In today’s blog we are fortunate to catch up with one of my sailing friends, Daniel Fennell, who was spending a bit of time in DC to prepare for his next work assignment abroad. It is always interesting to talk with Daniel because many perspectives inform his contemporary worldview. He enjoys the outdoors, sports, and travel and has also worked in several countries—speaking those local languages—and in both private industry and public sectors.
Daniel is an American diplomat who has worked on local, state, and federal levels of government. Most recently he was the Public Diplomacy Chief at a U.S. multi-agency Provincial Reconstruction Team in northern Iraq, embedded with the U.S. First Infantry Division in an active combat zone. Throughout his 15 years of public sector service, he has served with the U.S. Department of State as a member of Foreign Service in the diplomatic corps; as a staff attorney with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; as a National Park Ranger; and in stints with the U.S. Department of Defense with the JAG Corps in Germany.
Question: In the early stages of your diplomatic career, you worked in areas of South America during periods of turbulence or unrest, i.e. Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Looking back what advice would you have liked to have then and how did speaking 2nd (and 3rd) languages inform your work?
Thanks, Wendy. And thanks for inviting me to your blog-o-sphere. Your first question is quite correct—I have spent a good number of my years with the State Department working in places that had civil wars or significant civil unrest. I went to most of those places early enough in my career that I was still a single man, unattached and able to take risks without impacting a family. But during my tour in Iraq, I had to leave my family behind when I lived on an Army base in the far north, hundreds of miles outside the Green Zone, where we were shelled with missiles and mortars nearly every day. We should always remember the sacrifices of spouses and family members, like my wife, when people are posted to war zones abroad.
I also had a chance to live briefly in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia several times during the war there in the 1990s. I discovered that each environment has its own flavor and its own set of complicated local issues. Nevertheless, I also learned that in each case where we encounter unrest, our mission is quite similar: to look for ways for local factions to find common ground; to encourage warring parties to engage in a process to find political solutions rather than violence; to build the capacity of the host government to meet the needs and earn the respect of its people; and to strengthen local institutions, such as rule-of-law, to allow them to stand on their own. Our embassies, the military, and host country partners always took good care of us. The real risks were undertaken by the local activists and leaders—in fact several of my local professional contacts were either killed or hurt as they struggled to make a difference in their country, or had the courage to raise their voice against the violence.
Having a command of the local language is an enormously useful tool to gain trust, and to ensure that they understand our point-of-view. I’m spending time now in an intensive program to polish my Arabic, and will return to the Middle East next year.
Question: Much of your work background draws on different public/ private sectors and environments, including national parks, law firms, and the U.S. State Department. How have you drawn on this experience to enable or excel in your roles, including as press officer in the bureau developing American policy for the United Nations?
I’m a firm believer that each of your life’s experiences is always preparation for what comes next. Working in Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a Park Ranger was a great way to (literally) walk in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers, to get to know the issues that led to our own American Revolution. That gave me a firm perspective on the history of our American political system, and was often in my mind when I practiced constitutional law and worked in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That work, in turn, has been a wonderful reference for me as I work now with various countries that are trying to modernize or reform their own courts and political institutions.
Over the years I’ve started to realize that we should always pay attention to any new experience that comes along—you never know how it might be useful in the future. Once, when I was working on our U.S. policy in the UN, I was lucky enough to be invited to a briefing that included author and columnist Tom Friedman, who had just published his book The World is Flat. He went through facts and statistics on the “dot-com boom” and the private investment environment that led to explosions of internet accessibility in places like India, which then used those new nodes and fiber optic cables to power a communications and IT boom in their local economies. Soon thereafter, our office received an official delegation from the government of a non-democratic country, who wanted to propose placing the internet under United Nations control. The facts and figures regarding the private, non-government development of the internet were so fresh in my head, I was able to share a good slice of history on the internet and highlighted the power of private markets and industry as an engine of development—shifting the conversation from what governments should do, to a look into the power of private enterprise. I even sent them home with a copy of Friedman’s book. No proposals were brought forth that year in the United Nations on taking control of the internet—and it seems to be doing just fine.
Question: What did you enjoy most in your time as National Park Ranger, and is there a favorite factoid about our U.S. parks that you’d like to share?
My work as a National Park Ranger was in the urban badlands of Philadelphia—in Independence National Historical Park—where there were no herds of buffalo and very few forest fires. But I gained a respect for the folks who dedicate their work to making our shared parklands and historic places open and accessible to the country and to the world. One factoid I recall is that the Declaration of Independence was actually adopted by the Continental Congress on July 2nd—not on July 4th as many of us believe. The Fourth was merely the day they got the printed copy back and signed it. So, it was dated and signed on July 4th, but we’re really two days late each year to celebrate the anniversary of our declared independence. John Adams even called for annual parades and fireworks to celebrate independence—but he assumed it would be on July 2nd. That will knock ’em dead at cocktail parties ! (Lol, just kidding)
Daniel is currently assigned to the Foreign Service Institute before returning to his next post in the Middle East. Let’s all wish him excellent travel karma in future stints internationally. Thanks to Daniel for his public sector service, and making time for the 85 Broads blog. And today’s quote: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) Livestrong and enjoy the weekend!