The University of Iowa

UI visiting professor, former U.S. ambassador reflects on time away

January 23rd, 2013

To hear more about Ron McMullen’s experiences as ambassador, listen to the free podcast of International Programs’ December WorldCanvass: Globalization and the World Economy.

The following article by Brent Griffiths appeared in The Daily Iowan.

Ron McMullen held a phone to his ear in May 2000. The unfolding situation seemed like a plot from a Hollywood film starring the latest actions stars, but it wasn’t.

On the other line was the voice of the spokesman for George Speight, who listened to McMullen’s demands. Speight and his followers had stormed the Fijian Parliament in May and held Prime Minster Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his Cabinet hostage for 56 days, according to Radio New Zealand.In the midst of the conflict, an American journalist who had attempted to interview Speight was taken hostage.

McMullen, now a University of Iowa visiting associate professor of political science, was set on having the journalist freed.

“I said, ‘Joe, you’re up to your neck in troubles already,’ ” McMullen, the 57-year-old former United States ambassador to Eritrea who was then stationed in Fiji. “I want to see this journalist walk out the front gate in half an hour or all hell will rain down on you.”

No script could best describe what happened next, because 30 minutes later the journalist emerged from the Parliament unscathed. McMullen had bested Speight with Hollywood type theatrics because “it was a bluff.” No U.S. forces or any military force would have followed up on McMullen’s threat.

“We had no Plan B,” McMullen said, surrounded by reminders of his time with U.S. State Department, which lasted more than 30 years.

Now in the comfort of his office at the UI, mementos fill the shelves and walls telling stories of the more than 91 countries McMullen lived in during his time with the State Department. On a filing cabinet hangs a ballot with Nelson Mandela as a candidate for president of South Africa. On his walls are various tools, including a camel bell from Djibouti as well as cloth a message warning of landmines, which at one time hung in a market in Pakistan.

“I like to bring real world diplomacy into my classes and infuse flesh and blood to illustrate the theories,” McMullen said.

McMullen’s tale serves as just one piece of the story of his time in the Foreign Service. While negotiating with diplomats and working with local officials, he also helped to raise a family.

His wife Jane accompanied him throughout his time traveling the globe. She was primarily responsible for taking care of their two sons, which while born in the U.S., lived with the pair.

“I think the whole family served in the Foreign Service,” said Jane McMullen who met her future husband in Schafer Hall 32-years ago. “We were all aware that we were the face for America overseas.”

Along with the privilege of representing the United States, the McMullen family also experienced some challenges that come with having to move every few years.

Some of the challenges they faced involved trying to buy food and other necessities in bulk because stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club didn’t exist.

McMullen, who returned to the UI after receiving a doctorate in political science in 1985, hopes his experience will help “engage the university community.” This feeling is shared by a local organization, which was ecstatic to hear about the former ambassador’s return to Iowa City.

“His personal accounts of the crazy things that happen makes people want to go out and discover the experience for themselves,” said Yashar Vasef, the executive director of the Iowa City-based Iowa United Nations Association. “The beauty of the traveling abroad experience is it is what you make of it, because you never know what’s around the corner.”

Beyond his experiences, McMullen wants to teach his students the importance of engaging with the international community that, in his opinion, cannot be done from an office.

“Good ambassadors are not people who just sit in embassy offices,” he said. “They get out to understand the culture and decisions of their host country, often in dangerous environments.”