The Best Job I Ever Had, or, The Idea of America

This is a letter I sent to my colleagues at the US Embassy when I left in May 2011.   Although it was intended as a thank you note to the great friends I have made, a number of people have asked for a copy to resend to their friends — especially folks serving overseas, — so, here’s a slightly edited version for those folks with my appreciation and respect.

I have delivered singing telegrams, tended bar, worn a bear suit at the Olympics, trained shopping center Santa Clauses and the Honduran army.   I have written commercials for Ford and trade rules for Kazakhstan.  I have graded potatoes and term papers.  I became a professor to understand better how the world works but one day, when I was teaching Canada-US  policy to a class of future Canadian officials, I  realized that I had no idea how our economic policy really gets made.  That realization was the beginning of the most interesting job I have ever done as an economic advisor at the United States Embassy in Ottawa.

Today, I am moving on and before I do, want to say thank you to everyone who has made this such a rewarding experience.

To my Canadian colleagues, thanks for helping me figure out how to navigate the complex relationships that define the locally-engaged specialist job.  My friend Bud says that, like London subway riders, we “mind the gap” and embrace two worlds.  We explain Americans to Canadians and Canadians to Americans.  We explain Ottawa to Washington and Washington to Ottawa.  Once in a while, we also learn a little bit about ourselves.  I have learned that Canadians and Americans are exactly the same except where we are completely different.  (I have also learned that making economic policy is like herding cats — very slow, very stubborn cats.)

To my American colleagues, thank you for all you have taught me about being forthright and speaking up for what I believe in. You inspire me. No one in the world has a neutral opinion about the United States.  Your country is asked to take responsibility for things you are not responsible for and to fix things you did not break.  As a diplomat, not only do you have to face other people’s strongly held beliefs about your country, so do your spouses and children.  I stand in awe at how you accept your jobs on the front line without resentment — building confidence and encouraging understanding — one person at a time.

Out here in the world, one of our major preoccupations is how the United States remains steadfast despite forces that would knock down a less courageous people.  We want to know what makes you tick.  America is a nation but it is also an idea that is constantly being tested, redefined, and strengthened.  It is an idea that encompasses liberty, opportunity and the possibility of transcendence.  These things resonate in those places where liberty is scarce and opportunities are rare.  The hope of an America topples walls, turns poor women into entrepreneurs, provides an alternative to warfare, and provides the raw materials upon which to build a democracy.

Thank you for giving me a backstage pass to the workings of a great nation and an even greater idea.

My next adventure is to explore our bilateral relationship in new ways – researching new frameworks for economic cooperation during a residential fellowship at the Canada Institute in Washington and helping cross-border business work better in my own consultancy.  Please keep in touch (ldawson@dawsonstrat.com).

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