“Ministry” with Societies in Transition: An Interview with Ambassador William Lacy Swing ‘60

William Lacy Swing received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 1960. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service of the State Department, his diplomatic career has spanned more than forty years including five postings as Ambassador to African countries—South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), and the former People’s Republic of the Congo (Congo Brazzaville). From 1993-98, he was also Ambassador to Haiti. In October 2001, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Ambassador Swing to be his Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with the rank of Under-Secretary-General. Recently, John Lindner, Director of Development and External Relations at YDS, and Jamie Manson ‘04, editor of Reflections, interviewed Ambassador Swing at the United Nations building in New York City.

REFLECTIONS To have theological and diplomatic training is unique. How did that happen, and how has the theological training interfaced with your diplomatic work through the years?

SWING I came into theology through the church and the people I met along the way, who influenced my decision to pursue a Bachelor of Divinity degree. I joined the Foreign Service in 1963 and headed off to South Africa, not knowing that 26 years later I would go back as Ambassador to South Africa, five months before Mr. Mandela was released—one of the highlights of my career. With the exception of my work in Haiti, I’ve concentrated on Africa for my entire career. I think it’s the thin thread of service which broadened into international service that led me, fairly logically, from the ministry to diplomacy. At Yale I was exposed to some really great minds, such as Richard Niebuhr, Roland Bainfon, Brevard Childs, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Paul Schubert, and Paul Minear, who taught me a lot about the world and how to think about issues. I learned a good deal about appreciation for multi-ethnicity, multi-lingualism, and multi-culturalism. I think it’s made me more sensitive than I might have been in the field of diplomacy.

REFLECTIONS One recent statistic reports that 70% of human services in countries in the southern hemisphere is provided by religious organizations. Having served in some places of terrible conflict and terrible poverty, what are the unique characteristics of foreign policy issues in such places?

SWING I’ve spent much of my adult life in Africa—basically over five decades in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and now in the new century. As I look back on it, at least a half dozen of these countries have been what I would call societies in transition, societies trying to make it from autocratic type systems to more participatory, more humane type systems in which people have something to say about their lives. There has been a very strong contribution from the theological side to this because you’re really dealing with the whole question of human relations from the broadest possible perspective. My observation is that the religious groups—and it’s true of several religions, but particularly of Christian faith—have made a remarkable contribution in terms of social services. Because, in countries I’ve served in, if there are good schools or good hospitals, more often than not, it is either the church or some religious-related organization that is providing these, or some philanthropist who’s been inspired by religion to provide these services. And if it weren’t for that, in many places there would be nothing.

REFLECTIONS There is the international level and then the local level to issues around development and health. To what extent do religions become part of the policy process in a helpful way? In the U.S. we are committed to the separation of church and state. And yet, in a situation where the state infrastructure isn’t there for people, it’s hard to conceive of that.

SWING No, it’s very important that the churches be there, providing these services, and also, the churches can play a very helpful role in terms of creating more of a culture of tolerance in terms of both human rights and humanitarian concern. I think there is a very close tie-in, and I’m a lot less concerned there, frankly, about the separation of church and state because, often, the state is so weak that it’s not in a position to provide anything. It’s often the church that calls attention to human rights violations. We’ve had enormous problems of sexual violence all over the Congo—as a result of the four-year war. Again, churches are able to sensitize congregations and others back home about these wars, which often go unnoticed. The Congo, for example, in the four-year war—nobody talks about it—but they lost 3.5 million people, and 3.4 million were displaced. The HIV/AIDS rate went from being very low to, now, more than 1.3 million with HIV/AIDS. There are about 17 million undernourished. You’ve got 500-600,000 refugees in all nine countries encircling the Congo. So on these issues the church continues to be able to sensitize public opinion, both inside the country but, more importantly, back here. A lot of them, now, lobby the Hill to be sensitive to these issues, which is helpful to us. And we have a number of members of Congress who come out and who constantly can be counted upon to support forgotten causes, many of which are in Africa.

REFLECTIONS There are many large U.N. initiatives that deal with crises such as poverty and the AIDS and malaria pandemics. Clearly, churches and other religious bodies have a role in that and yet, as you say, not too many people back here at home even know about those initiatives. How do we become more effective partners, as religions and religious people, in the international political process?

SWING I think, obviously, getting more people traveling to these places is essential. I think, also, through the Internet it is much easier now to get information out to people. When I was in the State Department I felt that we had to do a much more credible job of getting out and talking to public groups, addressing public fora, world affairs councils, talking to churches. Right now I’m in peacekeeping, of course—and peacekeeping is not a popular activity. It’s not as expensive as you would think. I mean, the total amount spent on peacekeeping since 1948, when it began, is somewhere around $32 billion, which is not, in the great scheme of things, an exaggerated amount over a period of 56 years since peacekeeping began formally. And it’s about as much as you’d spend in half a year in a major conflict such as Iraq. If you look at global expenditures on military armaments, it is in excess of $800 billion a year compared to $32 billion in 56 years on peacekeeping. So, this year, the budget is $2.8 billion for peace keeping. We have, now, 17 peacekeeping operations in the world. At this moment, the one I lead, MONUC, is the largest, in budgetary terms. Our budget is $709 million a year. It’s a lot, but when you look at the value of life and the importance of peace over war, it becomes a more manageable figure. As I’ve often said, the most expensive peace is a better bargain than the cheapest war.

I think, in terms of other things that one can do, obviously, keeping up politically, keeping up internationally, and making people more sensitive. Yet, despite our leadership role in the world, we still tend to be somewhat more isolated from events in the world than a lot of others, particularly from the Third World. The war in the Congo got very little publicity. Fatality figures are staggering when people hear them.

REFLECTIONS So your work has been especially focused on building tolerance and doing public education.

SWING That’s right. And we have not done an adequate job as diplomats, whether we are bilateral or multilateral diplomats. We have not done as much as could be done to help people to understand the national interest in being engaged in parts of Africa, or parts of the sub-continent, or elsewhere where there are major problems. We have to do a much better job of helping people see, for example, why the Congo matters. It matters because there are 58 million people there. It matters because central Africa, since independence in 1960, has never had a significant center of political gravity and stability and, therefore, is constantly having to have emergency assistance programs, and that money could have gone into development. It’s significant because the Congo has 10-12% of the world’s hydroelectric capacity, 50% of all the remaining forests left in Africa, species of animals and game that are unknown anywhere else in the world, and has been in the top five or six countries in the world over many, many years in commercial diamonds, gold, copper, and cobalt. When you realize this, you begin to see that there is a national interest there. But until one knows that and it comes home to people why, therefore, you would invest money in a place like that to bring peace, it will be dismissed.

REFLECTIONS There has been so much death and violence in Africa; how does that shape both the religious life and the public life? How do you build lines of trust and tolerance? And what does that do to people? What does that do to you?

SWING It’s extremely difficult. Look at the Rwandan genocide. A number of people involved were brought up in the church. And it’s extremely hard to explain what happens when you’re dealing with stereotypes of people and it’s been propagandized in a very dangerous way, such as hate radio and hate media. I think the church has a major role to play there, and it hasn’t always played it well.

REFLECTIONS The important role for religious people, especially churches, is to teach education and tolerance. Part of that, obviously, has an economic component. And, of course, part of the critique that religious communities have been offering is a hard look at globalization.

SWING You’ve hit on a theme that’s very dear to me. Looking at the Congo—and I often said this when I was Ambassador to Haiti—everything is broken but the human spirit. If one had to choose one priority, for me, the priority would be education. I believe that is one of the keys to dealing with the problem of hate and the problems that arise out of ethnic and religious differences. An awful lot of it has to do with basic education. One of the great contributions of the church has been in this field. The Catholics have been very good in this area. They insisted on teaching French to children in the Central African Republic so their students could go right to the Sorbonne or anywhere else, whereas Protestant mission schools insisted on teaching in the local African languages. Almost all of the important leaders in Southern Africa either went to Fort Hare or one of the other great schools in South Africa. Mandela went there. That was an early, important contribution of the church. And many students went on to become significant leaders in their societies.

REFLECTIONS Tell us about your work in South Africa and with Mandela.

SWING I wouldn’t take anything for those three years I had in South Africa. I arrived there five months before Mr. Mandela was released. I was the first Ambassador to present credentials to DeKlerk, and then I was able to come back, with Nelson Mandela, to see President Bush in June of 1990. Three months later, I came back to the White House with DeKlerk. It was an incredible experience. Mr. Mandela once said, in my presence, that “It is times like this when I have the sense that I am in physical contact with history”—a wonderful phrase. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to be with him and leaders of other societies in transition. I was there for the first year with Cedras in Haiti. I was there for the invasion of the 21,000 troops, the return of Aristide, went through the first five elections and left and watched that all wither on the vine. I had the good fortune of being in Liberia as Ambassador, which I had always wanted to do because it’s the only part of Africa with which we have that kind of really close connection. Unfortunately, I was there during four very difficult years under Samuel Do.

REFLECTIONS These are still societies in transition.

SWING Exactly. It’s true that Africa has been the focus of my career. But as I look back on it, another thread has been the question of societies in transition—South Africa has made a tremendous transition. If you look at Soweto today, it’s nowhere like it was before. I used to say to people, why do you penalize yourselves? Take something simple like sports. Why do you penalize yourself by choosing your teams from a population of 5 million, when you have a population of 40 million. If you get these children in the townships to playing cricket or soccer or rugby, you’re going to be a much stronger team.” It wasn’t long after that, of course, they won the World Cup. South Africa, certainly is a success story. Regrettably, the Central African Republic still hasn’t made it. We thought Haiti would be a success story at the time, but unfortunately, the international community didn’t stay the course. The problem is that peacekeeping and societal transitions are long term matters, but most countries have one-year budgets and four- or five-year administrations. Thus, you don’t get the continuity needed for longer term commitments. And one administration can’t commit another administration to something.

REFLECTIONS How do you keep your morale up?

SWING Well, I guess I’m probably an optimist just by nature, and perhaps by theological training. But we have a lot going for the Congo right now. We have an international and juridical framework composed of several dozen Security Council resolutions and statements by Security Council presidents. We have international and national mechanisms including this large mission that I head. We have 110 nationalities in this mission. There are about 14,000 employees including 10,000 troops, all on the ground. We have the financing for it, $641 million last year and $709 million this year. It’s important to consider that 18 months ago, government leaders were fighting a war against one another and the country was divided. Now they’re working as a government, so you can’t be totally negative. It’s encouraging. And there really is no alternative. You’ve got to make this work because any other alternative is too bad to contemplate. Unlike some other countries, if the political situation can be put right, there’s a huge economy waiting to be developed. The irony of the Congo is that one of Africa’s potentially richest countries turns out now to be one of the world’s poorest. That’s what we’re trying to reverse. And, finally, we know that success in the Congo would offer more to Africa as a whole, and perhaps to the world, than would success in any of the other conflict zones in Africa.