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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Diplomacy and the Welfare of Children with Former Ambassador Susan Jacobs

Former Ambassador Susan Jacobs spent much of her career in diplomacy focused on international children's issues, including a position as the United States’ first Special Advisor for International Children's Issues, helping to uphold The Hague Conventions on adoptions and abductions. In this episode, Jacobs joins Annelise Riles to talk about her career in the foreign service, as one of the first married women to become a foreign service officer, and her work as it relates to United Nations Sustainable Development goal number 16, which includes targets related to protecting children.

Susan Jacobs

We need to be working with countries so that children aren't pushed to the borders, that they have opportunities in their own countries that will enable them to have full, productive lives. And I think that our aid programs should be geared more towards helping children be protected and protecting their security so that they don't have to come to the border.”

– Susan Jacobs, Former Special Advisor for Children’s Issues, Department of State

Background reading:

  • Read Jacobs official bio from The American Academy of Diplomacy

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today's topic is United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number five Gender Equality, and more specifically, the role of diplomacy in gender equality and gender equality in diplomacy. And for this, I'm delighted to welcome former Ambassador Susan Jacobs. Susan has led a career in diplomacy full of boundary breaking work. In 1974, she was one of the first married women to enter the United States Foreign Service. And in 2010, she was the United State’s first special advisor for International Children's Issues, a position created by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Prior to her appointment as Special Advisor, Ambassador Jacobs served as ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. She has also held overseas postings in Israel, India and El Salvador. Today she is the governing board chair of the International Social Service Global Network, an organization dedicated to protecting and supporting children, adults and families separated by borders. Of course, we're also going to be talking about United Nations sustainable development goal number 16, peace, justice and strong institutions, because that goal includes targets related to protecting children. Welcome, Ambassador Jacobs. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Susan Jacobs [00:01:55] I'm delighted to be here and I look forward to our discussion. It's really an honor for me to be here with you.

Annelise Riles [00:02:02] Well, tell me a little bit about your path into the Foreign Service. What got you started? Why did you first think you wanted to serve our nation as a diplomat?

Susan Jacobs [00:02:11] It started when I got married. My husband was a diplomat in the Foreign Service. I was in law school and we decided to get married and we went to Greece to live. And I learned that being the spouse of a foreign service officer left a lot to be desired. It meant that you were rated on your husband's evaluation every year. My husband used to joke that every man in the Foreign Service was married to the same woman. She was peppy, knew how to throw a dinner party and obeyed the ambassador's wife. But there wasn't a path for me to be in the Foreign Service at that time. And so I taught English in Cyprus. I also created a day camp for kids in Cyprus. And then when we went to Venezuela, the unwritten rules changed in the Foreign Service, and married women could then become officers, that is, married women who are married to Foreign Service officers. So at the first opportunity, I took the exam and I passed the written exam and then I had the oral exam and I passed that and I came into the Foreign Service in 1974.

Annelise Riles [00:03:28] That is an incredible story. It's so hard to imagine wives of diplomats being raided.

Susan Jacobs [00:03:35] Oh, I know. It's amazing, isn't it?

Annelise Riles [00:03:39] Would you say that today the Foreign Service is a much more welcoming environment for women and non-conforming gender identities and racialized minorities?

Susan Jacobs [00:03:49] I think it's more welcoming for women. I think it is still hard for minorities. It's still pretty white. You know, everybody has a really good education. Everybody thinks that they are God's gift to the Foreign Service. And I think that that is hard for some people. And I think that the department is doing a much better job in training people to be diplomats, because it's not an easy job. You're overseas, you're separated from your family, your parents and siblings. If you're close to them and you really are dependent on the embassy community in the beginning until you can make friends in the wider community. Diplomacy is like grinding stones that you move the needle a little bit at a time and you keep working at it until it resembles an organization that really looks like America. And I think that that's our responsibility because we are representing the United States overseas, and it can't be only old white men. 

Annelise Riles [00:04:49] What would you advise young people today who may be women or maybe minorities about how to advance themselves within the diplomatic corps? 

Susan Jacobs [00:05:01] I think the important thing. Is not to forget your own values. What I learned is you need to participate in order to have a voice. You have to go to the meetings. If there is a meeting of first tour officers at a post, you should go whether you're interested or not, because that's how you find out things. You should volunteer to do things and by volunteering you get recognized throughout the embassy as somebody that they need to consider. You always have to be polite. You need to respect the chain of command because there really is one. But I think you can't be afraid to speak up in the most polite way that you can. When you see something that is not working the way it's supposed to work.

Annelise Riles [00:05:46] What fantastic advice not just for the diplomatic corps, but for probably most institutions. Exactly. Let's turn to your work as special adviser for international children's issues. That role focused on protecting the interests of children in both inter-country adoptions settings and also child abduction settings. Could you tell us a little bit more about that work and why the Secretary of State had created the post at that time?

Susan Jacobs [00:06:14] That's a great question. From what I understood from Secretary Clinton when I first met with her after she appointed me, is that Senator Mary Landrieu was looking to make changes in how we did adoptions. And she wanted the rules to be a little looser. And Secretary Clinton was very committed to The Hague Conventions on adoptions and abductions, which are signed by many other countries. I think 96 countries signed the adoption convention and probably 70 or 80 countries have signed the abduction convention. And for adoptions, the numbers reached a high point in 2002. And we were doing a lot of adoptions from Guatemala, from Russia, some other countries, from Eastern Europe, Vietnam. And these adoptions were not always working out. And there wasn't much follow up. We were very late coming to the Hague Convention. We didn't ratify it until 2008. And at that time, only adoption service providers who were doing adoptions in Hague countries were regulated. And so working with my friend Allison Dilworth, we came up with the idea that every adoption service provider should follow the same rules. And that meant good home studies, proper notification to families overseas, working cooperatively with the governments and then having follow up home visits which are required. I don't think that these rules are onerous. You have to remember that there is a child involved in this and parents who were not always told the truth about why their child was leaving them, or what would happen to the child if they wanted to give up the child. In a lot of countries, the parents were outright lied to. They were told, if you give us your child, we will make sure the child gets educated and then they're going to come back and take care of you. That is not true. There is nothing to make a child do that. And if they did, it would be of their own volition. And so we worked very closely with the Senate and with the House to get this legislation passed so that everybody had to follow the same rules. You know, we talk a lot about the importance of families. Well, families come in all different shapes and sizes, and they're different in countries all over the world. And we have to respect that. Just because you're not rich doesn't mean you are not able to raise a child and that that child cannot thrive. So the numbers have continued to decline. But I think that we're doing a much better job taking care of the children. And also, there were a lot of horror stories. Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporter that was one of the leaders on the “she said” movement called me one day and said, “What do you know about rehoming?” And I said, “I don't, I don't think I know anything about it. What is it?” And she told me it's when parents have adopted a child and they decide they can't raise the child and so they get rid of it and not in a good way. I mean, sometimes they find people on the Internet that would just take their child. Well, I was horrified. First, I felt embarrassed that I didn't know anything about this horrible practice. And then I had to figure out, like, what are we going to do? So we formed a working group and we got people from throughout the government, from justice, from Homeland Security and some other agencies. And we tried. To engage adoption service providers in this work. And I think it made a difference. They did try to write through the Uniform Justice Code that works in the United States to write a law about this. But the adoption service providers were very upset by it, and they wanted to make it such a ridiculous law that nobody would ever be able to follow it. Instead, there are people in the Congress that are working very hard on this, and I continue to write about it, not about the rehoming aspect, but about the necessity to do adoptions so that everybody's interests are protected. I think that what we have to be careful of is not abusing anyone's trust in the process and in following a convention that we willingly signed on to.

Annelise Riles [00:10:52] Susan, can you just explain for listeners who may not be familiar, what are The Hague Conventions?

Susan Jacobs [00:10:58] In 1896, a number of countries got together and decided that there should be conventions that govern private international law. They're called The Hague Conventions because it was done in The Hague. I always thought there were only two adoptions and abductions. But there are many more than that. And it took a long time to write them, and then it took a long time to persuade people to follow them. But basically, the Hague Convention on Adoptions says that there is sort of a hierarchy of needs and that the first thing that a government should try to do when a child is in crisis is to reunite the child with their family. There are a lot of countries that put great stock in this, Rwanda's one. I mean, they have great social workers there that really work hard to get the family out of stress. The next is trying to find kinship care for the child. Because in a lot of African countries where there is no word for adoption, grandparents or aunts and uncles will take care of a child and raise the child as their own. But then there's foster care or adoption within a country, and then finally, international adoption. If you have a good social work system in your country, then you know who the child is, where the child came from, and how to help the child. And we were at a meeting in Ethiopia once and someone was saying, Well, we don't have computers. I said, You don't need a computer to do this. All you need is a notebook and a pencil and you write down the child's name. When it comes into care. You write down everything you know about the kid, and then you take it from there. I said, Yeah, you have to go to the village. And I can tell you without having ever done this, that everybody knows everybody else's business in a village. So and that the abductions are actually very distressing to me, to people fall in love, they get married, they have kids, and then they decide they hate each other. And instead of working out their problems, one of them takes the child without permission and leaves the country. And it's never anybody's fault, but the State Department's.

Annelise Riles [00:13:07] And are those mainly cases of children born in the United States going overseas, being abducted overseas? Or were you also working on cases where U.S. citizens might bring a child to the U.S. from another country?

Susan Jacobs [00:13:22] It's about half and half. Some of the most difficult cases were from Japan and Brazil, and those were mostly cases taken from the United States to Brazil. And I thought we would never get to a solution. But the Brazilians have started to follow the convention. I mean, you want to say to people, you all signed this. If you didn't want to do it, don't sign it.

Annelise Riles [00:13:46] It's exciting to see the power of international law and its impact on real people's lives. Tell us a little bit about the diplomacy in those situations, because tensions are very high. National governments obviously feel very strongly about protecting their own citizens in these really high stress situations. How did you manage the diplomacy with Japan of Brazil or any of those countries? 

Susan Jacobs [00:14:07] You have a lot of meetings. You never lose your temper. You always try to find one thing that everybody can agree upon and then try to build on that after you've had the meeting. You have to be able to go and have a coffee or a drink or just sit down with the people that you've been talking to and disagreeing with and find some common areas so that you can go back to the diplomatic table and figure out how to resolve these issues.

Annelise Riles [00:14:36] Yet another piece of good advice that applies to everything outside of diplomacy. Thank you.

Susan Jacobs [00:14:41] You're very welcome.

Annelise Riles [00:14:43] I want to ask you about the interconnection between peace and security issues and children's rights. I think we've all been shocked and moved by the pictures we've seen of unaccompanied or sometimes accompanied minors arriving in the United States or in other countries, like in Europe, as migrants. And we know that detention sites are very dangerous places for minors, even in the best of conditions. What more do you think can be done now to protect the rights of children at borders, especially in these conflict situations?

Susan Jacobs [00:15:18] That's a great question. What I really think is that we need to be working with countries so that children aren't pushed to the borders, that they have opportunities in their own countries that will enable them to have full, productive lives. And I think that our aid programs should be geared more towards helping children be protected and protecting their security so that they don't have to come to the border. The United States does a lot, but I think we could do more, and I think other countries can also do more. I also think that at the border there should be more use of non-governmental organizations to help the children. There are organizations that are willing to find foster care for the children, but it can't be for the purposes of adoption. These children do have families and they have been often cruelly separated from them at the border. So you need to keep track of them. You need to help them, and you need to make sure that they are safe once they come into our care. And you can't leave them in those desolate camps or living under bridges across the Rio Grande River, that isn't who we are and that isn't what we should represent.

Annelise Riles [00:16:28] Well, maybe that's a good Segway to talking about your current work at International Social Service Global Network. Can you tell us a little bit about what ISS is doing in these spaces and what some of your successes have been around these issues? 

Susan Jacobs [00:16:44] ISS is a wonderful organization that very few people know about. We've been around for almost a hundred years. It was founded by five women from the United States, England, France, Italy, Greece. And the idea was then to help refugees from World War One find homes and shelters where they found themselves after they had been displaced. Now we have a network of about 120 partners, all trying to do the best kind of social work that we can so that we can help families. Over the last year or so. We helped about 80,000 families become reunited with the focus on children. We don't get involved in the war. Part of what often separates children as in Ukraine. But once the families started coming to Moldova, our chapter there, which was very small, just sprang into action and figured out a plan to get people away from the border into homes, get the children into schools, get them books, get them close and mobilize the entire network. So we were working with UNICEF, Save the Children, Terre d'Homme everybody that was working on this, putting out joint press releases. It was incredibly impressive. I think we did a great job. We also provided support to Poland and Hungary as they needed it. And it's worked really, really well. 

Annelise Riles [00:18:16] That is so impressive. And again, just really moving that you've been able to make such a contribution to so many real people's lives. I want to ask you now a little bit about the Pacific, because you're also an expert on that region, as I mentioned. It seems that the U.S. is paying increasing attention to the Pacific in response to increased Chinese presence and investment in the region. I'm wondering how you see these developments. How do you think we're doing in engaging the Pacific? And is there anything more we should be doing or we could be doing? And what is your reaction watching, for example, the recent U.S. Pacific Islands Countries Summit in Washington in which the heads of state from a number of Pacific island countries met at the White House with the president.

Susan Jacobs [00:19:02] I think it was wonderful. I think it should have happened a long time ago because the Chinese have been busy in these island nations for a long time. Every place I went in Papua New Guinea and I was off the beaten track often. There was always a Chinese guy in a little store that was selling rice and fish and just listening and reporting back. So that was one part of it. The other part is that you also had Chinese companies that were coming in and paying people for their lumber and not pointing out what happens when you cut down the trees and tear out their roots and don't replace it with anything else. And so people are complaining about mudslides and landslides and lack of shade. And the Chinese were very busy and we were taking a backseat, to be perfectly honest, especially in the islands where Australia and New Zealand were really taking the lead. I mean it. Was really their territory and we were supportive certainly of the policies, but we were not involved in the political aspects as much as I thought we could be. I think I'm really happy that there will be an ambassador in the Solomons because it's really hard to pay enough attention to three countries at the same time. When you're in one of them and you know, you're just relying on the kindness of others to keep the flag flying when you're not there.

Annelise Riles [00:20:35] I'd like to end, Susan, by asking you the question that I ask all my guests, which is, as you think about this moment, you know, what keeps you up at night? What are you most worried about? And also, what are you most hopeful for?

Susan Jacobs [00:20:49] I knew you were going to ask me that. And I have to be honest, I'm worried about the state of my country, and I worry about it all the time. And it does keep me up at night. And then I look at my kids and my grandkids and I see how they are coming up. And I'm hopeful. But I am scared. I am scared. It makes me really nervous that we are so impolite to each other that we can't have a different political view without it becoming an attack on people's values. So I hope that that changes.

Annelise Riles [00:21:22] Absolutely. And I hope that both the world of diplomacy and the world of the academy can make a contribution in addressing that issue. Well, Ambassador Susan Jacobs, thank you.

Susan Jacobs [00:21:33] And thank you. I really appreciate it, being with you today.

Annelise Riles [00:21:39] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at Buffett Northwestern dot edu.