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A Conversation with Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr.

July 16, 2020

Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., former United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe (2016-2018), the Philippines (2010-2013) and Bangladesh (2003-2005)

Dean Eliot A. Cohen 

Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. joined the school for a discussion on race relations and recent global events.

The conversation began by reflecting race in America particularly in respect to Ambassador Thomas’ own career. Having had the opportunity to serve to various countries from Peru to India, Ambassador Thomas stressed the importance of learning the countries’ language and culture as well as understanding their religions. As an African-American, he confessed that he can only recall one brazen comment by the Consul General who offended him with racist discourse, but the foreign service dealt with the situation appropriately. While it would have been a challenge to serve in the European bureau, a region that continues to have few officers of colour, overall the ambassador felt blessed about his great mentors and supporters from a wide array of backgrounds that he had throughout his career.

Ambassador Thomas admitted that while advocating about American ideals and human rights commitments he was often faced with the question of race relations in the US, always acknowledging the challenges America faces. Reflecting about current race relations Ambassador Thomas pointed out to how the Coronavirus pandemic reinforced the Black Lives Matter movement by enabling more people to witness and examine themselves the contemporary challenges. While America has a long way to go, Ambassador Thomas believes that the American people are not ignoring these issues and are willing to confront them, while now is the time to be humbler and more mindful.

Beyond race relations, Ambassador Thomas reflected on his toughest moments during his diplomatic career, the difficulty in measuring progress in human rights advocacy particularly in dictatorships, as well as on the significance of the State Department’s diverse bureaucratic structure comprised of extremely capable career foreign service officers, as well as ‘outsiders’ who seize high-level roles through their high intellect and moral character, which offer the department new perspectives.