The Naval Postgraduate School is virtually hosting the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Harry Harris, on Tuesday, 17 November, as part of its Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture series. Lieutenant Commander Karen Kutkiewicz, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Naval Institute Executive Fellow, interviewed Ambassador Harris ahead of this event.
Q: As the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, how does your role working in the State Department differ from when you were in the Department of Defense? What do you see as the best integration points between the two departments? What opportunities does being an Ambassador bring that being in uniform (i.e. as PACOM Commander) did not?
A: There are, of course, many differences between the Department of Defense and Department of State, but there is a very important commonality: All of us joined DoD or DoS with a sense of service, the desire to serve our country at home and abroad, the promise to defend our country if need be, and the hope of realizing a better future for our country.
The Pentagon and Foggy Bottom have a number of integration points to meet their various requirements. In many ways, however, the best integration point may actually be at our embassies abroad, where our nation’s diplomats work alongside colleagues in Defense Attaché and Security Cooperation offices toward common goals. Countries such as Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, and a few others that have large military headquarters, but those are a rarity in the greater scheme of things. But, even there (especially there) diplomats and military leaders work side by side. Because of this direct contact and reduced bureaucratic barriers, they interact to a degree they might not otherwise do in different settings, and they really learn how to effectively work together and succeed in ways that will resonate well beyond just their time together.
I am honored to be the President’s representative in South Korea. There isn’t a better place to serve as U.S. Ambassador, and no better partner and strategic ally for the United States than the Republic of Korea. As Ambassador, I deal with a different range of issues than I did as PACOM Commander, and my Embassy team’s efforts can have a very different type of impact on the United States, our relationship with Korea, and our relationships with other countries in the region. For example, we have helped bring Korean firms to the United States to build factories that create jobs for Americans. Our consular officers and Department of Homeland Security officers are the first line of defense for America’s borders. We aid American citizens in South Korea every day. We promote American products and U.S. higher education. We facilitate trade deals and exchange programs. We coordinate and work together on key issues, such as the denuclearization of North Korea. And, sometimes, I get to take a break from it all and sit down for a beer and fried chicken with Miss Korea 2018, hang from the top of an 1,800-ft building in Seoul, or watch the KT Wiz play the Kiwoom Heroes in Korean professional baseball.
Q: Now that you are two years retired from the Navy, what have you learned that you wish you’d known when you were still in uniform?
A: Rather than a lesson learned after transitioning to the State Department, I’ll share one I learned long ago that my time as Ambassador has only reinforced: The military holds no monopoly on courage. I had the opportunity to be the military representative to the Secretary of State as a 3-star from 2011 to 2013 and traveled with the Secretary on all overseas trips . . . 80 different countries during those two years. I saw diplomatic courage in action, first-hand. From Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the evacuation of U.S. Citizens from Wuhan in the wake of COVID-19, and countless other examples, Foreign Service professionals are on the front lines of diplomacy, often serving side by side with their colleagues in uniform.
Q: A free and open Indo-Pacific is a national priority for the United States. What are your priorities for the U.S./Korean relationship to maintain or bring stability to the region?
A: What interests my boss fascinates me, so naturally I extol the virtues of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific regularly.
This year marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The United States, United Nations Command Sending States, and the Republic of Korea fought shoulder-to-shoulder to protect the right of South Koreans to choose their own path. That path eventually led the country to become the democratic and economic powerhouse it is today. The 67-year-old U.S.-ROK Alliance, which is South Korea’s only alliance, is the linchpin for peace and security in the region for today and tomorrow. We share values of democracy and the rule of law; we share a history forged in blood in the crucible of the Korean War; we share concerns related to a free and open Indo-Pacific. And, we have the deepest of people-to-people ties to be a bulwark when inevitable developments arise.
“On PEN”—that’s the Korean Peninsula—one of the top U.S. policy priorities remains the denuclearization of North Korea. Only then will peace on PEN be possible. As for the larger region, the threat the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses to freedom of navigation, sovereignty, human rights, and regional security—not to mention a whole bushel of other issues—is one of the biggest issues we face as an Alliance. Following Korea’s installation of a THAAD battery in 2017, the PRC came down hard on the ROK, hurting the Korean economy and proving its utter disregard for Seoul’s sovereign right to protect itself. I’m often asked about whether the U.S. is asking the ROK to make a choice between us and the PRC. I tell them, the U.S. made our choice in 1950, so did the PRC. The young ROK made its choice in 1953. So did the DPRK, in 1961. Enough said about choices.
Q: China continues to fund international projects through the Belt and Road Initiative and increase their military presence across the globe. What can the United States do to improve partnerships and relationships in the region? What can the Sea Services do?
A: As Undersecretary of Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Keith Krach recently said, “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is playing for keeps—a four-dimensional game of economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural chess—with little respect for human rights, intellectual property, rule of law, transparency, the environment, or the sovereignty of other nations.” The PRC continues to unlawfully claim territorial rights over the South China Sea, threatening the lawful passage of goods and people through the region. It willfully ignores internationally recognized norms. It continues to infringe on human rights and muffle free speech.
As we deal with this threat, we must work with our allies and partners to let the PRC know its behavior is unacceptable and that it must adhere to international law, respect inalienable human rights, and respect the sovereignty of other countries.
The Sea Services, meanwhile, play a vital role here. An aircraft carrier with its embarked air wing represents almost 5 acres and 100,000 tons of sovereign American territory unencumbered by host-nation flying restrictions or other airspace limitations. The Sea Services should continue to operate with like-minded partners and train to the highest standard. Exercises with U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard participants—e.g., RIMPAC, Cobra Gold, Iron Fist, Talisman Saber, Pacific Vanguard, Pacific Dragon, Malabar—attract the best and the brightest from across the Indo-Pacific. We seek to maintain or build relationships with nations that are independent, strong, and prosperous, and who, like us, uphold the core principles of the regional order at a time when these principles are under renewed threat.
Specifically here on PEN, I believe President Moon’s New Southern Policy for expanding engagement with South and Southeast Asia under his pillars of People, Peace, and Prosperity comports well with our Indo-Pacific Strategy, and it’s an area where our two nations can work closely as we move forward together.
Q: In 2017, you were named an Honorary Chief Petty Officer by Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Steven S. Giordano in recognition of your leadership and “extraordinary dedication to the Navy's core values of honor, courage, and commitment.” What is your personal leadership philosophy, and has it changed over time? We know that your dad retired as a Chief. What did you learn from him about leadership?
A: I learned everything I know about leadership from my dad, and wonderful military leaders like RADM Jerry MacKay (I was his aide and flag lieutenant from 1983–85), ADM Timbo Keating, ADM Jim Stavridis, ADM Tom Fargo, and VADM Dave Nichols, and Generals Jim Mattis, Marty Dempsey, Joe Dunford, and Hugh Shelton. All mentored me at various times across the years I served in uniform. Some mentor me, still. I learned from them this baker’s dozen of truths:
- Relationships—between people and nations—matter.
- Alliances matter.
- Civility—between people and nations—is important. Agree to disagree without being disagreeable.
- Respect is a two-way street.
- No one wants to do a poor job . . . unless they’re saboteurs. People just need training and motivation . . . that’s our job as leaders.
- Integrity matters above all else.
- Be passionate about our profession . . . but not emotional.
- Have a plan and ensure your team knows the plan . . . then know that a plan rarely survives first contact with the enemy . . . so have a Plan B.
- Life is neither fair nor easy. This is why leaders are needed.
- Have a bias for action.
- Read widely.
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.
- There is wisdom in crowds . . . encourage debate and discussion . . . then decide. (See #12).
Q: As a career aviator, what advice would you give to today’s naval aviators? What current aircraft would you love to fly today?
A: Whether you’re flying a single-seat fighter such as the F-35, or part of an aircrew on the P-8, naval aviation exists to carry the fight to the enemy—to make every fight an away game and not a home game. The most important martial attributes come into play—focused aggression and technical competence combined with a killer instinct. Play for keeps. There is no place for a fair fight in my book. My advice to today’s naval aviators is (1) know your airplane and its weapon systems, cold; (2) fly a lot and then fly some more; (3) don’t blame the airplane if something goes wrong; and (4) safety is NOT paramount, professional execution is.
Right now, I’d like to fly anything other than my BMD-1A. (That’s Big Mahogany Desk.)
Q: What advice would you give to current Sea Service professionals who might be interested in careers in the foreign service?
A: The experience, skills, and knowledge Sea Service professionals gain now and throughout their careers are directly applicable to a career in the Foreign Service. There are countless Foreign Service officers who started their careers in the Sea Service and other branches of the military before transitioning to the Department of State. Their intelligence, adaptability, and experience being part of something bigger than themselves enable them to succeed in the Foreign Service. I whole-heartedly encourage anybody thinking about pursuing a Foreign Service career to do so.
Editor’s Note: Read then-Admiral Harris’s speech in 2016 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.