John R. Nay
BA & MA, History, Andrews University
Master’s in National Security Strategy from National Defense University
Honorary Doctorate, 2011, Andrews University
US Ambassador to Suriname, 2009-2012
Adjunct Professor, History, Andrews University
Interview by Scott Moncrieff
How is it that you're teaching for the Department of History & Political Science?
As I was retiring from the Foreign Service, I got in touch with the department and expressed interest in teaching occasional classes. I retired in August of 2013, and since then I've taught four or five courses. Plus I'm also working part-time in the School of Education, doing some tutoring, and working with graduate students in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum.
When kids—or even college students—are thinking of future careers, “ambassador” doesn’t usually come to mind. How did you become an ambassador?
It was kind of accidental. In my junior year at Andrews, I signed up to go as a student missionary. I ended up in Japan, where I taught English and Bible. It was a wonderful, life-changing experience, and I found that I loved traveling and seeing the world. When I came back to Andrews as a senior, I went into the Placement Office—you know, the place where they try and help people get jobs—and by coincidence, I saw a pamphlet on taking the Foreign Service exam. So I took that exam in December of my senior year, passed it, and then was an oral exam in Chicago around May, a security background investigation, a medical exam, and about 14 months after taking the written exam I was invited to join the Foreign Service. And then you work your way up. Nobody gets brought in as an ambassador.
What language requirement did the Foreign Service have?
I had taken a couple of years of German as a student at Andrews, and in retrospect I wish I had done much better. In order to get tenure in the Foreign Service, you have to pass a foreign language at an acceptable level within your first five years. I had wanted to go back to Japan, but after I finished my initial training and was ready for my first assignment, there were no openings for junior-level officers in Japan. I still wanted to go to East Asia, so they assigned me to Taiwan. Before I got there, they put me through Chinese language training, and then I used Chinese every day while I was there.
How much Chinese training did you get?
44 weeks, one on one. It was my full-time job. Generally, it was four hours a day with an instructor and two hours a day of labs, and you were expected to study for a couple of hours a night. It was intense.
What level of proficiency did you reach?
At that time, the State Department ranked your proficiency in both reading and speaking from 0 to 5, with five being the level of an educated native speaker, and after the 44 week program they wanted you to get to a level of two in each. I got to 2+2—they have mid-ranks. I spent two years in Taiwan followed by two years in Singapore, where I also used Chinese. Then I wound up with tours of duty elsewhere. Then I went back to Taiwan and got another 40 weeks of Chinese, after which I reached a 3-3 level, followed by four more years of service in Taiwan.
With all your time abroad representing the United States, what have you found out about how other countries view us?
Many, many people around the world see the United States as a goal, a place to move to. There's great admiration for many aspects of the United States, such as the advocacy for human rights and freedom of the press. At times there's a dislike of American culture that gets exported through movies and music. People get tired of it. And even when the United States intends to do well, it is not always successful. There is a famous quote from a former prime minister of Canada. He said living next to the United States is like sleeping next to an elephant. He's generally friendly, but if he rolls over in his sleep there's a big problem. I think most people view the United States positively, but there's also caution because of our size both economically and militarily.
The culmination of your Foreign Service work was being appointed as Ambassador to Suriname. Could we have a little primer on the country?
It's on the northern coast of South America with French Guiana to the East and what used to be British Guiana, now just called Guyana, to the West, and Brazil to the south. It was a Dutch Colony until it got its independence in 1975. Previously it was called Dutch Guiana. Maybe 70 percent of the country is rainforest so it's tropical, beautiful, environmentally sensitive and about the size of the state of Georgia.
Did you have a year of Dutch training before you went there?
No. English is spoken quite widely there, so that was a big help. We had a few weeks of Dutch, my wife and I, and then we kept studying while we were there. We attended a Dutch-speaking Adventist Church there, and that was really helpful for our Dutch. If I was going to be speaking publicly, I would always run the draft past my staff to make sure that I wouldn't mess up too badly. It's more like learning German than learning Chinese. It's much easier.
Please describe a typical work day for an ambassador.
Normally I'd arrive at 7:30 a.m. or so, and spend an hour with my Dutch teacher. Then I would have a brief meeting with some of the Section Chiefs in the embassy, and my secretary/scheduler to see what we were going to be doing that day. Then it could be anything from going out to visit a local school, meeting counterparts in local government or representatives of agencies, such as from the World Health Organization, the United Nations or other Embassies. There were a number of goals I had, such as working toward preserving Suriname’s environment, and I also wanted to get out and meet people, so I often participated in public walks. Five kilometer walks were a popular thing there, and they were often organized by various groups to promote a particular issue, anything from “stop racism” to “end smoking” to promoting the environment. Invitations would come to the embassy and I saw it as an opportunity to get out there and show that the United States supported these goals, and to be out there with people and get to know them. Some of our staff and I ended up riding our bicycles across the country in a series of rides. It was a way of visiting Peace Corps volunteers that we had in the country, as well as getting out and seeing the people and the villages and highlighting the environment. It got a lot of publicity.
There must have been fairly positive relationships between Suriname and the United States at that time for you to feel comfortable going out and exposing yourself in that way.
Yes, we had good relations. When I was doing the bike ride we always had a security officer along. But you're right. There would be some countries where you couldn't do something that publicly. There was one trip I went on where the government also sent along some plainclothes security people. We were going to a park to look at the environmental damage that was being done by illegal gold mining. We took along a television crew and highlighted the damage that was being done to this park. And of course that's not popular with some business interests and the miners themselves.
I see that you've been doing some political analysis for the local newspaper, the Journal Era. What observations do you have to make about the incoming Trump administration?
First of all, I think everybody, whether they supported him in the campaign or not, should hope that this is a successful presidency, because a successful administration is better for all Americans and other countries. I listened to most of the press conference yesterday (Jan. 12), including the part about him trying to minimize his conflicts of interests. I was somewhat encouraged by the effort to reduce the appearance of conflicts of interest. I think if they can really stick to that, that's a plus. I think there is a tendency on his part and his advisors’ part to lessen the 3 a.m. tweets. I hope that continues because as he becomes president it's important for him to be “presidential.” Some things won't change. He obviously is going to be very assertive; there won't be much question when he's unhappy about something. In my latest piece for the Journal Era I talked about the Foreign Affairs challenges that his administration will face. They’re going to be major and there are quite a few of them.
The relationship with Russia is very, very important, and obviously it has been significant in the press. But I don't think our chances of winding up in a military confrontation with Russia are high. There could be a warming and a general improvement in relations with Russia. Or it could be a continuation of a very strained relationship, which has been caused in the last year or two by Russian meddling in the Ukraine and Syria. With China the problem is trade issues. They're our second biggest trading partner. And then there's the China/Taiwan issue. The issues of that go well back into history. I'm hopeful that his Secretary of State will be quickly read into that. But China is being increasingly assertive in the South China Sea. And we, at the same time, will be putting our navy through those sea lanes to demonstrate that those are International Waters. There's a chance that a problem could start there, but I think it's more likely that there could be a trade war that would be damaging to both countries. The risk of a military confrontation is higher on the Korean Peninsula, just because the new North Korean leader is often willing to go right up to the brink. Meanwhile South Korea is in a period of transition due to changes in the leaders of its government. And then there is Israel and the Palestinian Homeland question.
The president has to trust to many advisers to give him updates and opinions about all these matters around the world. How will President Trump make the change from being CEO of an international corporation to working with all the advisors in a governmental context?
Well, for one thing, he's going to be much more visible. Anything he says or does is going to be reported. He can't quite so easily say “you're fired” and have somebody be gone. At times he has said things rather quickly, perhaps without thinking about all the ramifications, including saying at one point he knew more about Iraq than the generals. I'm hopeful that he will moderate that. He's going to have to think things through very carefully. You’re on duty 24 hours a day, and people are always watching you. I experienced that as an ambassador, and when you’re president it’s 100 times more. One Sunday evening in Suriname I went to a local supermarket in a T-shirt, shorts and a baseball cap, just to buy ice cream. I drove myself—even though I was assigned a driver I didn’t like to require him to go out on the weekends—so I paid for the ice cream and the person putting it in the bag for me said, “Have a good evening, Mr. Ambassador.”