Eric Benjaminson, BA ’81

Major: History

Former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon

Eric Benjaminson My favorite opening line of a novel occurs in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ elegiac book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. It reads: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” I like this line for two reasons: first, because it always makes me remember a fantastic English professor here at the UO, Richard Stein, and secondly, because it illustrates the no-holds-barred need for life to contain a sense of wonder and diversity. When you guys are standing in front of those upraised muskets, it will be really good to have something wondrous to think back on.

So, please mark this as didactic statement number one from me: you need to arrange for wonder and diversity in your life. Get on it.

Didactic statement number two: from my perspective, the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of the Clark Honors College experience is a good method for finding your personal sources of wonder and diversity, so you’ve made a good choice already. Well done.

Now, your task is simple—you need to decide what will serve that purpose for you. What will support your building of a personal intellectual framework for regarding the world and those who share it with you? For me, at least on a professional level, many years in the U.S. Foreign Service and the subset of many years in Africa have provided a lot of that necessary wonder and diversity for me. Let me give you some examples of the opportunities this career has provided me:

  • Organizing joint U.S.-Swedish projects to clean up nuclear power and reactor sites in the former Soviet Union;
  • Managing a $200 million fund to combat HIV-AIDS in Namibia;
  • Helping to create a binational teaching and research center between this university and the Global Oregon consortium and the reforming African nation of Gabon;
  • Helping to form a multinational task force to educate younger citizens of the Baltic nations about the history of the Holocaust.

“ You have been well served by the unique education that you are now celebrating. ”


So, in part, I guess I’m sort of recruiting you all to the U.S. Department of State. But more deeply, I want to comment on a fundamental truth of these experiences that is directly linked to how you learned in the honors college.

Let me start by saying that I was terrified intellectually when I first had to work on projects like these. Aside from the ambiguities involved in such projects generally, what did I know about nuclear remediation, combating HIV-AIDS, or how Balts should engage their children on the history of the Holocaust? How could I absorb that kind of knowledge in the time I had to bring myself up to a minimal level of usefulness? And more to the point, how could I jump from one such issue to another almost simultaneously?

I do remember more than once thinking back on similar, semi-panicked experiences . . .why had I signed up for a class that would spend a semester reading nothing but Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso? Why was I sitting in front of a professor who had actually worked on the Manhattan Project who was trying to teach me the wonders of quantum mechanics? How did I get myself into a whole semester with Linda Robertson slaving over EVERY UNBELIEVABLY ARCANE WORD of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land . . . AND The Golden Bough . . . and all the other literary sources therein?

Or . . . most intellectually . . . did I really just sign up to be an extra in the EMU food fight scene in the movie Animal House?

You know why these recollections helped? Because they clarified for me two key truths: the breadth of experience that I had in the Clark Honors College prepared me to manage these challenges as well as any other education I can imagine. And two, all these seemingly disparate issues ARE related, even as the issues we deal with in 2012 seem even more complex than what we faced in 1980. Now, frankly, you guys are better equipped to deal with today’s myriad of subjects, cares and concerns, operating systems, smartphone data packages, multipolar worldviews, and cyber-everythings than I am. But there actually is more to life than Bluetooth and Droid phones and the best hardware for your multitasking software. There is the ability to make connections; to profit from connections; to see the many ways in which we interact, whether we know it or not; and to realize that the sum total of the human condition is in fact the sum total of human capabilities, contexts, and experiences.

Let’s go back to Americans, Swedes, and nuclear cleanup projects in the former Soviet Union. Why is it important, in order to succeed at this kind of multinational effort, to be familiar with the fields of history, language, anthropology, geography, and business, as well as political science and nuclear physics? Simple . . . because Swedes and Russians do not come at the world in the same manner that we do, nor do they approach decision making and cooperation in the same way as each other, even though they are located right next door. To understand and to appreciate the professional styles and professional angsts of other nations and cultures, it is necessary to regard their worlds in the broadest intellectual framework as possible. Sweden, of course, comes from a long tradition of neutrality and democratic government, while the former Soviet Union has endured many changes of governance systems and was at the core of an international system of political and economic alliances. These grand differences have a noticeable impact on day-to-day discussions between Swedes and Russians, and the mix is made even more complex if you add third parties from, say, the United States with all of our backgrounds and belief systems.

For the purposes of this talk today, I mention this not to highlight per se Soviet-Swedish relations, but rather to support a broader point: using an intellectual framework cognizant only of physics and environmental science (in this case) would be insufficient background for success.

Inculcating a broad sweep of study as preparation for this mission—to include Swedish history, Russian history and regional relations, historical political-military alliances, episodes of mutual espionage during and after the Second World War, the literature and journalism of the two nations as an example of their cultural inheritances, and even the roots and symbolism of their two languages—is, in my mind, an absolutely necessary prerequisite for involvement in questions of international affairs. This is equally as true in the business world and the personal excursions you will make as it is in diplomacy.

This may appear to fly in the face of the theory of globalization that has been so popular over the last decade. Yes, the world is smaller, and yes, technology and social media link us in ways that have never before existed. And yes, if used in a discriminating way, the Internet is making it possible for us to educate ourselves more efficiently than when we had to rely only on interlibrary loan. The speed of change (or as someone once called it, the velocity of delta) is growing exponentially. But . . . and this I believe strongly . . . globalization and the tools of new technologies do not change the fact that we are fundamentally different cultures cohabiting on this earth. The fact that North African protesters used Facebook to coordinate their heroic efforts in favor of greater freedom and transparency in governance does not mean that these young Tunisians and Egyptians regard their world from the same foundation as do young Bolivians . . . or young Oregonians. That assumption, based on the ubiquitous existence of McDonalds, Coca-Cola, iPhones, and Facebook, should not lead us to predict that all cultures, faced with identical pressures, inputs, and tipping points, will react as we guess they will based on our own cultural norms.

Another angle on the problem, and a more lucid way of stating some of this, comes thanks to the parable of Schrödinger’s cat from quantum mechanics (something I read both in the Clark Honors College and again in Sweden): the act of observing determines what is observed. A thought we might remember as we venture out of our cultural envelope.

Let me enlarge these thoughts a bit. I have spent the majority of my Foreign Service career working in Africa or on issues relating to Africa. One of the reasons I keep going back to that continent is the lure of the exotic—unlike large swatches of Europe, Africa really gives the impression of contrast and difference (especially from the sheep ranch I grew up on outside of Brownsville.) Additionally, Africa is still a new frontier, a continent that is far more important than the rest of the world expected it to be. But, aside from the fascinations of the visual, and the unique professional interactions with a broad sweep of African citizens on issues of policy, commercial advocacy and development cooperation, I find myself asking how much of an assumption can we make, from a Western perspective, of commonalities of approach with Africa on global and regional issues? (I would like to note that this is not a judgmental question of “right or wrong” but is rather a recognition of differing parameters.)

As we observe Africa, as if we were observing Schrodinger’s cat in the perhaps deadly box, we should take a moment to be aware about how our contexts and assumptions change what we are observing and alter our interactions with that visual target. Once again, it seems to me terribly important that we take an interdisciplinary approach to such questions. An awful lot of inputs go into our contextual differences.

Climate, for example. Much of sub-Saharan Africa suffers under climate-induced difficulties—lack of water or a surfeit of water, heat and tropical decay that affect social health and infrastructure, new effects of climate change (littoral erosion, stronger tropical storms.) This affects their outlook on political developments, be it because some of their leaders feel that the industrialized world owes them compensation for the climate impact of the Industrial Revolution, or because they face governance problems as water sources disappear.

Social anthropology, another example. Consensus based societies stemming from original village and ethnic-based councils do not always mesh seamlessly with the more Western bureaucratic or decision-making approach. The same small-village consensual heritage also sometimes leads to a belief that members of one’s “identity group” can receive social or political benefits not available to the “national society” at large.

Geography. Do colonial-era borders always make sense given longer-standing ethnic and linguistic identities? Passage of Time. Societies in sub-Saharan Africa at the nation-state level are often a very new concept. How organized was the U.S. fifty years after victory in the American Revolution? Slavery existed and was a burning issue, widespread tax evasion was commonplace, and we had entered a war of conquest in Mexico. In some cases, we should be aware of the differences in the timelines of African nations even as we rightly hold them to what are now perceived as universal truths.

Anyway . . . the long and the short of it is, you have been well served by the unique education that you are now celebrating. I believe that it will give you the tools of confidence, broad liberal thinking, and a willingness to burrow down into the framework and consequences of global and local actions that will make all of you very attractive as activists, employees, or entrepreneurs. And while the experiences that you have had or have studied may from time to time lead you to a bit of cynicism, don’t deny yourself the wonder of the new, the complex, and the challenging. Live the current moment where the world seems eminently fascinating and eminently explorable. And take care that when you are before the metaphorical future firing squad, like Colonel Buendia, you have memories to hold on to of the exotic events and people in your life, an understanding of what you saw in them, how they changed you, and how you changed them. I wish you all the best of luck, and congratulations.

Robert D. Clark Honors College Commencement Address — June 2012