Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"We had fun with our simulations, one of the Security Council on Iraq and one of the Arctic Council, where we were dealing with a Chinese ship caught in Canadian ice. We figured out the dynamic of multiple countries facing insoluble issues, and perhaps saw how people can manage to get along anyway."

US Ambassador Richard Boucher

Around the World in Thirty Years

After a career in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Richard Boucher turns to teaching.

How did you decide to become a diplomat?

Diplomacy and public service run in my family.  I grew up with my grandpa's stories of China and Brazil -- he wrote Chinese characters on my sister's playhouse -- and with my dad's stories of after-school olives in Rome and skiing with seal skins outside Geneva. Because he'd grown up overseas, my dad wanted to root his family in the US. He worked for the Department of Defense, but still took assignments in Paris, where I learned French from the old man next door. When I took off for college I knew exactly what I wanted to do: join the Foreign Service.  Then I spent five years wandering around literature and other fields.

Years before, when I was in seventh grade, President Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps and my geography teacher took off to join up. I said to myself, "Someday, I will too." And I did. I finally had the chance, as a 22-year-old English teacher in Senegal, to sit myself down and return to my original idea of serving my country, moving every few years, and living abroad. I got back to where I belonged and it worked out OK. From start to finish, from Peace Corps volunteer to ambassador, I've had wonderful opportunities and fascinating friends, and always said "yes" to the next opportunity.

What brought you to Watson?

Senior Fellow Sue Eckert, whom I knew from government, and Rick Locke brought me to Watson, with encouragement from all the people I bumped into over the past year. When I finished my diplomatic career, I wanted to teach, partly to pass on whatever I'd figured out and partly to organize my own thoughts about my experience in a world of change. Sue found out I was teaching at UMichigan and told me Brown students were fantastic. Every time I met someone and said the word "Brown," they blurted out something about how creative and intelligent the students are. I found the faculty pretty cool, too, and Rick found a way to fit me in among them. 

What have you enjoyed most about teaching here?

Watson and Brown promote unusual thinking and new connections between people and ideas. The absolute best thing about teaching here is that students, singly or together, come up with ideas that they, and maybe even you, had never thought before, creating new insights ab ovo. We had fun with our simulations, one of the Security Council on Iraq and one of the Arctic Council, where we were dealing with a Chinese ship caught in Canadian ice. We figured out the dynamic of multiple countries facing insoluble issues, and perhaps saw how people can manage to get along anyway. Muddling through is sometimes a good outcome. 

What in the world keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night is this question: Why can't we learn from our mistakes? Millions of people in China, Europe, and Africa live immeasurably better lives because of what the Untied States has done in the world over the past century. My Chinese friends have incredible personal choices, in part due to what I did to help China open up and integrate with the world. I'm proud of that and proud of our country.

Yet, we also do stupid things and often just repeat them without stopping to learn.  When we see new threats, we hit them with the same hammer, expecting a different result. Can we learn that failures of governance can't be fixed by military strikes?  Can bankers learn not to lend money to people and countries who can't pay it back, and that taxpayers don't always have to bail them out? Can we learn that educating the poor is the surest route to growth and equality?   

We bemoan the Asian Financial crisis but don't learn enough to prevent our own.  If we manage to do the right thing -- the savings and loan bailout, for example, negotiating with Iran, or opening up to Myanmar -- we don't apply it elsewhere in our economy or our policy. Then, we wonder why problems recur. Perhaps if we could remain better students and teachers throughout our lives, we could break the cycle.

For more information on Richard Boucher, please visit his webpage.