scene caught up with former United States ambassador to the United Nations, Director of National Intelligence and Cold Warrior John Negroponte ’60. After spending nearly 40 years in foreign service in countries such as Iraq, the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Vietnam and Hong Kong, Negroponte returned to Yale in September in order to teach.
Q: What thoughts run through your head as the country reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall?
A: When this happened, it restored a certain faith in humanity and also gave us hope. These kinds of stifling ideologies don’t have to be a permanent part of the landscape. It doesn’t mean history stopped right then and there and there was nothing further to accomplish. It was the beginning of an era.
Q: What was Yale like when you went here? What’s changed?
A: Yale looks the same to me, with the buildings and all. The campus has got that familiar feel to it. Probably the major difference was that Yale was not co-ed. I have a feeling that Yale’s become a bit more competitive and more serious than the time I was there. We had fraternities. I don’t know whether Yale has fraternities. For a while, they were phased out. It was a great period of my life. I took my junior year abroad. I studied for Paris for a year and kind of confirmed my interest in joining foreign service.
Q: What was the best class you took at Yale?
A: Our basic political science course. It was taught by a guy named Cecil Driver and it was called — this was the basic requirement for political science majors those days — the British Political System. It really was a great course. He was a Brit and he knew the British political system beautifully.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to joint the foreign service?
A: From being a teenager. When I was at Yale, I knew I aspired to become a diplomat. That’s why I majored in political science. I spoke French and sought to improve my French. In those days, knowing French was important in international affairs. It would not be today. You would probably want to know Spanish rather than French. You probably want to study a more exotic language, like Chinese. One of the things that really impresses me is that so many people study Chinese at Yale.
Q: What exactly attracts you to it, though?
A: My family, we’re from Greece. They were not brought up in the U.S. They spoke numerous languages. They talked a lot about foreign experiences. I was born abroad before World War II began. My mother had been brought up in Greece and my father had been brought up in Switzerland and France. My father influenced me a lot. Even though he was in business, he was very interested in international affairs. I used to follow the events very closely. The Hungarian revolution occurred in my freshman year. I remember being very worked about that, how the Soviets had put it down, writing frantically in my political science exam about what a travesty it was.
Q: During the Cold War, what issues were you dealing with, not just on a diplomatic level but also on a personal level?
A: The Cold War was the backdrop against which so much of our diplomatic and governmental activity was taking place. That was sort of a given. No one really imagined the Cold War could end. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s time that people even talked about the possibility about the Cold War coming to an end, and even then, they didn’t really believe it. It was a working assumption that affected everything you did. There were two or three main areas of activity that were the most salient. One was the different regional conflicts going on during the Cold War. A lot of the fighting happened by proxy. We had regional conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and various other places — later on in the Cold War, things happened in Central America and Africa. It created a lot of situations, an expeditionary type of diplomacy. You learned the local language — I started my career in Hong Kong in a routine way and for my next assignment, I was sent to Vietnam. That was a career-defining experience. I wound up staying there for four years, then I did the  peace talks. I probably worked nearly 10 years on the Vietnam Question. It kind of had an influence on my whole professional life, and my personal life. Having lived in a war zone all my life, I kind of deferred getting married and having a family and didn’t do that until a little bit later.
Q: How has diplomacy changed in the last 20 years?
A: In some ways, it hasn’t. Diplomacy is a very labor-intensive activity. When you are abroad as an ambassador, you have to know your contacts. I would go visit them in their office, whether it was people who ran corporations or ran non-governmental organizations. You have to establish a rapport with the leadership and different elements that have influence in a country so that you can understand the local situation as well as possible. Also, when you want to persuade the people of the merits of the U.S. position, [so] you have more credibility. That kind of diplomatic activity has been going on since time immemorial and that will continue. One of the things that has changed is the emphasis on what parts of the world we focus on. I think there’s a shift in global diplomacy and geopolitics from the West to the East. I think we have a number of rising powers in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly China and India. We don’t neglect Russia or Europe. But we have to make room in our minds and our activities and programs for these newly rising powers. You even see it in the curriculums of colleges, such as the Chinese language. I understand that about 10 percent of the entering freshman class takes Chinese today.
Q: What has been your hardest foreign post yet?
A: It’s just no question that my hardest assignment was my assignment to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. I would say the overwhelming reason for that was that Iraq was so insecure. The city of Baghdad was very unsafe. Everywhere I went, I could get around only with enormous amounts of security. That is very inhibiting … It also bothered me that Iraq had such a reputation for insecurity that this worried my family. It kind of upset me that my being there upset them.
Q: What are you doing at Yale this semester?
A: This semester, I am helping the Grand Strategy course with Professors Gaddis, Hill and Kennedy. I am also preparing to give a course on my own in the spring, “Contemporary Issues in American Diplomacy and National Security”, and that’s going to be a seminar. I spend Mondays at Yale. I keep office hours during the entirety of Monday mornings available for students in the Grand Strategy course. So it’s been a great start. I’m enjoying it, just sort of warming up to it.