US diplomat Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau on Blacks and foreign policy
Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau (left) and Aswad Walker. Photo by Amari Walker.

With enough craziness to contend with in these “not so” United States, why should Blacks concern themselves with foreign affairs and foreign policy? The Defender asked Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, the US Department of State’s acting assistant secretary, who was recently in town, for her answer to that question, and more.

DEFENDER: Why should Americans, more specifically, Black Americans, concern themselves with US foreign policy?

ELIZABETH KENNEDY TRUDEAU: It’s precisely why we’re out [at UH]. One of the things the Department of State does traditionally, as diplomats, as foreign service people, we look beyond our borders. We are pretty good at telling the story in Islamabad or our Bogota or TNT [Trinidad & Tobago] or Nairobi. We’re a lot less good about telling the story in Houston or San Diego or Las Vegas. You guys pay my salary. American taxpayers pay my salaries. So, you should know what your government does. You should know what we are representing in the world. But more importantly, what happens in America, isn’t just because of what happens in America. American national security doesn’t start at our borders. It’s a global issue. So, people need to know what’s going on in the world, because it impacts us here at home. And we have a responsibility to be transparent and tell you about that.

DEFENDER: Why do you think we don’t realize that?

TRUDEAU: I think people do recognize it. But I also think that as Americans, we have a lot going on. A lot of us, we work, we have families, we have responsibilities. We go to church, we play sports, we have kids. What’s happening with famine in Somalia or war in Ukraine or military operations in the South China Sea, they seem pretty far away. But they impact us here, and we need to explain that better. That’s my job.

DEFENDER: What is the US foreign policy stance on Haiti still paying reparations to France for having the audacity to want to be free?

TRUDEAU: The New York Times piece on that—staggering piece. If you wanna see journalism on the frontline of democracy doing the work; staggering peace. The United States position, as in terms of Haiti is based on what’s best for the Haitian people full on. Not only because of Haitian Americans and our deep ties to Haiti, but because of the moral righteousness of that. Let the people of Haiti decide. It’s complex. It’s messy there right now. You see what happened with the assassination. You see what’s happening with the street violence. You see what’s happening with the power and the sanitation and the food insecurity there. Right now, the people of Haiti need immediate help. And we’re continuing to provide that with direct aid provision.

But they also need long-term help because of this; because they’re paying that fee [reparations to France]. So, the idea is, “How do you partner with Haiti?” One thing Secretary [Antony] Blinken is been really clear about, and I think you may have heard this and I hope you asked me about it is his recent visit, swing through the DRC and Rwanda and South Africa. And we’ve got the African Leaders Summit coming up this December. But what he said overtly and clearly, which absolutely applies to Haiti is it’s a partnership. As many of my friends and family members overseas will remind me, you know, America can be a little “lecturey” sometimes. We’ve gotta approach people as partners. And that goes for the people of Haiti, as well.

DEFENDER: Regarding the period that the US colonized (occupied) Haiti (1915 – 1934), has there been any conversation about the US returning profits to Haiti from that period?

TRUDEAU: I don’t know. I could not tell you of those discussions. I would tell you if I knew.

DEFENDER: What is the US foreign policy stance regarding supporting the development of African nations?

TRUDEAU: It’s a big continent. Countries are wildly, wildly different. What Nigerian needs versus what Malawi needs versus what Ethiopia, obviously in conflict right now, needs versus… [Africa has] 52 countries. Every single country brings its own talents and opportunities to the table. What our plan and what our goal and what our mindset is, is local engagement. Engagement country by country. Meet people where they are. One thing Secretary Blinken also has said is, “At the end of the day, think of the United Nations. Uganda’s got one vote. Malawi’s got one vote. Swazi’s got one vote. The United States has one vote. We’re all sitting around a roundtable. That should be the basis of our conversation.” So, it’s a partnership. It’s engagement. But also meeting people where they are. You’ve gotta listen to people. I mean, we’ve had good success stories through Millennium Challenge Cooperation through the PEPFAR program, through engagement at the AAU [Association of American Universities]. Though, I know African countries have different views on that. You’ve gotta build on that. And you have to listen.

DEFENDER: Which African nations currently have most of America’s attention?

TRUDEAU: I couldn’t say. And the reason is; it all depends on what sort of thing. And it also depends on regions in the US. The US is a big, complex country too. And there are deep diaspora ties in certain parts of the US. I can speak from my own personal experience. When I lived in South Africa, I had the benefit of working for an office that allowed me to visit pretty much everything south of the Sahel [The semiarid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal eastward to Sudan that forms a transitional zone between the arid Sahara (desert) to the north and the belt of humid savannas to the south]. You would go from like city to city, and it’s impossible to characterize. Even like Lagos to Abuja; so different. So, when I read headlines and newspapers talk about “African issues.” Come on. Let’s have a little nuance in our conversation. So, I couldn’t characterize it. That wouldn’t be fair and it wouldn’t be right.

DEFENDER: The last occupant of the White House called many Black and Brown countries “shithole nations.” What is this administration doing to improve relationships with those countries that may have been offended by those comments?

TRUDEAU: Humility. You address that America’s not perfect. Our democracy is not perfect. And it’s not just democracy. As I mentioned before, America has enormous problems of our own. We have problems in economic inequality, homelessness, opioid abuse, cost of healthcare, racial inequality. So, when we’re sitting down and talking to another country across the table—and it could be any country; it could be Latvia or it could be Laos—if they call us out on human rights, for example, after the murder of George Floyd, you acknowledge that, and you say, “Yes; we have human rights problems in our own country. This is absolutely correct.” And we acknowledge that and we’ll work on that. A lot of Americans don’t know, our human rights report [that tracks human rights abuses by country] has a section on the United States.

DEFENDER: For Houston’s Nigerian population, what’s happening with US-Nigerian relations? What are the big issues?

TRUDEAU: Entrepreneurialism. I mean, Nigeria had the first unicorn; the first homegrown billion-dollar company. I’ve always been so impressed with Nigerians, but also Nigerian Americans; just absolute focus on entrepreneurialism, on making things work, on getting ahead. I think that there are huge investments that can be made in shared business, green energy, taking a look at connectivity, IT development. This is really an economic powerhouse. And Nigeria has talent. It has the people. It has the drive. So, I think that’s really attractive certainly for US companies, but also for US partnerships.

DEFENDER: What about Ethiopia?

TRUDEAU: Obviously, the issue now is the conflict. We’re gravely concerned about the conflict there. We’re gravely concerned about the toll of the conflict on the people of Ethiopia, and both sides. So, that’s gotta be a resolution right there. That’s the number one, first and foremost. The country can’t thrive if it’s in conflict. Secondly though, that whole Horn of Africa, and this is actually broadly for many countries in Africa, front of the line is climate change. You see famine right now in Somalia. You’ve got huge desertification across the north of Ethiopia and then down along Djibouti. So as that climate shifts, are we helping countries be more resilient? Are we building that infrastructure? Because stuff like this happen slowly, then it happens all at once.

DEFENDER: What’s your department’s stance on inroads China and Russia are trying to make in Africa?

TRUDEAU: Twofold. Antony Blinken has been very clear on this is, that no country should be forced to choose. No country should be in a position where they have to choose the United States or someone else. It’s morally unjust. That said, they have to give countries a choice. So, I think about it from my own experience working in Kenya and a couple countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. If a country is focused on feeding its people, educating its people, providing healthcare, building a vibrant governance system, and they’re given an option on building a cheap port or a cheap infrastructure, and that’s the only offer on the table, they have no choice. And it’s not fair for another country to say, “Whoa, what about human rights?” And that country is saying, “What about feeding our people? We’re actually responsible elected officials and our first priority is our people.”  So, what this administration is really focused on is making sure countries have a choice, putting our assets on the table, working with our partners, working with private companies. It’s still up to countries, what they choose to do. They’ve gotta have options. They’ve got to have more than one choice.

DEFENDER: How is this message being received, especially because of the history of colonialism and outright abuse that’s still going on?

TRUDEAU: I think it’s slow. It’s a process where trust is not built with one phrase or one speech or one new strategy rollout. You show up every single day, and you try to make that work. That’s why we have embassies in every country.

DEFENDER: How many countries have you been to in your career?

TRUDEAU: My daughter’s 25. She grew up overseas. She keeps count. She was over 90. But she lived her whole life overseas.,

DEFENDER: We are on the verge of Hispanic Heritage Month. Houston has a large Afro-Latino population. What are some of the big issues for those countries in Central and South America and the islands that your office is dealing with?

TRUDEAU: Climate change, migration, economic stability. This goes back to your first question: “Why should Americans care what happens outside America?” Because the same issues impact us all. Americans worry about their next paycheck. Americans worry about food insecurity. Well, it’s not unique to us. Our friends in the Caribbean, our friends in Central America, they’re worrying about the same thing. It may look a little different, but the facts are the same. It’s why I joined government. Big problems. Big solutions. And you gotta be part of it.

DEFENDER: Where do Cuba/US relations stand?

TRUDEAU: People in Cuba, number one priority. We have, I think just this summer, increased family reunification through the visa process there, understanding the importance of families, understanding the importance of the diaspora. But our whole focus has been the people of Cuba and continuing to press for full access to all of their human rights. So, taking care of people literally on the ground and then also making sure that the government of Cuba knows our priority, which is human rights.

DEFENDER: What is the department doing to recruit more young people and more Blackfolk to this work?

TRUDEAU: We, the Department of State, when most people in America think about what an American diplomat looks like, most people in America don’t think it looks like them. You know the old trope: “Pale, male and Yale.” White guys in suits. That’s not America. That’s not who we are. The Department of State and Tony Blinken have made a priority that the people who represent us abroad need to look like America. And that’s the full scope. It’s national origin, first-generation Americans, Americans who didn’t learn English until they were nine or 10, people of all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientation, how they identify themselves. It’s got to look like America. Because the reason we’re America is because of our diversity. The reason people still look up to us around the world is because of who we are. And if we don’t look like that overseas, then we fail. We fail out of the gate.

So, that’s what we’re doing. Also, I think a lot of us, maybe because of who we are, we have a little imposter syndrome. We say, “It’s not for me. I’m not gonna do that. I haven’t traveled abroad. I don’t speak a language. I came here when I was 15 or nine, and I’m an American now, but they don’t want me.” We want you. Because there’s no better story about America than people who embody this country. At [Careers.state.gov] we have study abroad programs. We have paid internship programs. We’re the oldest cabinet agency in the federal government. We never had paid internship programs. We said, “Why put a barrier up? Who can afford to live in Washington?” I can’t afford to live in Washington. How can our interns? So, you just open that door a little wider, and you give people pathways where they see themselves. They see ambassadors who look like them and they say, “That can be me.”

DEFENDER: How’s the response?

TRUDEAU: Excellent. Here in Houston, superb. Las Vegas, San Diego. Excellent. But we also show the receipts. We are transparent on our recruiting. But not just recruiting, retention too, because that is the real story. And really making efforts to find out why people join, why they stay and how we’ll keep people.

DEFENDER: How did you get into this line of work?

TRUDEAU: I was working for a community nonprofit for a while. I went to journalism school. I had worked on a newspaper as an overnight copy editor, and then I went and started working for a local YMCA. And I was seeing a lot of the issues that were going on in my community, and feeling like those issues were so big and so insurmountable that I couldn’t imagine how you could continue to chip away at them working on a community level. And then you take in the big issues, like racial inequality, climate change, global inequality, food security, global issues. And while a lot of private philanthropy in this country does spectacular work, that’s bits and pieces; stuff around the edges. So, I decided that big problems need big solutions. And the answer is government. The government is the only massive force that’s designed to deal with that. And not just individual governments, but global governments. I believe in multilateralism. I believe we’re better with partners and allies. I believe you gotta talk to people you don’t agree with, and you’ve gotta be at the table. So, I became a diplomat.

DEFENDER: What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

TRUDEAU: It isn’t a fun moment, but it was the most spectacular moment in my career. When President Mandela died, the White House asked me to go down and support the ceremonies around his funeral. President Obama went. So, the funeral was over and the Congressional Black Caucus was there because, of course, they attended as a gesture of respect. So, the embassy called me—I was wiped out. I was so tired—and they said, “We need you to go over and staff the CBC, they’ve got a couple of interviews and they want someone from the embassy there.” So, I get a taxi and I’m wandering around. And it was in a mall in Johannesburg and I walk in the big, glass atrium and it was [Congressman] John Lewis at Nelson Mandela’s funeral doing an interview with [Congressman] Elijah Cummings. In Johannesburg. Two giants honoring a third. And I was like, “Wow, this is my job.”

DEFENDER: Favorite meal globally?

TRUDEAU: This is hard because you gotta do it by meal. I’m a big fan of Egyptian breakfast because you have the soft cheese, you’ve got the yogurt, you’ve got the hot bread. You’ve got like some radishes and crunchy vegetables. Lunch, it’ll have to be Vietnamese summer rolls with the thin rice paper, cilantro, the chives and a little peanut dipping sauce. Dinner, it’s gotta be Ethiopian injera, but teff only. None of this wheat bread teff.