Interview with Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman (F83)
At Convocation 2022, The Fletcher School presented Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman with the Class of 1947 Memorial Award, which honors alumni who embody Fletcher's mission. Feltman delivered remarks at the event and sat for an interview afterwards. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Ambassador, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. We want to talk a little bit about your experiences at The Fletcher School and how they've prepared you for the career that you've had.
Feltman: Well, thanks for the opportunity. It's a real honor to receive the Class of 1947 Memorial Award. Being back at Fletcher for the first time in well over a decade is wonderful. I'm very impressed by the students - both incoming and returning, and of course meeting with faculty is always a great experience.
You chose to pursue a MALD degree at Fletcher. What drew you to study international law and diplomacy?
Feltman: I knew that I wanted to try to build a career in international public service, initially as a U.S. diplomat.
I came out of undergraduate with a little bit of international experience, but not much. Strangely enough, I didn't study politics or international diplomacy as an undergrad. I was an art major. So I came to grad school probably less prepared than most Fletcher students come in terms of the actual study program.
I hoped to fill gap in my knowledge about, how does the world work? What are the opportunities that one has, if one wants to try to make a difference in terms of promoting peace and security and sustainable development, internationally? So I would say that the foundations of my own career derive from what I learned at Fletcher.
How did you choose Fletcher among the other schools in this field?
Feltman: I applied to several schools. And remarkably got into a couple, including Fletcher. And I chose Fletcher over Washington-based international affairs programs for two reasons, one more substantial than the other.
First, and superficially, I grew up in a small town in the Midwest on the Ohio-Indiana border. I went to a state school in Indiana. I knew that if I succeeded in being accepted in the Foreign Service, I would be based in Washington. So therefore, I wanted the experience of living in Boston.
The more profound reason was the international component of Fletcher, compared to the other schools that I was looking at. There was a much higher percentage of international students and alumni at Fletcher. To me, this was extremely important, because I did not yet have the experience others had of either working abroad, living abroad, or being among a large international student body. Fletcher had all of that.
With that in mind, can you tell us what your life was like here as a student?
Feltman: I wasn't a strong academic student. I think I was okay, but I was not a standout, and I doubt any of the professors would have assumed that I'd eventually get the Class of 1947 Memorial Award.
I concentrated less on studying and more on engaging with my fellow students who had such broad experience, and who represented such a diverse class - students from the Middle East, from Europe, from Asia. I don't think I'd ever met a Chinese person until I was here at Fletcher. I was broadening my horizons from just the experience of being here.
I was the editor-in-chief of the Fletcher Forum for my second year. I think it is more sophisticated now than it was in my time, but it gave me an opening into different ways of looking at problems, which I was able to absorb and then use in my professional career.
During your convocation remarks, you mentioned negotiating a U.N. peace agreement with a former Fletcher classmate, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. How else did you encounter the Fletcher family after your time here?
Feltman: When I was at the U.S. State Department, there were quite a few colleagues who came from Fletcher. David Welch, who was the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, my immediate predecessor, had been a Fletcher graduate. Several of my own classmates had become distinguished diplomats, like Scot Marciel, who was ambassador several times in Asia and was in my class at Fletcher.
But it was at the United Nations that I was really struck by the number of Fletcher graduates. The percentage of people in my orbit at the U.N. with Fletcher degrees was far higher than at State. I think that there's an easy explanation, which is that the State Department hires Americans, some who study at Fletcher and some at other schools. The UN hires internationally, from 193 member states. The fact that Fletcher has been able to attract talent from across the globe means that the percentage of Fletcher graduates in this multinational environment is higher.
One of the major themes in your remarks was the importance of institutions, although flawed. Your most recent appointment was as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Do you think the United Nations can play a role in resolving the crisis in Ethiopia?
Feltman: I believe that warts and all, the United Nations is irreplaceable in today's world. It doesn't mean the U.N. is perfect, but the world today is so polarized that trying to do without the U.N is worse. I've seen several examples where the U.N. becomes the go-to organization for lack of any alternative.
I mentioned in the remarks the case of Colombia. The Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas had for years rejected any U.N. role in their peace talks. But once peace talks started gaining momentum, they realized there were certain tasks for which there was no other capable or politically acceptable organization. In the case of Ethiopia, it may end up being the same.
I doubt the U.N. itself can broker a sustainable peace process inside Ethiopia, particularly now that the conflict has become so internationalized, with the role of Eritrea and others. The U.N. tends to be deferential to member state demands. But when there is an end to the Ethiopian conflict, there will have to be certain monitoring arrangements and guarantees. Who's going to play those roles? The African Union possibly, but the A.U. cannot approve something with the force of international law that a universal body like the U.N. can. So even if we are frustrated by paralysis inside the United Nations, it's far better to have this organization to draw upon. We saw this with Colombia, we saw it with the Syrian chemical weapons program, and I believe that we could see it again with Ukraine or Ethiopia.
About Jeffrey Feltman: Across a decorated diplomatic career, the Honorable Jeffrey Feltman (F83) has held key appointments at the U.S. State Department, including as Ambassador to Lebanon, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. In additional to his work for the U.S., he served the United Nations for six years as head of the Department of Political Affairs. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Feltman as the U.N.’s Secretary of State.