A Lifetime in the American Foreign Service
ALUMNI SECTION EDITOR
Ted Osius, SAIS Europe ‘88 and SAIS DC ‘89, is an associate professor at the National Defense University and has spent over 25 years in the foreign service of the United States Department of State. As part of the The Observer’s series of alumni profiles, Osius discussed his path before SAIS and after on assignment, insights for current SAIS students, and the evolution of gay rights within the US Department of State.
Ted Osius didn’t have much experience with Southeast Asia when he entered the US foreign service in 1989. But his first assignment upon graduation from SAIS was to the Philippines.
“I’d studied French and then Italian in Bologna and spoke Arabic,” he said, “But I realized that there were great opportunities [in Southeast Asia].”
Since that first assignment to the Philippines, Osius hasn’t looked back and has been involved with many US diplomatic achievements in the South and Southeast Asian regions over the past 25 years: normalizing relations with Vietnam, establishing a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia and securing a civil nuclear agreement with India – to name a few.
“I’ve never had a dull day since I’ve joined the foreign service,” Osius said.
In India Osius was involved in the negotiations of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2006, which marked a significant improvement in Indo-US relations. In the agreement, India, which is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, agreed to submit its civil nuclear programs to the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for complete US support of its civil nuclear program. Military purposes were to be kept distinct.
Osius praised the Indian officials at the time for their commitment to securing the deal. The prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, risked the survival of his government to achieve the deal, according to Osius.
In 1996 Osius was part of the first group of American officials to go to Vietnam since its relations with the US had normalized. His spent his first year in Hanoi to lay the foundation for the new ambassador’s arrival.
“It was a very tough relationship,” Osius said about the renewed diplomatic ties between the US and Vietnam. “But we laid the foundation for a more positive one [going forward].”
After Hanoi, Osius was sent to Ho Chi Minh City to establish an American consulate there.
“It was one of the best assignments I’ve ever had,” said Osius about his time in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Indonesia, which had been non-aligned during the early days of the Cold War, Osius worked to create a comprehensive partnership. After the fall of Indonesian President Haji Muhammad Suharto, the country’s military relationship with the US ended. As a result, the Indonesians and the Americans had to rebuild security ties and deepen cooperation in trade and other areas.
Osius credited the economics curriculum at SAIS as being essential for his entry to the foreign service. After failing to pass the foreign service exam prior to beginning at SAIS, Osius re-took and then passed the exam once he was armed with monetary and trade theory.
“You can’t understand how the world works if you don’t take it [the economics] seriously,” said Osius. “And boy was I glad I did!”
The crisis simulation experiences were also pivotal learning experiences for Osius, who said he participated in two simulations, one in the role of the opposition party and the other as the president.
“In a time of crisis, you rely on people you trust,” he said. “Decision-makers expect you [as an advisor] to earn their trust. They become reliant on you.”
In addition to the coursework advantages offered at SAIS, Osius advised students to take advantage of all that Washington has to offer.
“No matter what you want to learn, it’s here,” he said.
Osius has also been witness to a transformation of US government policy concerning gays and lesbians in the foreign service. At the time Osius entered the service, one’s security clearance could be revoked for being gay. As a result, Osius kept his sexuality secret until 1996 when then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher eliminated that policy.
“Those early years were tough,” Osius said, “especially for the older generation.”
Osius had particularly strong praise for Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state. At a Christmas party in 1995 at Albright’s home, Albright danced with Osius’ partner.
“That sent a very strong signal and made clear whose side she was on,” Osius said. “She was one of our great heroes.”
Things have changed dramatically for gays and lesbians now serving in the foreign service, said Osius, who praised Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry for their work.
“When Obama came to Jakarta for the first time, they had a place card for my spouse at the state dinner in a conservative Muslim country,” Osius said. “And they gave him a family member visa.”
Acceptance has not been a problem abroad, according to Osius, who said he has never had any difficulty either with host governments or on the street in host countries.
At a party once, “a high-ranking Indian guest was at first surprised to learn we were a married same-sex couple,” said Osius. “Then she smiled and said, ‘You live your life.’ And so we do.”
Prior to studying at SAIS, Osius worked on the 1988 presidential campaign of then-Sen. Al Gore as well as at the American University in Cairo. At the moment, Osius serves as an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington.
As for what is next, he said he would like to go back to Southeast Asia.
“There are no certainties in life,” he said. “I’m counting on nothing, but I hope to go back and represent the US.”
Thank you to Ted Osius and all alumni for their time in connecting with The SAIS Observer to share their experiences. If you are a SAIS alumnus who would like to share your experiences after SAIS and offer any advice to current SAISers, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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