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Understanding the Border, Barrio 18, Brexit, and More: An Interview with Ambassador Charles Ford 

Ambassador Ford joins the US Navy and local government on a tour of dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (Wikimedia Commons). 

US Ambassador Charles A. Ford is a native of Dayton, Ohio. From 2003-2005, he served as Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association, and from 1982-2009, he lived in Latin America and Europe. 

He served as Commercial Minister at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium and at the U.S. embassy in London, United Kingdom. He also was Regional Director of Europe, USFCS, Department of Commerce; Commercial Attaché, U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and Buenos, Aires, Argentina; Commercial Consul, U.S. Consulate, Barcelona, Spain; Commercial Counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He was the Ambassador to Honduras from 2005-2008. 

Ambassador Ford is currently a President of CAF International, LLC, a global trade consultancy, and he teaches Commercial Diplomacy and Trade at the US Foreign Institute and the Washington International Diplomacy Academy. Ambassador Ford has been awarded the Department of Commerce Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals, and in May of 2008, he was honored with the President’s Distinguished Service Award. He also received the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 2009. 

Honduras, home to the Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs, has a homicide rate eight times higher than that of the United States. As the former Ambassador to Honduras and witness to these devastating conditions, what historical factors do you believe led to this domestic instability?

The issue of transnational gangs in Honduras and El Salvador is very complicated and difficult to address quickly, but I will highlight three factors that I observed during my tenure as Ambassador from 2005-2008. 

First, many gang members returned voluntarily or by deportation from the United States, where they fled during the civil war in El Salvador and the region in the 1980’s. For many it was in the cities of the United States that they initiated gang activities. The conflict in

El Salvador and Central America in the 1980’s disrupted the social order and created some of the basic conditions for gang violence to prosper. Second, extreme poverty and the absence of a functioning legal system created the conditions for violence and extra-legal activity. When justice could not be found in the courts, it often was sought out in the streets. Over half of the population of Honduras was under 18 years of age, employment opportunities were scarce, and corruption was widespread. Finally, transnational, organized criminal cartels deepened their operations in the region. 

With the rise of illicit trafficking, in narcotics as well as human trafficking, the role of the gangs evolved to become even more engaged and networked throughout the region and the United States. Taken together, all of these historical factors led to this devastating instability which is the cause of much of the mass migration to the southern border of the United States that we witness today.

While the border walls and detention centers at the southern border serve as a deterrent to migration, it does not change the existing state of poverty, violence, and corrupt governance prevalent in Central American countries. What can the United States do to act as a better neighbor to these nations?

Excellent question and perspective, as no amount of border security, in my view, will ever be able to confront the magnitude of the challenge that we all face in North America.  Over many years the United States has been most generous in donating money and in opening our economy to the region. What is needed now is not more money alone, but a new commitment that understands that all of us (Canada, United States, Mexico, Central America, and Panama) have a common stake in resolving this problem. 

Most people do not want to leave their homes but flee in order to feed their families or to protect them from violence. Together we must reach a new political agreement that enforces new rules on governance and corruption. This is not a problem that one country can solve acting alone.

Guatemala, where you served in the United States Embassy, is part of the “dry corridor” impacted by climate change. In response to arid farmland and food shortages, the Custom and Border Protection (CBP) reported a rise in undocumented immigration. How critical are climate initiatives to mitigate our immigration crisis?

Our changing climate is one of the principal drivers of migration in Guatemala, Central America and around the world. In many cases extreme poverty is caused by poor government policies or the lack of market access for a country’s products. Not enough emphasis, though, is placed on the impact of a changing climate on existing production and economic activities.

In Honduras today, there is also a severe drought in sections of the country, and coffee production, among other agricultural products, is impacted in a significant way. 

Two points to make: there is no initiative that any individual country can take to resolve this issue. All initiatives need to be at a minimum, regional, and ideally at a global level. Also, there is a need for an urgent discussion about what policies and programs to initiate to achieve the best result with minimum further damage to our economy. My own personal preference is for the private sector to engage and partner with governments to develop the truly innovative solutions that we so urgently need.

In regard to your service at the US Mission to the European Union (USEU), Prime Minister Boris Johnson rose to power by promising to deliver Brexit, deal or no deal, with the European Union. What economic consequences could occur without a deal? And do you believe the Good Friday Agreement will be undermined by Brexit?

This is a very timely question. As I write at the beginning of October, the deadline for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) is October 31. Out of concern for the political and economic consequences of leaving the EU without a deal, the BritishParliament has passed a law that forbids a no-deal exit and requires an extension of time to negotiate a deal. 

The United Kingdom and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. Over these last 46 years, their economies have become deeply integrated with the economies of the 25 EU member states, and any separation, deal or no-deal, will have severe consequences that require major adjustments by the UK and the EU. Trade flows will be disrupted, and major investments will be abandoned once the UK leaves and is outside of the EU single market. 

As for the Good Friday Agreement, maintaining the agreement is one of the reasons it has been so difficult to negotiate an exit agreement. With Ireland remaining within the EU and the UK exiting, there needs to be some kind of customs and border barrier established between Northern Ireland and Ireland to recognize this new arrangement. Most analysts believe that re-establishing a barrier on the island is a backward step to all-Ireland peace and reconciliation, thus negating the gains made under the 1997 Good Friday agreement. It appears likely at this writing that there once again will be an extension of the deadline for the UK to leave the EU and then an election in the UK to select a new government to resolve the EU issue once and for all.

What actions could the United States take to soften the blow of a no-deal Brexit, if it were to happen?

The Trump administration is very much supportive of the UK leaving the EU and has expressed interest in negotiating a bilateral trade and investment agreement to substitute the North American market for the EU single market. 

Clearly, if the UK actually leaves the EU, it would have to move quickly to establish new trade and investment relationships with the EU, the United States, and other leading global markets. Whether these new trade agreements are possible and, if so, how long it will take to negotiate them, are the key questions. In the short term, the United States can only work to minimize the damage created by the exit until new opportunities can be established.

In the current environment of the United States, how do you believe our foreign policy is changing?

Personally, I believe the United States is at a very challenging moment to redefine and/or confirm its national interests going forward, as well as defining the leadership role it chooses to play in the international community. 

Seventy five years after World War II, the existing global order appears fragile, and there is of yet no clear new direction indicated. In the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a failure to incorporate Russia and China into the existing international institutions. We appear to be on the verge of returning to the kind of “balance of power” foreign policy practiced before World War II. 

For me, there appears today to be more questions than answers for the United States. This reflects our own deep disagreements over our core national interests and how to best advance them in the world. Does “America First” mean America alone? If not, do we maintain our traditional alliances or break out and establish new ones? What role does advancing democratic values and human rights play in our evolving foreign policy? Or, do we focus on economic transactions that advance domestic economic interests? While it might not be clear from the public debate so far, these issues will be an important part of our 2020 presidential election.

What do you believe was the most impactful moment of your experience in foreign policy?

There are two moments that were most impactful for me. 

The first was my limited but stimulating time in Barcelona from 1986-1988. I had lived in Spain some years before–a wonderful country that was politically isolated due to its authoritarian government. To serve in Spain in the mid-1980’s, when the country was led by a young, modern Socialist, Felipe Gonzales, was special. During this time, Spain joined NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the EU, and was preparing to host the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and the 1992 World’s Fair in Sevilla. Most importantly, it was consolidating its young democracy. These achievements were unthinkable only a decade before. 

The second moment occurred in the 1980’s during my tours in Argentina and Guatemala. When I arrived in Argentina in 1982 much of the region was led by military governments. Almost all were young, vibrant democracies when I returned to Washington in 1990. The values promoted by the United States of inclusive, democratic governance with free and open markets found willing local partners that transformed the region.

What advice do you have for students interested in foreign policy?

A career in foreign policy today offers greater choices than when I started out almost 40 years ago. 

There are the traditional options of applying to join our Foreign Service. The largest group of Foreign Service officers and specialists are at the Department of State, with smaller groups such as the one I belonged to at the Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, and the US Agency for International Development. There are other agencies focused more on defense and intelligence that are found within the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. 

I believe it is important to understand your own interest and skill set in foreign policy, particularly if you are interested in being an analyst and communicator on policy issues, or if you have, as I did, more interest in programs and operations. I joined the Foreign Commercial Service to operate in a foreign policy environment yet focus my daily work on providing advocacy and support services for US commercial interests.

Finally, in addition to government, there are opportunities in the world of think tanks (Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, Wilson Center to name a few); academic institutions; large global corporations many of which have there own mini-foreign service; and non- governmental advocacy groups. 

My advice, at this stage of your life, is to take your time, explore what you find interesting, and follow a few pathways.  Be open to what comes at you, and I am sure you will find that opportunity that provides a rewarding and challenging career in global affairs.

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October 20, 2019