After an “invigorating” year at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Gregory Wong said he’s ready for new challenges and has lined up a big one: a year working to foster economic ties with Iraq as a foreign service officer in the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
For Wong, who is graduating from the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s midcareer master in public administration program, the posting is just the latest way he has reached out to the world.
Wong, a career foreign service officer whose international experience began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burundi in the 1980s, echoes themes from his Peace Corps days in talking about going to Baghdad just weeks after Commencement.
“There was a sense of community service, a sense of trying to change the world, a sense that I could be part of making the world a better place,” Wong said of his Peace Corps experience. “I can’t say I changed the world in the Peace Corps, though the world sure changed me. You give as much as you can of yourself and, usually, you get back more than you give.”
Wong, who received a bachelor of business administration from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a master of business administration from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, joined the Foreign Service nine years ago. Since then, he has worked as a commercial attaché for various U.S. embassies, including Beijing, Hanoi, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“It’s been a delight,” Wong said of his Foreign Service career. “The more I see in the world, the more clear it becomes that I don’t know enough about the complexities of globalization to have the impact I dream of making in my life. I have a profound respect for America’s power and influence in the world. We possess unparalleled power to impact the lives of people around the world. But this power imposes a sobering responsibility for restraint and respect for other cultures.”
Wong took a year’s leave to enter the Kennedy School and has taken full advantage of the time. In addition to taking classes at the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, Wong has audited sculpture classes, mingling with undergraduates and producing works that reflect his coming assignment in Iraq.
“It’s been the next greatest year in my life, next to the Peace Corps,” Wong said. “It’s been just invigorating.”
Wong focused his Kennedy School studies on leadership, learning that a common trait of prominent leaders was their willingness to step forward and voice their opinions in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
Last fall, Wong went through the selection process for his first posting after graduation and was offered assignment as commercial consul at the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico. Wong said the posting was considered a gem in the foreign service, with Mexico an important trading partner and, as he put it, “great staff, a great job, and a lot of nice beaches.”
“But it felt a little bit out of place for me at this point in my career,” Wong said.
Shortly after Wong accepted the Guadalajara assignment, the government began seeking officers to fill key diplomatic slots in the planned U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which, after the transfer of sovereignty scheduled for June 30, will become the seat of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
“Something about the assignment to Baghdad haunted me,” Wong said. “It’s a perilous assignment, but something is whispering inside me that this is an opportunity I can’t say no to.”
Wong said he was the only Foreign Service officer to express interest in the assignment as first secretary in the Baghdad Embassy. The assignment will make him one of three officers in the embassy’s commercial section, administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce. During the one-year posting, his job will be to promote commercial ties between the United States and Iraq, promote U.S. exports, and support U.S. businesses in Iraqi markets.
Given the security climate in Iraq, however, Wong said he expects his daily life will be much more restricted than in previous postings. He said rather than traveling extensively through Iraq and networking with the Iraqi business community, he expects much of that outreach will be done through trade seminars his office will organize in the “Green Zone” (the highly secure zone in Baghdad that houses the U.S.-led coalition’s headquarters) and through his team, which will consist of eight Iraqi staff members.
Wong said he believes that if Iraq is to become a functioning member of the global community, it first has to establish security and then attract a core of private sector investors to re-establish its economic base. In his travels around the world so far, one of the biggest things he’s learned is a respect for American power and for the country’s ability to effect change when it sets its mind to it.
“There is no place in the world more in need of healing than Iraq, and no nation with more power than America to do good, or to do otherwise,” Wong said. “For me, personally, it’s a calling and an opportunity to make a difference. The reconstruction process seems to have gone off the tracks in Iraq. I go to reassert core values that I hold as an American: We value diversity, justice is applied evenly to all – even ourselves, and we use our power judiciously to help others.”
Many close to Wong have questioned the wisdom of his decision to accept the Iraq posting, he said. And he confesses that since he accepted the job in February, the deteriorating security situation has made the news difficult to watch.
“I believe our responsibility to heal and rebuild relationships in Iraq is more important than ever,” Wong said.