- The SAIS Review Interviews Sarah Sewall, Former US Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Could you please tell us about your work as Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights?
It was a really good role because it was both hard security, where I had come from, and soft security, which I had expertise in. It is an odd position. It was created two years before I came, and it was occupied briefly by someone who had been in a different role, and then it was vacant [End Page 65] for a period of time. For all intents and purposes, I was the first person to come in and say, “You counterterrorism people, you counterdrug people, you don’t want to be associated with the people who work on refugees and criticize dictators, but you kind of need to understand that all this good governance stuff and all this human rights stuff is central to the problems you’re trying to solve.” It is a different approach. I had to try to convince the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration that in fact they were on the same team as the counterterrorism people and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs people. I had to explain that they could use different approaches, but ultimately this was about solving the same problem. There was a lot of distrust. These were entities that had not been integrated at all. My role was helping to create a common mission across hard and soft power at State and to create common goals.
I really resurrected Countering Violent Extremism as a practice within the US government. Counterterrorism had become an almost fully kinetic approach, and I knew that was not what President Obama wanted because I had worked for him as a candidate. But kinetic action was what the bureaucracy was giving him. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, we convinced the President to convene international government leaders from across the globe, along with non-state actors, religious figures, and human rights activists. They were all sitting in the same Washington conference hall as these heads of state, heads of domestic security and foreign ministers, talking about the relationship between repression and radicalization. This was not rocket science, but it was also not something that had been a part of the counterterrorism conversation before. That was one of the main areas I focused on at State, using our policy tools and development tools to prevent the spread of radicalization so that hard power solutions can be more effective against the existing threats.
And then I did a lot of personal diplomacy, which was interesting and rewarding. The results are never as concrete as you would like to take credit for, but it is gratifying to feel like you are part of the process of trying to convince an African leader that doesn’t want to leave office that he really should have elections. The nuts and bolts of diplomacy are really fun. Then, I left State and came here.
Looking back at your most recent position at State, how did you deal with migration issues, and how did your experience as a practitioner change your perspective on migration?
When I was in the role of under-secretary and Anne Richard was Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, we were working in the context of an administration that took bold moves to increase the number of refugees we were accepting. And our biggest problem, toward the end of the administration, was getting our system, which had been set up to process x number of people, to process x plus y number of people because we were seeking to accept more refugees than the system typically handles, and many of them were coming from countries where vetting was extremely important and information was difficult to come by, and so it was a more cumbersome process. [End Page 66]
So, I worked on this issue in the context of an...