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composure under fire

One of the more memorable modules from D’s orientation training half a dozen years ago was called “composure under fire.” The exercise consisted of a barrage of difficult questions regarding U.S. foreign policy in a particular country; the goal was to maintain one’s cool while avoiding saying anything that might make front-page news in a less-than-friendly publication.

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It’s a good exercise, as far as such things go, but it also undersells one of the most interesting aspects of the Foreign Service career. True, we sometimes come under the proverbial fire from hostile audiences, but even the most difficult questions present an opportunity to share a bit of our culture and bridge gaps in understanding. And quite often, the audiences are far from hostile, making public outreach one of the more enjoyable and rewarding parts of the job.

Given the intense interest our presidential campaign has generated around the world, our elections have provided a great opportunity for public outreach. The Embassy has hosted debate viewing events to engage various audiences, and D joined other colleagues in speaking to high school and university students around the country about our elections.

At times, the questions from some of the younger audience members betrayed a lack of political awareness and understanding, but far more often the questions D has been asked reveal a perspicacity that goes considerably deeper than just the mechanics of the U.S. electoral process. For example, one high school student asked D how it is possible to have peace and understanding after the elections if one’s preferred candidate loses – a powerful question in any context, but especially so for the first generation of Rwandans to come of age after the genocide.

Another oft-asked question gets at the wider implication of the elections for our foreign policy. Many of D’s interlocutors have been quick to point out that Africa did not figure as a topic of conversation during the presidential debates. Even as they lamented this apparent lack of interest in the issues and conflicts that are most proximal to their lives, they wanted to know what the next White House administration had in store for their country, especially in light of the different temperaments of the two major party candidates – a question that provides ample fodder for good discussion even when treading carefully to avoid the appearance of partisanship.

With Election Day less than a week away, there is a palpable sense of campaign fatigue in the air. We too will be glad to put the elections behind us, though part of D will miss these talks and the opportunity they present to engage in the electoral process so many miles away from home.

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