My path toward a career working on China and East Asia in general had three major spurs...
The first was that my father was drafted into the U.S. Army in World War II and ran an army field hospital in western China. He returned from that experience totally fascinated by China and anxious to share that enthusiasm with his family.
Second, though my early career ambitions focused on becoming an international lawyer, during my university years I became intrigued with America’s role in the world and my conviction that even only as an individual I could help shape the course of that role, which led me toward diplomacy.
And third, within the world of foreign policy, I came to focus on the two major communist countries, the Soviet Union and China.
Fulfilling an obligation to the U.S. Navy after college, I was assigned to Taiwan, which was both a wonderful society and a foreign policy challenge, particularly inasmuch as I believed that U.S. China policy had been hijacked by a political group in Washington that was closing its eyes to the realities of the world, and of China, in the mid-20th century.
Alan was assigned to work in Taiwan during his service with the U.S. Navy. Pictured above, a plane lands in Taipei.
And although I returned from that experience to obtain an MA in Soviet Studies, when I immediately thereafter joined the Foreign Service, for a series of reasons, my career took a turn toward Asia from which it never returned.
With “the Taiwan question” as the main issue blocking U.S.-PRC relations, it was not extraordinary that I should focus more and more on it and on how the two main protagonists and the United States were handling their very sensitive triangular relationship. And I have continued to spend more time on that question ever since, working closely with policy makers in all three places as well as with academics equally absorbed in this intricate set of relationships.
That said, I also worked on East Asia more broadly, including during nearly a decade at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) where I directed work on countries ranging from Japan (I had been director of the State Department’s Office of Japanese Affairs) to the Philippines, Indochina and Korea. The last set of issues, Korea, both in terms of alliance relations with the South but also trying to find productive approaches to the North, also followed me back to the State Department, where I was Principal Deputy Director (and for a period Acting Director) of the Policy Planning Staff. I really had two jobs there, one as the Deputy, where I was engaged on a daily basis helping to shape policy papers for the Secretary of State on issues ranging from Europe to Africa, economics to climate change, and the other as the senior Asia person on the Staff. It was in this latter role that I was actively engaged in working on Normalization of U.S.-PRC relations.
Alan served in various high-ranking roles at the Department of State, including Principal Deputy Director of the Policy Planning Staff, and Deputy Spokesman.
I was extremely fortunate before going to CFR to have been Deputy Spokesman of the State Department, which was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had.
The role exposed me to a range of issues extending far beyond my experience to date, and which helped me connect the dots between events happening in disparate areas of the globe and gave me a perspective on both developing and expressing policy in ways that I found to be most productive.
I have been very lucky throughout my by-now many decades-long career to work not only on some of the most important foreign policy issues facing the United States but to do so in conjunction with some of the most knowledgeable professionals in the world, including especially Americans but also people in the countries I have worked on. I hope that I will continue to be able to make a worthwhile contribution for some time to come.
Alan Romberg was a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson.
Innovative Ideas Changing the World