to manage US relations with China in a way that forestalls re-creation of a new era of hostility between these two superpowers.  In this, the US will be greatly assisted by the fact that China’s interests and behavior are quite different from the interests and behavior of the old Soviet Union.  The challenge for the US is to try to draw China into cooperative arrangements – both economic and security – in order to diminish the potential for conflict.  This was the successful tactic advocated by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with the Soviet Union - draw the USSR into as wide a variety of intersecting ties and relationships, political, economic, commercial, and security-related so as to make it self-evidently against the USSR's interests to resort to force to further its objectives. Precisely the same strategy is today appropriate for US relations with China.  The US and its allies and partners need to manage their relations with China to ensure that this occurs in the most beneficial possible manner, and not in a way that increases frictions, tensions and the potential for armed conflict.

Ambassador David Passage (Georgetown MSFS ’66) spent 33 years in the US Foreign Service before retiring in September 1998.  He served in Europe, Asia, Central and South America and Africa.  In the State Department, he served in the Operations Center and Secretariat Staff, as special assistant to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as the Department’s spokesman during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80, and as office director in the African and (separately) Latin American regional bureaus.   He was director for Africa on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush, who appointed him US Ambassador to Botswana in 1990.  From 1993-96, he was Foreign Affairs Adviser to two commanders of the US Special Operations Command, at MacDill AFB, Florida. He is currently a lecturer and consultant in National Security Affairs and has written numerous articles on US foreign and defense policy.