How I Got Here: Frank Wisner

A conversation with
Frank Wisner

May 29, 2020

May 29, 2020 • by Frank Wisner

Frank G. Wisner


·      U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, the Philippines, and India

·      U.S. Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs

·      U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy

·      Vice Chair, American International Group (AIG)

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A Foreign Service officer.                    

What kind of kid wants to be a Foreign Service officer?

That’s the key question. I was born on the eve of World War II. I saw my father join the war early and go into the intelligence service, the OSS. He returned to Washington to help found the CIA and rose to become the head of clandestine services. That’s the world I grew up in. I could recite the names of every prime minister in the world, while my friends could tell you the starting pitchers in the American and National Leagues. When I was about 13, someone asked me what I wanted to be. I said, “An American diplomat.” And I never changed my mind, ever.

How did you make it happen?

I always knew where I was headed. In high school, I was wretched at math and science but loved history and read it voraciously (as I do to this day). My parents were determined that I see something of the world, so they sent me to live with a couple of old ladies in a suburb of Tours to learn high quality French. When I got to university, I figured I needed to learn about areas I didn’t know, so I started on Arabic. With my languages, I took the Foreign Service exam a year early—and failed it. Happily, I managed to squeak by the following year. I learned later that people who did well on the written exam rarely became ambassadors, but people who did particularly well on the oral exam often rose to the top ranks of the corps. That says something about American diplomacy.

Was your Foreign Service class homogeneous?

Much more so than today. Out of 35 or 40, I think we had two women, one African American, and two Asian Americans. There was already broad geographic distribution: we weren’t all from the East Coast and the Ivy League. We were all straight.

What was your first posting?

I had written my senior thesis at Princeton on Algeria and in the course of that had met with members of the FLN [National Liberation Front] in Cairo and French army officers in Paris. I knew I wanted to go to Algiers. And just at that moment, the OAS [Secret Army Organization], a terrorist group of French officers and settlers opposed to granting Algerian independence, blew up the American consulate there. Nobody scheduled wanted to go. I did, so I went.

So your time there was like The Battle of Algiers?

No. I got there just after independence. But you could still smell the cordite on the streets. After the French left, the different factions of the Algerian revolution went at each other’s throats. Soon the army took over, under Houari Boumedienne, and his subordinate Abdelaziz Bouteflika later became president.

What was your job?

I was a jack of all trades, master of absolutely none. I was first assigned as the general service officer—the person who pays the bills and makes sure the facilities and utilities work. I knew nothing. When the wife of the deputy chief of mission called to say the power in their house had failed, I went to the Rolodex and called Monsieur Dupont, “electrician.” Ahmed answered the phone, because Monsieur Dupont had gone to France.  Ahmed and I went to the house. Ahmed put two wires in an electrical socket, there was a flash, and he was thrown on the floor. That was how Algeria was, reeling in the wake of the French retreat.

After a few months, I became a consular officer, issuing visas and taking care of American citizens. I had marvelous adventures doing that. I used the interviews to ask how the shooting was in different neighborhoods and ended up killing a lot of ducks, partridge, and wild boar—and seeing the country as no other officer in the embassy was able to. I learned Algerian and colloquial Arabic and got to meet people all over, including the military generation that was taking over. Bouteflika became a friend: he was in his late 20s; I was in my early 20s. He actually asked me to come back and visit a few years ago. He finally left office in 2019, which shows you how sclerotic leadership in Algeria became.

At that time, we were still deeply caught up in the mentality of the Cold War. We thought America was in an existential race with the Russians and that newly independent Algeria was a target of opportunity—a field of play in the Cold War contest.  Everybody was arriving—the Russians, the Cubans, all the liberation movements. The United States, too: President [John F.] Kennedy was interested. But the Algerians were deeply suspicious of us. Everybody read Frantz Fanon. We were seen as longtime allies of France, an imperialist power, ally of the imperialists helping to suppress the “wretched of the earth.”

Eventually, I became a political officer and did a lot of writing. Once I was sent with a message from Kennedy for President [Ahmed] Ben Bella. The Algerian government was in chaos. No one knew where to deliver a presidential message. I finally found myself talking directly with Ben Bella. I gave him the message, he read it in front of me, and was moved to admit that he really admired Kennedy. Several weeks later, during a visit by [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, Ben Bella spotted me at an event and had me brought up to talk with the two of them, which was thrilling.

What was the reaction in Algeria to Kennedy’s assassination?

A huge sadness. I was driving on the north coast when word came through that the president was dead. I thought Ben Bella had been killed and rushed back to the embassy, where I discovered it was our president, not theirs. There was a huge public outpouring of grief. As a person, Kennedy was greatly respected and appreciated. The Algerians named a street after him.  After all, Kennedy had been the first senator to call for Algeria’s independence.

Where did you go after Algeria?

Vietnam. When I got there, I was sent to the provinces to work with the pacification program.

You come from Algeria, where the French got pushed out. You go to Vietnam, where the French got pushed out. How could somebody so intelligent and clearheaded not see that the United States would meet the same fate?

That’s a question that has dogged me ever since. I think you have to go back to what I said about being a child of World War II. We were confident America could do anything; losing was unthinkable. We felt we were in an existential fight with the Russians. And I believed at the time that we had made a commitment to Vietnam that we had to keep, and that U.S. standing in the world would be diminished if we didn’t.

One of your peers there, Richard Holbrooke, wrote eloquently in private at the time about how impossible it was going to be for the United States to succeed. Did you feel the same way?

Both of us believed that with the right priorities, the right resources, and the right leadership, we could build the government of South Vietnam into a political and military force sufficient to beat the insurgency. It took a while to realize that that was not going to happen. In my case, I remained so committed to the idea that we had to win, could not afford to lose, that it came later to me than it should have—not until the Tet Offensive.  Being in Washington, Dick Holbrooke had the benefit of experiencing the anti-war movement firsthand.  He understood the domestic support for the war had gone. 

So Tet was a shock because you thought an uprising like that shouldn’t even have been possible?

Correct. We thought we had made progress in beating the insurgency and the North Vietnamese the previous year. It turned out to be a pause, while the North Vietnamese regrouped for a much bigger attack. I didn’t lose faith in the effort right away, but it was different after that. I was in Vietnam another year, working to recover what had been lost. I thought we couldn’t just leave these people to an uncertain fate. And I continued to feel that way after my tour ended.  And so it was until the fall of Saigon, when I plunged into work on refugee resettlement. We moved nearly a million Vietnamese out of that country and into this one. Then I felt I had discharged a duty to people I had been sent to help defend. When we could no longer defend them, I helped many reestablish themselves.

Did Vietnam change your views about the possibilities of American power?

It did. Asked at the end of his life what he got wrong, McGeorge Bundy said, “We underestimated the ability of our opponents to resist and overestimated our ability to compel them” to do what we wanted. And that double failure, overestimation of our power and underestimation of the will of the people sitting across the table, remains a central challenge for American foreign policy today. The guiding principle of my view of diplomacy became trying to understand what motivated the other man, so you could align your objectives and get him to do what you wanted at a price you could afford to pay.

How did you get your first embassy?

As a result of a series of accidents. I was working for undersecretary of state Joe Sisco, largely on the Middle East. He resigned to become president of American University, in Washington. Lawrence Eagleburger, then undersecretary of state for management, called me to his office and said Secretary [Henry] Kissinger needed somebody to do southern Africa. I told him I knew nothing about the region, but he said it didn’t matter—he and Kissinger wanted somebody who could work hard and get the job done.

The Cubans had recently intervened in Angola, and Kissinger saw the Cold War had come to southern Africa. He felt we had to establish an American position there, getting political settlements to the local conflicts and supporting stable governments we could work with. That meant engaging the four quarrels in the region: apartheid in South Africa, the end of Portuguese rule in Mozambique and South African rule in Namibia, and the struggle to achieve majority rule in Zimbabwe. The administration was also concerned to make sure southern Africa did not turn “red,” especially when Gerald Ford was running for reelection. The pursuit of those objectives occupied my time from the remainder of the Ford administration, through Carter, and into the Reagan years. At the end, I was blessed to work for Chester Crocker, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs.  He set out a strategy to pursue the Kissinger objectives and restore American influence but with a different set of tactics.

Some cynics at the time considered constructive engagement a way of easing pressure on South Africa rather than making it more effective.

The cynics were wrong. It was a very difficult problem. Our strategy had two elements. The first was to bring American influence to bear in such a manner as to get the Cubans out of Angola and the South Africans out of Namibia, break Mozambique’s association with the East Bloc and realign with us, and relieve South African fears of being overwhelmed. The second was to encourage changes inside South Africa which would lead to the mitigation and then the end of apartheid. I had several bites at this apple. I first got involved in the mid-1970s, when I worked on Zimbabwe and Namibia for Kissinger and tried to stop the Cubans before they took over Angola.

You backed the [rebel leader Jonas] Savimbi?

At a certain point, but realizing that Savimbi was leverage to achieve another objective. Later, the hard-liners in the Reagan administration lost their way, convincing themselves that Savimbi was some sort of liberator of southern Africa and that we could defeat the Russians as opposed to having to negotiate them out. And there were those who believed in RENAMO, the insurgent group in Mozambique. I was one of those terrible people in the State Department who believed we could achieve our objectives politically.

The Reagan administration was of two minds. Chester Crocker and I designed a policy of constructive engagement throughout southern Africa, and Bill Casey and the CIA pursued a different set of goals, aiming to defeat the Soviets.

What happens when American policy is internally inconsistent?

It depends on the situation. The South Africans understood what was going on, but they were split, too—between hard-liners in military intelligence and moderates who wanted to negotiate peace. So we reinforced the more moderate side, and Casey helped the hard-liners.

None of us wanted to see Soviet influence supplant Western influence in a troubled region. That was our national objective, and it sprang from broader attitudes about the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We pursued our objective by using American influence and statecraft to force the Cubans out of Angola and bring a peaceful Mozambique into a relationship with us. We calmed relations with Zimbabwe, although [Prime Minister Robert] Mugabe was never an easy character to work with. And all of this strengthened the hands of those in South Africa who believed in peaceful accommodation, at home and abroad. Internal developments brought about the end of apartheid. But we helped create an environment in which white South Africa felt it could take a chance on black-majority rule.

Did you ever have contact with the South African opposition?

Yes and no. At the time, we had a stupid policy which precluded American diplomats from talking to the African National Congress. It was like our policy toward the PLO. Of course, we only pushed the ANC toward the Russians. However, at one point, while I was serving as ambassador to Zambia, just up the street from my house in Lusaka lived Thabo Mbeki, the representative of the ANC. We brushed shoulders enough that we knew each other, although I couldn’t invite him over for dinner.

What came after southern Africa?

George Shultz, an extraordinarily kind and thoughtful man, became secretary of state and asked me to be ambassador to Egypt. So I went back to the Arab world, where I’d started my career.

When you move from one region to the next, do you stop following the old one?

I never gave up any country I served in. Each stays with you. And I had worked on the Middle East when I was deputy executive secretary. I was with [President Jimmy] Carter in Jerusalem when he stood in front of the Knesset and in Cairo when he and [Egyptian President Anwar al-]Sadat were on the telephone with [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and sealed the deal that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace. By the time I became ambassador to Egypt, in 1986, the United States was the dominant power in the region, and the close strategic relationship between the United States and Egypt was a pillar of American strategy. And when Saddam Hussein threatened all of that in 1990, Egypt brought the Arab world into opposition to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, providing us crucial political support, logistical support, and two divisions. I was delighted to have served through all of that. I also spent a lot of time dealing with peace arrangements between Israel and Egypt, trying to overcome mountains of difficulties between the two of them that threatened to weaken resolve on both sides to stabilize their relationship and the peace.

You’ve done blacks and whites, Arabs and Jews. Did you ever go to Ireland?

[Laughter] No, I didn’t do Ireland. I did a tour in Bangladesh and worked with Bangladeshis and Indians, though.

Do deep-rooted rivalries with cultural and historical and psychological roots get in the way of diplomacy?

Diplomacy, when used correctly, is about assessing situations, setting objectives, and trying to get people to do things for you that enhance your own security, well-being, and influence. I have always tried to forge relationships with foreign governments that enable us to work productively together.

What came after Egypt?

I was asked to do something that I never imagined would happen and I was delighted to do—be ambassador in the Philippines. The United States had been there from the beginning of the twentieth century, and I’d grown up with stories about it from people who had fought and served there. I came to Manila at a time of crisis. The base agreements that had been the bedrock of our security relationship with the Philippines were ending and hostility to the United States, in the wake of Marcos’s presidency, was peaking. My task was to save our naval base at Subic Bay and then figure out how to rebuild our relations and rekindle our influence.

Is it better for a diplomat to stay in one region and gain depth and experience or rotate around the world and gain breadth and perspective?

That’s been a perennial debate over the years inside the State Department. Do you want to have highly specialized people or generalists? I think it’s good to have area and language expertise but also good to see how American diplomacy works in different contexts. I favor a balance of the two. And similarly, it’s important to balance tours in Washington and abroad—being both a house mouse and a field mouse, as a colleague of mine used to put it.

Did you ever feel strange coming back to the United States?

When I came back from Vietnam, there were demonstrations in the streets. My brother and sister were putting flowers in gun barrels, and our family was divided. I continued to think we had an obligation to the Vietnamese to try to end the war in such a way as to preserve the continued existence of the Republic of Vietnam. I found opinion in United States hard against it. That was the only time I really felt out of sorts being at home. And it took me a while to understand how psychically searing the Vietnam experience had become for the country—and still is, in some ways.

What was it like being ambassador compared with being a junior officer? Did you continue to go duck hunting?

Yes, of course. But the leadership aspect of being an ambassador is actually one of the reasons why diplomacy is such a great career. Egypt, middle of the Gulf War. Saddam had begun to launch missiles. The American government evacuated employees and citizens, and American companies did the same. I believed that we had to stand steady. So I became sort of the mayor of a large American community. Every week, I would call the community together and stand up and take their questions, try to address everybody’s concerns and keep people calm, make sure we stuck it out. You end up acting well outside your official training. And there’s no school where you can go learn these things; you have to have an instinct for it.

Did the people who couldn’t do that fail to rise in the service?

I would put it the other way around. If you were put in such a situation, ambassador to an important country in crisis, and you didn’t lead well, you would not be given another significant assignment.

You make being a diplomat sound fun. Was it as fun for the diplomats’ families?

Good question. Some children of Foreign Service officers never want to go abroad again. They want to find some nice place in Montana and settle down and become totally American. Many others end up committed to public service, often abroad. My son followed in my footsteps and is now a junior official in Algiers, just like I was. Of course, times have changed radically. He just spent three weeks in England with his wife and newborn baby son. In my time, it wouldn’t have even been a question: your wife would go to England to have the baby, and you’d stay in the embassy in Algiers, doing your job. Today’s State Department encouraged him to take an extra week to bond with his newborn son and build his family.

What came after the Philippines?

Undersecretary of state for international security affairs. There I was coordinating policy, and it was a big change from the field. You have to think about things globally and politically. I had to deal with crises in Somalia, Bosnia, and the Middle East, as well as completing the START II arms control agreement with Russia.

What do you mean “think politically”?

A good Foreign Service officer can tell you how a foreign government works, how to influence its decisions. But you have to come home and do exactly the same analysis of your own government. How does it work? How do things get through the NSC [National Security Council]? How do you handle the Defense Department? What do you do on Capitol Hill? How do you connect with the American public? By the time you become assistant secretary or undersecretary, you know your job is not just about foreign policy but also about the domestic context within which you work.  How to make and execute decisions in an American context; how to deal with the intersection of politics and policy.

What came after that?

Bush lost; Clinton won; Democrats came to office. The job I had at the State Department went to a political appointee. I was asked by the new secretary of defense, Les Aspin, to join his team. I’d known him in Vietnam and came over to the Pentagon to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy. It was a complicated period. We had crises in Somalia and Bosnia, but one of the most serious involved the secretary of defense himself, whose health declined on the job; he never got his footing and was eventually replaced by his deputy, Bill Perry. At that point, I happened to be traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Australia. He called me in and said, “I’ve just been talking to the President, and there’s a visit coming up by the Indian prime minister, and we’ve decided we’d like you to go to New Delhi.”  There was no ambassador in India at the time.

Because until then they hadn’t appointed an ambassador, since they didn’t care about South Asia?

Not quite. They had a candidate for the post, a congressman, but he couldn’t pass the background checks. They had held the spot open for a long time, but when [Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha] Rao was headed to Washington, the President felt he had to make an appointment—and chose me. You’re not wrong in your assessment of the administration’s interest in the region until then.

The George W. Bush administration developed close relations with India in the early years of this century, but the groundwork for that was laid by the Clinton administration in the 1990s, no?

Things were just starting to change in the 1990’s. Both countries changed. Some in India and some in America had a global perspective and wanted to move our relationship. But during most of my time there, India policy was constrained by nonproliferation concerns: we sanctioned and pressured India in a vain attempt to roll back and eliminate its nuclear program. And there were those in Washington who thought you couldn’t do anything for India that you didn’t also do for Pakistan. It took India’s economic rise, after Manmohan Singh’s reforms, as well as the rise of China, for its geopolitical importance to be appreciated. Events changed history—the 1997 Indian nuclear test. When it happened, the US was initially outraged, but then we realized it was the best thing that ever happened to us because it solved our problem. The impediment in US-Indian relationship, the nuclear issue, evaporated.

They tested. And Pakistan tested. And you couldn’t blame Pakistan for doing it after India did it. And once both had done it, it was done.

It was like removing a speck that blinded your eye. With the nuclear issue out of the way, you could clearly see the strategic direction in which both countries should be headed.

But it wasn’t just outdated American attitudes that had to change. So did Indian ones. They had to get over their self-righteousness and their soft alignment with Russia. Two things happened almost simultaneously that changed the core Indian perspective. The Gulf War raised the price of oil and lowered remittances from Indians who lost jobs in the Gulf. India had no money, and Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, had to come cap in hand to Washington and ask the secretary of the treasury for a swap arrangement. That was a big wake-up call. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred at the same time and removed Russia as an ally against China. All of this led to a reassessment on the Indian side. So in the 1990s, both sides were stumbling around and getting closer to each other in the process. Then in the next administration, they were able to make a deal – reach a nuclear understanding and consolidate their strategic redirection.

The U.S. embassy in India has seen some colorful characters, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Did you feel that you were walking in the footsteps of giants?

And Chester Bowles. And Ellsworth Bunker. Moynihan kept trying to get things done in India, even as a senator. He was a pain in the ass, but a fun pain in the ass. One of my favorite moments was with Galbraith. He was a friend of my parents, and I had met him as a young man. So when I was asked to become ambassador, I called to tell him. Dead silence for 45 seconds. Finally, he says, “Oh, Frank, welcome to a life sentence.” And he was absolutely right: I still go to India at least twice a year.

What came after India?

I faced a choice. I’d had four embassies, I was turning 60, I had put three kids through college with a fourth to go; I had pretty much exhausted my savings—and I was asked to be ambassador in Paris. I was torn, when in through the door of the American embassy in New Delhi walks Hank Greenberg [chair and CEO of AIG]. He asked me what I was going to do next, and I told him my situation. He said, “Don’t be an idiot. You’re not going to get any younger. This is your last chance to get out, and I’ve got a job I want you to do.” He ended up offering me the vice chairmanship of AIG for external affairs. I decided it was time to turn my government card in.

What was it like moving to the private sector?

A big wake-up call. Government is hierarchical, a giant pyramid. All decisions are carefully staffed and rise through the bureaucracy, and there’s a lot of politics to be managed. Businesses are much flatter. Leaders can have responsibility for operating elements of the company. Government doesn’t work that way—couldn’t work like that. I had to learn new technical skills and figure out what the role of, say, a board is and what it does. I helped grow AIG’s international footprint, helped it expand into countries such as Vietnam and Pakistan, securing new franchises. It was good work, until AIG hit the wall in 2008 and, several changes of chairmen later, I decided to move. I had no interest in sitting in my office, taking a big salary to do nothing. At that point, Tommy Boggs threw me a lifeline and asked if I wanted to come work at [his law firm] Squire Patton Boggs, and here I am today.

What do you do with Boggs?

I carry the title of foreign affairs adviser. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not a lobbyist. I help people think through strategies. Say the Zimbabwean government wants the firm to help clean up its reputation in Washington, and I’m asked for advice. I can tell my colleagues to steer clear, because Zimbabwe’s reputation is bad for good reason. No effort in Washington can fix the problem without a change of direction in Zimbabwe.

Let’s talk about that. Most of your career has been spent dealing with thuggish, corrupt, authoritarian governments. As you look back, do you have qualms?

Absolutely none. You live in the world that exists. You don’t get to choose your neighbors, and you have to get on with them. You don’t have to approve of them, and you can choose how much you want to do things together. But it’s crazy to ostracize them just because you have differences, even over important values. Unless they threaten you—that’s a different subject. But even there, you have to be sensitive about who is threatening whom and what ways you might be able to deal with the situation other than force.

The world of your early career has largely vanished. Do you feel like a figure from a lost era?

If you can’t reinvent yourself, you become a dinosaur. The world will change, and you won’t be able to deal with it, and that’s when you feel out of sorts. Much better to study history and politics and culture and try to account for the changes and reshape your life and strategies accordingly. That’s a real challenge, and it’s fun.

The world has indeed changed. American power has diminished, both because other powers have risen and because we’ve squandered some of our resources and authority. We have to figure out how to deal with other great powers—managing our relations with them constructively, trying to find shared objectives and opportunities to build consensus and alliances. You won’t bring about enduring peace, but you can manage disagreements, reduce conflict, and promote your interests. We haven’t learned this yet, but it’s where we have to go.

What are you proudest of in your career?

I’m proud to have been able to represent my country during an important period and to have acquitted myself honorably in that effort. History is like a great chain, and I feel like my link in that chain was solid and opened the way for the next link to be locked in place.  I am honored to have served my country and countrymen.

What are your greatest regrets?

I believe public service is the highest calling. I feel most comfortable being of some service, helping people through dilemmas, thinking through challenges. I was able to do that for my country. So I have no regrets. I am very disappointed, though, by America’s inability to understand its place and proper role in a changing world and its failure to learn appropriate lessons from history that could guide us forward.

Any advice for those just starting out?

My old friend Les Gelb used to say, “Don’t take a piss without a strategy,” and it’s good advice. Think broadly, conceptually. Create an intellectual framework to understand whatever you are trying to do, in life or in policy, and make sure you have the resources and will to see it through until the end. Otherwise, figure out another way of going at the problem.

This interview has been edited and condensed.