George Sibley took an unconventional route to becoming a diplomat. He spent 11 years in the U.S. Merchant Marine, including the voyage that laid the first submarine fiber optic cable in history, before passing the tests to join the Foreign Service in 1988.
A three-decade globetrotting career later, Sibley is now the 2020-2022 diplomat in residence for the Mid-Atlantic region, which comprises North Carolina, South Carolina, and southern Virginia.
“We are delighted to host another diplomat in residence with such a distinguished career and interesting views of diplomacy, very much in line with our new Rethinking Diplomacy Program,” said Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS).
“We are grateful to continue our partnership with the State Department in this important mission of promoting public service among students in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Zanalda said. “We also congratulate the last diplomat in residence, Kathryn Crockart, for her appointment as Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom in London."
Sibley’s 32 years in the Foreign Service took him around the world. He was minister counselor for economic, environment, science and technology affairs at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi; he directed the Office of Environmental Quality and Transboundary Issues at the U.S. Department of State; was senior advisor for northern Iraq in Kirkuk; in Mosul as the team leader of Provincial Reconstruction Team Ninewa in Mosul; deputy chief of mission to Madagascar and the Comoros; consul general in Kolkata, India; and deputy chief of mission and then chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Myanmar.
In this Q&A, Sibley talks about his experience in Myanmar, about the contributions of science in diplomacy, and about his role as a diplomat in residence.
Q: Myanmar is still in the news for human rights issues and violence, as well as for a still-unaccomplished transition to democracy. What was your experience there?
A: Myanmar, also known as Burma, was a fascinating country in which to serve. It is important to look at present day Myanmar with an understanding of its history. This is a country that was among the most prosperous in Southeast Asia at the time of its independence in 1948, but it is now among the poorest. This is the result of over 50 years of military dictatorship, isolation, and economic mismanagement. The 2008 constitution that ushered in democracy was drafted by that military dictatorship and designed to preserve very significant authority for the military leaders. So, when you speak of “human rights issues and violence,” it is the military you are mostly talking about and their most egregious action was taken against the Rohingya minority in 2017. Yet it is important to understand that the military carried out this operation without the knowledge or consent of the civilian government. During the years of dictatorship, the United States supported the brave citizens, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who dared to demand change. As you have rightly suggested, the change is only partly accomplished and the government faces huge problems, not only in the military-civilian divide, but also in addressing the aggressive demands of the People’s Republic of China, in facing the scourge of an enormous narcotics trade, and right now in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States will express our concerns honestly, but we will continue to stand by Myanmar as it seeks to emerge from a dark period of its history, and I am hopeful that better days lie ahead for the people of Myanmar.
Q: Given your degree in biology and your diplomatic experience, do you believe that expertise in science, technology, and environmental science are becoming an essential component of diplomacy in successfully tackling current and future national and global challenges?
A: Diplomacy is designed to address the relations between and among nations. At one time the issues may have been exclusively or primarily political or economic, but in today’s globalized world there are few limits to the scope of issues that may need to be addressed through diplomacy. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic should have taught us that, in today’s interconnected world, a problem that originates in one isolated location can be a threat to all of us. For us to address these threats effectively, we need to work together. We might wish that we could isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and deal with our own problems in our own little bubble, but those days – to the extent they existed at all – are past. Climate change, for example, demands action by everyone. We cannot persuade others to act unless we are willing to demonstrate our own willingness to step forward. These issues are enormously difficult to address, but they pose an existential threat to all of us, so we cannot ignore them. Expertise in science and technology is critical to understanding both the threats we face and the possible responses to those threats. As such, that expertise is ever more needed by the diplomats who must seek a positive resolution on the global political stage.
Q: As a diplomat in residence for the Mid-Atlantic region, you will provide guidance to students and professionals who want to pursue careers in the U.S. Department of State. How do you envision your role under the current circumstances?
A: My career has been a source of enormous satisfaction for me for 32 years and it is one that I gladly recommend to others. The problems we face have never been more complex or urgent, and we need the best minds of our nation to engage these problems on behalf of the American people. This career provides an opportunity to make a difference in the world and to serve your country. It provides a chance to experience other countries, other cultures, and to travel the world. It features some hardships and sacrifices, but it also offers a good living wage and extensive benefits. We need generalist officers, but our effort relies just as much on specialists – security officers, engineers, office managers, medical professionals, information technology specialists, and more. My job is to make others aware of these needs and these opportunities and to urge them to learn more about how they can make a difference. This is especially true for persons of color or other underrepresented groups who often have not been exposed to the possibility of a Foreign Service career. If any of your readers are intrigued by this possibility, I would suggest they go online to careers.state.gov and research what might be available to them. Then, when they want to learn more, my email address is: DIRMidAtlantic@state.gov.