After a distinguished career in the U.S. Department of State, Kristie Kenney ’77 is still finding ways to serve.

By Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98, Ashley Jones and Josh Wilson

Bangkok, Thailand. May 22, 2014. General Prayuth Chan-ocha of the newly formed Peace and Order Maintaining Command announces on television that the military has seized power from the caretaker government — a successful coup d’état. Kristie Kenney, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, watches from the embassy in Bangkok as the situation unravels.

“The coup happened, in this case in Thailand, at about 5:30 at night, which was 5:30 in the morning Washington time — they were just waking up,” Kenney says. “We had to tell Washington what we were seeing and hearing because we knew they’d want to respond immediately.”

TAKING NO TIME to pull her team together, Kenney made her first priority very clear: “The first thing always — and all ambassadors are trained this way — the very first thought you have is for the safety and security of your staff, your facilities and American citizens in the country.”

Once it was determined the coup wasn’t posing a direct security threat, questions followed: What is American business saying? Are our Peace Corps volunteers all right? What does this mean for policy?

Kenney and her team watched Thailand fall under martial law, press restrictions and an imposed curfew in the months after the abrupt change in power. She remembers well the way U.S. relations with the new government became “complicated, especially on the military side.” Thailand is still living without democracy.

Crises like the coup in Thailand are part of the job description for ambassadors. For Kenney, a three-time U.S. ambassador — the first female U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and Thailand — and former counselor to the secretary of state, this was just one of many storms she weathered during her career in the foreign service.

“The very first thought you have is for the safety and security of your staff, your facilities and American citizens in the country.”

AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY

GROWING UP IN WASHINGTON, D.C., meant school field trips to the Smithsonian, family outings to famous monuments and galleries, and summer jobs interning for members of Congress. Until she got older, she wasn’t aware how much the nation’s capital had influenced her development.

“Those summer jobs got me thinking,” Kenney says. “I think I always thought I would have a career in public service, just growing up [in Washington]. That was always in my mind.”

Another thing that was in her mind as a teenager was attending an ACC school for college, something that sprung from many weekends on the couch with her family watching the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia play football. When she took a tour of Clemson one spring break, she knew she’d found her school.

“I just fell in love with Clemson,” she says. “It was beautiful and charming, and everybody was friendly. That settled it. That was easy.”

For Kenney, the move to South Carolina was a welcome change from Washington. Clemson was a place for her to spread her wings, and she took advantage of every opportunity by exploring her interests inside the classroom and out. For instance, she majored in political science, but classes in Spanish and international agriculture drew her attention. She also served on the student Supreme Court and as a referee for intramural sports.

Her varied interests continued after Clemson when she moved on to Tulane University to pursue a master’s in Latin American Studies. But even in grad school, Kenney didn’t have a clear plan for her career until an opportunity she wasn’t expecting arose. As she was finishing up her degree, a group of grad school friends encouraged her to sign up with them for the foreign service officer test. So she did — and passed.

“I didn’t really know what it was or what I was going to do, so I said, ‘Well, sure. What the heck?’” she says. “And then I passed the test and the oral exam. And then I got offered a job.”

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

“MY MOTHER’S GOING TO KILL ME.”

This was the first thought that ran through Kenney’s head when she found out she had a job in the foreign service. Aside from worrying about breaking the news to her parents, she was excited. The job promised opportunities for her career as well as for travel, and as a young woman straight out of grad school, the whole world seemed to be waiting for her.

“I was fascinated by the world beyond our borders, and I thought I might help make the world a better place,” Kenney says. “It sounded like an amazing adventure.”

Her first assignment: Jamaica. Without much experience living overseas, Kenney packed her bags and headed for the Caribbean island as a staff aide for the U.S. ambassador, along with a cadre of other junior officers on their first assignments.

Inside the embassy, Kenney gained experience in foreign policy and procedure by watching and learning from senior officials and also helping U.S. citizens process visas. Outside the embassy, she was in for a bit of a culture shock: “It was a total difference, and it forced me, I think, to become a little more self-reliant. You know, you don’t have the drugstore just down the street or the shopping mall a quick jaunt away, so you really had to learn how to live in a local community and enjoy that — which I did, but it took me a little longer to adjust than I think I expected.”

“I was fascinated by the world beyond our borders, and I thought I might help make the world a better place.”

Before long, Kenney was snorkeling in the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean and dancing to reggae music, warming to the change in culture and geography. For her, this would be not only the first of many experiences abroad, but also the beginning of a prolific career.

It would be the beginning of a love story as well.

After Jamaica, Kenney returned to Washington as a junior staffer for Secretary of State George Shultz. Once again, she was surrounded by a group of fellow junior foreign service officers. Together, they were responsible for assembling all of the secretary’s briefing papers and doing advance work for his travel abroad. With long hours in a fast-paced environment, teamwork among the juniors was crucial, and, naturally, they all became very close. Kenney’s best friend in the group was William Brownfield. Two years later, they were married.

“When Bill and I first got married, we said we’d never take separate assignments where we’d be in different places unless or until we were both offered ambassadorships,” Kenney says. “We laughed at the time, since we were both quite junior, thinking we’d never become ambassadors.

Years later, it happened — Bill became our ambassador to Chile, and I went to Ecuador.”

CONDUCTING DIPLOAMCY

IN THE MIDST OF BEAUTIFUL JUNGLES and snow-capped volcanoes, Kenney’s ambassadorship to Ecuador was a baptism by fire, literally. Along with a military coup and the kidnapping of an American citizen, Kenney had to deal with a surprise eruption of the stratovolcano known as Reventador.

At the time, Kenney and her team had been more concerned about the Tungurahua volcano, which spewed fire regularly and they thought could erupt at any time. So when the Reventador eruption happened, everyone was caught off guard.

“The winds blew the ash cloud over Quito, and it looked like a light brown snowstorm,” Kenney remembers. “The airport closed for about five days due to the ash, and schools were closed as well for safety inspections. … We had a lot of cleanup to do.”

In times of high stress during her ambassadorships, Kenney relied on her crisis management training and leadership skills. But she also depended on her team of experts.

“This is the reason you have talented staff,” she explains. “The biggest mistake leaders make is thinking, ‘I need to know all the answers. I have to pretend I understand all this.’ But there’s absolutely no crime in saying, ‘Who can tell me more about this issue?’ Don’t be afraid of that.”

With this philosophy, Kenney managed embassy teams as she moved from Ecuador to the Philippines to Thailand. Demian Smith, a current political and economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand who worked under Kenney in Thailand, attests to her gift for leadership.

“The biggest mistake leaders make is thinking, ‘I need to know all the answers. I have to pretend I understand all this.’ But there’s absolutely no crime in saying, ‘Who can tell me more about this issue?’ Don’t be afraid of that.”

Smith first met Kenney when he was a desk officer in the State Department for Thailand. She had just been nominated for her last ambassadorship to the Southeast Asian country, and he helped her through the confirmation process. Following her to Thailand, he worked in Bangkok for three years under Kenney as a deputy officer in the political section and watched as she prevailed over demanding diplomatic and managerial scenarios.

“First of all, she knows how to get the most out of a team, and that’s not just individuals, but out of a whole complex organization,” Smith says.

For perspective, in most embassies the country team, which contains government representatives from branches such as the Department of Defense, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service, and Health and Human Services, is usually around 10 or 15 people, Smith says. The country team in Bangkok was around 60. Undaunted by the large group, Kenney made sure meetings in the Bangkok embassy were no-nonsense.

“There have been senior distinguished ambassadors who have been put in charge of those big embassies like Bangkok and have struggled, so it’s not a thing everyone does fine,” Smith explains. “And she was able to choreograph everybody. Those meetings would be 30 minutes of just what needed to be done, and no one ever left the meeting not knowing what their job was, who was going to do it and what it should look like.

“It was like watching an orchestra conductor.”

AN HONOR TO REPRESENT

WHEN KENNEY RETURNED FROM THAILAND, she began the last phase of her diplomatic career as counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, serving in the State Department’s fifth-highest-ranking position. Aside from her chief duty of representing the State Department at White House policy meetings, Kenney made many trips abroad on Kerry’s behalf, visiting places like Argentina and Myanmar to assess the status of the new governments there.

Kerry also entrusted Kenney with organizing outreach programs focused on educating women and girls on the foreign service and how to get involved, and she often spoke about the State Department at schools and universities, both at home and abroad. After speaking with Kenney, it’s obvious that encouraging others and developing their talents is something she holds close to her heart.

“Unquestionably, the work I am proudest of and I hope will live on is my mentorship of others,” Kenney says. “I spent a lot of time and energy coaching and mentoring younger officers, and I’m just so thrilled to watch some of the people I’ve mentored living up to their own talents.”

Her mentorship continues as an adjunct professor of leadership at Georgetown University. Now that she’s organizing classes, talking with students and grading papers, she laughs about having a newfound respect for college professors: “You realize why they spend so many years learning to be such qualified professionals.”

When she’s not teaching, she’s advising diplomacy groups, watching over her “total diva kitty,” Evita, planning overdue vacations and cheering on Washington sports teams with her husband. Her love of sports is well-known among her colleagues including Julie Chung, who also worked under Kenney in Thailand. Chung, now the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Japan, says she relies on the lessons she learned in the Bangkok embassy as an economic counselor. One memory of Kenney stands out among many.

“She loves sports analogies,” Chung laughs. “But I’ll never forget the great quote she told us: ‘You didn’t come here to sit on the bench. You came to play! So if you have an idea to share, or you have a disagreement, raise it. Tell it.’”

This motto and a few other trusted mantras were touchstones for Kenney throughout her journey in the foreign service. But one sentiment remains her guiding light:

“It is an honor to represent our nation. Always.”

“It is an honor to represent our nation. Always.”

Sara Ann Hutto ’17 is the assistant editor of Clemson World.

5 replies
  1. Augustin Manke says:

    Amazing story and well written. I’m a Clemson graduate living in Washington, D.C. and I’m wondering how pivotal Ambassador Kenney felt her master’s degree in Latin American Studies proved for her sudden FSO testing and admission. Partnered with her Clemson foundation, did it lead to a mindset or skillset that kicked off her ambassador journey? Was it crucial? Or just a step in many growth opportunities?

    Reply
    • Kristie Kenney says:

      Hi Augustin. Thank you for a thoughtful question. My master’s degree, like my Clemson degree, gave me a wider view of the world and broadened my horizons. I think my experience at both educational institutions gave me the confidence and courage to leap in and try for a career as a Foreign Service Officer when the opportunity arose. Hope this answers your question. Best, Kristie

      Reply
      • Katie Abrames says:

        Hello! I’m a Clemson graduate living in DC and working at the State Department in our Legislative Affairs bureau but previously for the Secretary. If you are ever around the State Department or at FSI, I would love to say hello. Your story is truly inspiring and I just wanted to pass along my thanks for your service.

        Reply
  2. Maureen McElhattan says:

    Hey Kristie
    My husband and I are both Clemson alums, class of 85. My husband, Chip is a retired DS Agent and I am the Senior Resource Manager for our training directorate in DS. If you ever want to be a VIP role player in one of our training exercises let me know.

    Always good to have more Tigers on the team!

    Regards

    Maureen

    Reply

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5 replies
  1. Augustin Manke says:

    Amazing story and well written. I’m a Clemson graduate living in Washington, D.C. and I’m wondering how pivotal Ambassador Kenney felt her master’s degree in Latin American Studies proved for her sudden FSO testing and admission. Partnered with her Clemson foundation, did it lead to a mindset or skillset that kicked off her ambassador journey? Was it crucial? Or just a step in many growth opportunities?

    Reply
    • Kristie Kenney says:

      Hi Augustin. Thank you for a thoughtful question. My master’s degree, like my Clemson degree, gave me a wider view of the world and broadened my horizons. I think my experience at both educational institutions gave me the confidence and courage to leap in and try for a career as a Foreign Service Officer when the opportunity arose. Hope this answers your question. Best, Kristie

      Reply
      • Katie Abrames says:

        Hello! I’m a Clemson graduate living in DC and working at the State Department in our Legislative Affairs bureau but previously for the Secretary. If you are ever around the State Department or at FSI, I would love to say hello. Your story is truly inspiring and I just wanted to pass along my thanks for your service.

        Reply
  2. Maureen McElhattan says:

    Hey Kristie
    My husband and I are both Clemson alums, class of 85. My husband, Chip is a retired DS Agent and I am the Senior Resource Manager for our training directorate in DS. If you ever want to be a VIP role player in one of our training exercises let me know.

    Always good to have more Tigers on the team!

    Regards

    Maureen

    Reply

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