U.S. diplomacy is changing, and one of our own is leading the way
Photograph by Max McDermott
Imagine shuttling between your tent in the African bush and diplomatic engagements in five capitals. You are the lone diplomat attached to a small group of US Special Forces, and your mission is to derail a brutal rebel group terrorizing civilians and abducting children in four countries.
“It’s like being on another planet sometimes, but it’s incredibly rewarding work,” said Jason Lewis-Berry ’99, who lived that scenario as the US State Department’s first field representative for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) issues from 2011–12.
A graduate of the UO’s Robert D. Clark Honors College, Jason now directs efforts to prevent outbreaks of violence in Latin America, East Asia, and South and Central Asia.
As director of overseas operations for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), he is pioneering a new approach to achieving peace known as “expeditionary diplomacy.” He dispatches small conflict prevention and response teams to better understand and address risks such as ethnic conflict, terrorism, and large-scale human rights abuses.
“You get to work in places where it really matters because local people’s lives are on the line,” he said. “You’re finding everyone with a stake in the problem and building networks of like-minded people who share common goals but don’t necessarily know how to work together and may not even know about each other.”
However, if not for 9/11, Jason might still be in Los Angeles building the career he dreamed of while majoring in journalism at the university. He was producing Super Bowl TV ads and making indie films when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.
“It made me realize there were more important things happening in the world and I probably had something else to contribute,” he said. “I was having fun, but I wasn’t doing any passion projects. At the end of the day, I was helping Coke sell more products or Britney Spears sell more albums.”
Experiences from the field
In ten minutes, Jason gives a compelling world tour to show how expeditionary diplomacy is working.
Jason explains how the mission to stop African warlord Joseph Kony unfolded.
Jason shares “best practices” learned while chief of staff for the international group working to support the Afghan government during 2009 and 2010.
Follow real-time status updates posted by State Department field officers in hot spots ranging from Syria to Honduras.
Jason’s transformation from producer to diplomat began with acceptance to Georgetown University’s elite Masters of Foreign Service program in 2003. Three months in, he became Madeleine Albright’s teaching assistant and zeroed in on the new discipline that has become his passion: stopping and preventing wars.
The rest truly is history, as Jason has worked in 15 countries and State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. He says his UO experiences made this extraordinary career shift possible.
“For me, the three key things that opened doors that I walked through later were minoring in French, majoring in journalism, and studying abroad in France. I use the skills I learned in journalism school every day and the expanded worldview I got from studying abroad is what ultimately called me back to international work.”
While Jason was at Georgetown, the State Department established an office focused on developing civilian expertise to rebuild places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Over time, the office has evolved into a nerve center geared toward preventing fragile countries from spiraling out of control.
“If we see a place where signs are bad, we want to pay attention and invest relatively modest civilian resources so it doesn’t get worse,” Jason said. “Relying on traditional diplomatic and military tools are no longer enough. If you get in early enough with assistance geared to support not just cooperative governments but also average people, you have a chance to head off conflict.”
He acknowledges it’s risky work that requires a very entrepreneurial mindset.
“You have to develop a nuanced understanding of the underlying causes of the conflict, the local grievances, and the sources of strength and resilience that are organic to this place,” he said. “If there is not local ownership for the long run, for peace and stability, it’s not going to work very well. You can’t want it more than they do and you can’t assume that we as outsiders have all the answers.”
At home and abroad, Jason believes it is crucial to realize there are many more faces to the United States than just the military. “I’ve worked closely with military colleagues in Afghanistan, central Africa, and elsewhere and think highly of them, he said. “But they’d be the first to say they shouldn’t be asked to do everything.”
He considers citizen-to-citizen exchanges like study abroad as essential for strengthening ties between countries. His own interest in global affairs began early in life as the result of his family hosting international students, and he keeps in touch with the family that hosted him in France.
Even though he focuses on aiding people in distant parts of the globe, Jason still manages to maintain close ties with his roots. He returns to Eugene as often as possible to see family, speak with students, and cheer on his Ducks. After all, back in the day, one of the ways he helped pay for college was by working as a reporter for the Oregon Sports Network.
Story by Melody Ward Leslie ’79