Former professor becomes diplomat

Former School of Media and Public Affairs professor Robert Callahan recently transitioned to his new role as the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and said his time at GW helped him prepare for the diplomatic post.

Callahan worked as a Public Diplomacy Fellow at SMPA before receiving his ambassadorial appointment on July 24. He said his time conducting research and teaching a class on foreign policy and public diplomacy allowed him to refine his knowledge of diplomacy.

Before coming to GW in 2005, Callahan spent 25 years in U.S. Foreign Service – a career that included stints in Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece and Italy. In 2004, he was the U.S. embassy spokesman in Iraq, before returning to Washington and working for Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.

“(At GW) I was able to appreciate and study diplomacy from a distance with an objectivity that the daily demands of work abroad never allow,” Callahan said. “When in an embassy, diplomats usually respond to events, many of them unforeseen, and rarely take a step back to understand the larger context. My time at GW provided that broader context.”

He said he especially enjoyed interacting with colleagues, administrators and students.

“I found the ambience to be conducive to an easy exchange of ideas and opinions and, at the same time, intellectually stimulating,” he said, adding that he was always “genuinely impressed” by the maturity and dedication of his students.

Michael Posada, a senior in SMPA, took Callahan’s class this spring and said he enjoyed when the professor related his past experiences to the topic of the lecture.

“We learned about the realities of public diplomacy instead of just the textbook version,” he said.

Posada recalled how Callahan told the class about his nomination as ambassador by passing out a critical editorial from The Guardian newspaper.

“I thought it was a unique and humble way of telling the class,” Posada said. “It shows that he knows what he’s up against.”

The editorial, written by Stephen Kinzer, criticized Callahan’s work with Negroponte, the ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s while Callahan was his spokesman. Kinzer disparaged U.S. aid to the Contra rebels, which helped the group wage a war against the Nicaragua government.

“This episode stirs old memories of the Contra War, and of the role Negroponte and Callahan played in helping to organize it,” Kinzer wrote.

As the top U.S. official in Nicaragua, Callahan said that he hopes to “cooperate and communicate” with the Nicaraguan government and President Daniel Ortega, a former leader of the Sandinistas who fought the Contras.

He said, “Our biggest challenge is to convince the current government that our policies here are intended to support the Nicaraguans as they continue to build their democracy and develop their economy.”

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