Phyllis E. Oakley (Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research; Former US Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration)

20.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer

Q1. Given your background as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, could you comment on how the US is handling migration from North Africa, particularly in the past few months?

Well, you cannot just isolate migration from North Africa. First of all, we are in a situation with great humanitarian demands, so you know migration is part of the puzzle, but it is of course food and medical care and providing some sorts of shelter for people who are fleeing and that's done, you know, as close as you can get to where those people are, so that's one side of the problem. Then, there is of course the issue of migration, and most of those people who are leaving now want to go to Europe, that is the traditional pattern, just as the Mexicans and people from the Centre of America want to come to United States. This is a problem that Europe has going to have to deal with and there is not a great deal that we can do, even if we do have refugees programs. As far as I know, the North Africans have not yet been designated as refugees that would be eligible to come to the United States under our programs, it doesn't mean that they won't, but those refugee programs are not immediate so it lay above all has a tremendous problem right now but it is in the context of a larger humanitarian problem.

Q2. The European External Action Service, a new initiative of the EU has been criticized for having an unclear agenda in light of its decision making over Libya.  How is it perceived in US political circles? 
I am not sure that the US political circles know much about it frankly. The Europeans have always had lots of common policies on immigration; they set up a group so that once you got into the EU, you are free to travel all over Europe, this is going to be sorely tested when all these people land in Italy and Italy does have a responsibility to provide them first asylum, it doesn’t have a responsibility to care for them forever but what they work out about where these people are going to go and eventually end up has all got to be worked out.

Q3. In recent years, US politics has become visibly polarized between Democrats and Republicans.  Are there any examples of civic initiatives in which the moderates from both sides have had political dialogue?

Generally on the humanitarian issues in the state department there has been wide democratic and republican support for those programs. Whether it was refugees from Vietnam that were coming out, the boat peoples how we handled them, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, various places. So I think for those of us who have worked on humanitarian issues in the state department, we never felt that it was a particular tug between republicans and democrats. It was really about finding the senators and representatives who were interested in humanitarian issues and wanted to support them. Generally we’ve had wide bi-partisan support for these initiatives.

Q4. What examples of cultural diplomacy best illustrate the U.S relationship with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico?

I don’t think there are major differences with Canada; people say it’s the largest unprotected borders in the world. We have issues of course of commerce and trade and terrorists and various things going back and forth and with the terrorism problems there has been a need to put in more stringent border controls than we’ve had in the past but generally American and Canadian culture are pretty close. Mexico is a different story, that’s a different culture that certainly has always been in the American South West, in California, it’s a question of sharing that and preserving the factors that are unique. I think we have been quite open, look at the spread of Mexican food across the United States, and name a city that doesn’t have 1 or 2 Mexican restaurants for example, so I think that that is a pretty porous frontier as well. There is the problem of difference of language between the US and Mexico but I don’t think there have been cultural problems with our close neighbors.

Q5. In a case where a country has been at war and ethnic tensions and border issues remain, such as in Bosnia for example, do you think cultural diplomacy initiatives can be successful?
I think the cultural issues can help but I think in some of these deep seeded problems like the differences in the former Yugoslavia, it takes a lot more than cultural diplomacy; it takes economic development it takes political maturation, it takes real effort for people to get along. The cultural diplomacy aspects can help but it by itself is not going to turn the tide one way or the other, that’s not to say it’s not important but it’s just not going to be the determining factor.

Thank you for your time.