US deputy assistant secretary of state delivers Povolny Lecture

The last lecture in the Povolny lecture series for the 2017-18 academic year was held in the Wriston Auditorium on Monday, April 23, from 7:30-8:30 p.m. It was delivered by Glen Johnson ‘85, Lawrence alumnus and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State to John Kerry, and titled “Window Seat on the World: A View of U.S. Leadership and Diplomacy,” sharing a name with his upcoming book. Over 50 people attended the talk, although these included only a handful of students.

Johnson began by remembering Professor Povolny, whose name this lecture series bears. To get back into the mood before his return to Lawrence to give this talk, he went through his old college stuff up in the attic and down in the basement, where he found course materials from his college days and even a term paper smeared in red ink by Povolny’s own hand from a government class.

Before joining Kerry’s team, Johnson worked as a reporter, most recently at the Boston Globe. He’s covered 5 presidential elections. Then one day he received a call from John Kerry asking him to be his deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic communications. Despite having no experience actually working in politics, he accepted the position and spent the next 4 years traveling 1.4 million miles with Kerry. They spent a total of 3044 hours in the air, or over 120 days flying, and visited every continent on earth, including Antarctica.

The name of both his talk and upcoming book about his experiences on the job, “Window Seat on the World,” comes from his very literal position on their state department plane, where he occupied the window seat right between the words ‘United’ and ‘States’. He’s finished writing the manuscript of the book, and is currently looking for an agent to get it published, a task he hopes to have completed by the end of the year.

“The state department is the most forward-deployed part of the government,” Johnson explained. They employ “70,000 people spread across the world, gathering info both in the classical cloak-and-dagger method, and by going to cocktail parties to find out who’s rising and who’s falling. That kind of information is invaluable for us to have.”

He talked about the incredible nature of the job and how it took him across the world, witnessing the political situation in most of the world. “I was able to sense a shift in the geopolitical landscape, the emergence of a new form of cold war.” He recapped the last cold war, between Russia and the U.S. and its allies after World War II. That was essentially a conflict between the West and the East, Communist Russia and the democratic coalition from World War II.

The early 21st century saw the rise of non-state actors like al-Qaida, and militant organizations like the Islamic State group (IS). The proliferation of modern technology binds parts of the world together for the first time in history, and citizens of very poor countries now have a clear picture of the lives of citizens in very wealthy countries, contributing to unrest in many areas.

He recounted his experience in the Solomon Islands, where he saw children playing in puddles of dirty water by the side of the road while every few hundred feet loomed another sign for new cell phone data plans.

Then he explained the new form of cold war he saw in progress, a war of land and fact claims, pushing for power in new, asymmetrical battlefields. He recounted how Russian troops had flooded Ukraine while Putin denied any knowledge of involvement, and how a missile traced back to Russia struck a passenger jet while Putin denied involvement. He described how China built artificial islands in the South China Sea, claiming dominion over sovereign shipping or water already claimed by neighboring countries.

“The internet is presenting another new type of asymmetrical warfare,” he said. Looming largest is the example of Russia’s meddling in the recent U.S. election.

He ended his talk by showing dozens of pictures he took while traveling with Kerry. At home, he was in charge of planning their trips. While abroad, he was in charge of photographing these trips. The photos he took would form their social media face, something he said is increasingly important to spend effort on.

His pictures included such shots as a behind-the-scenes meeting between foreign ministers in the U.N., which was an unscheduled conversation between two men who had the authority to speak for their respective countries. “I can’t even tell you how much diplomacy happens in these kinds of meetings,” he said.

He also photographed Kerry as he signed the nullification on U.S. sanctions on Iran after they completed the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Johnson ended with the reminder that the future of U.S. politics lies in the hands of our generation, and that it’s going to be up to us to decide how our country moves forward.