Kelly Degnan serves as the political advisor to Ivo Daalder, the United States permanent representative—the U.S. ambassador—to NATO. As a student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, she wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but her path led her into the foreign service, beginning in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1994. Shortly before taking her current position at the U.S. Mission to NATO, Degan was a political advisor to ISAF task forces in Afghanistan, just over the border from where she began her career in diplomacy. On Monday, I spoke with her about her career, how the NATO summit fits in to NATO's operations, and the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Editor's note: the interview has been edited and condensed.)

You started at Medill, studying journalism, then practiced law in in the U.S. and then Micronesia, and then moved to the foreign service. Why did you follow that path from journalism to law to foreign relations?

One of the reasons I went to Medill was that I really wanted to be a foreign correspondent, that was my dream. In a way that's what I'm doing now. It's just that the audience is a bit different, and more specialized than working for the Chicago Tribune or something like that. It was very good training—the skills a journalist.

Kelly Degnan U.S. NATO
Kelly Degnan in Eastern Paktika Province, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2009, when she served as political advisor to an International Security Assistance Force brigade combat team based in Khost, Afghanistan.

I went to law school because my mother suggested I take the LSAT, but I did want to be a communications-law lawyer. After a couple very cold winters at Northwestern I decided I better go back to California and thaw out for awhile, so I went to law school in L.A.

I did practice law for awhile before going sailing—that's how I ended up in Micronesia. After a couple years sailing I ended up working as a lawyer there for a couple years. And that's what got me into international relations, understanding that our government has a huge reach and impact around the world. And whether you agree with the policy or don't agree with the policy, I wanted to get involved in the policy.

Now working at NATO 20 years later, I see that I can contribute. We do have an impact on the way America works with its allies, and works on transatlantic security issues. They're very specialized, and maybe people don't fully understand that the goal of what we do is to improve peace and security and stability. Sometimes when the protesters are protesting against NATO, I think, "I guess they don't understand that NATO is all about bringing peace, not bringing war. It's about stopping war." And that's why I think it's a natural trajectory from being a journalist to a foreign correspondent of a slightly different sort.

What is role of the political advisor in the context of both the U.S. mission to NATO and to NATO itself?

The political advisor is the head of the political section; we have 18 people in the section from the Department of State, and there's a similar structure from the department of defense led by the defense advisor. Our job is basically to advise the ambassador, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Daalder in this case, on policy development and implementation for NATO. We spend most of our time in committees. So there's lots of different committees covering the different issues of importance to NATO and operations like Afghanistan, Libya, or counterpiracy. Each of them has committee meetings, and we have to have a representative from each of the 28 allies. We spend a lot of time with the allies speaking about policy development and implementation. Our role is to convey that back to Washington, so that Washington decision-makers can develop our national policy.

It's gathering information, analyzing it, processing it, sending it back to Washington, and then the reverse process. Washington sends us guidance, we bring that into the committee room, and then try to steer NATO's policy in a direction consistent with U.S. policy.

What is the difference between what you handle as the political advisor for State, and the Department of Defense?

State is more the political issues. For instance, on developing Afghanistan policy, we're going to be looking at the political implications of what NATO is doing there. Defense is going to be looking at the operational, tactical [elements]—at  a strategic level. And we work very much in syncronicity because we have to bring those two sides together into one policy that can then be directed down to Kabul and the commands in the field.

When we had the Libya operations, there was a lot of political development, very close coordination with the UN in New York, to make sure that, as the UN developed the decision—UNSCR 1973—to go into Libya, to call on NATO and  the international community to help Libya, we took that to the NATO table to and developed the way that NATO could support the UN's call, and that turned out to be the no-fly zone and the arms embargo that NATO then implemented.

One thing that surprised me is how brief the NATO summit is. What's the role of the NATO summit as an event, in the broader context of diplomacy among the NATO allies?

The summits are the crowning event, in a way. There's a lot of work, in this case 18 months worth of work, to get to this point. The last summit was in Lisbon in November 2010, and in Lisbon we set a path, a vision in a way, for the next 10-15 years, for adopting the new strategic concept, which laid out the vision for NATO. What we've been doing since then is implementing the decisions that were taken in Lisbon, and a lot of those related to developing the capabilities that NATO needs moving forward. For new kinds of threats like cyberattacks, or energy security. These are sort of new. They're not like the Cold War, where you need tanks and things like that. You need new capabilities.

It seems like it's a short, two-day event, but it's 18 months worth of work, because we've been developing and working to get us to the point where we can declare, for instance, the interim capability for NATO defense system. This is a huge thing to be able to have a missile defense system that will protect a good portion of Europe. Same with this alliance ground-surveillance capability. During the Libya operation what we saw is that there's nothing more useful, more important, than having the drones that can fly over the area and tell you what's going on. But that's a capability that the U.S. and only a few other allies have. This is the opportunity for NATO to have a common capability to do that. That's very significant.

The fact that we had at this summit two events with different groupings of partners is also significant. In part because it's logistically difficult for 60 heads of state to come together for a meeting, but also because we wanted to feature the global reach of NATO's partnerships. The president was saying that NATO is the hub of a global security network, and it really is.

At the Young Atlanticists Summit, Jim Jones, the retired general, described NATO as a "social network"; he sees a lot of value in having an event where you're working with leaders from countries that now or possibly in the future you may come in conflict, and that there's value in having spoken with them, and even just having spoken with them about their families. And that it plays a significant role in diplomacy. Does that feed into the process?

It's all about people and personalities. I've spent the last two weeks in intensive negotiations every day. Last night there was a 14-hour session to finalize the summit communique, which is the statement that the heads of statement sign off on at the end of these summits, that updates what NATO is doing on a wide range of issues.

The reason it takes two weeks is that I sit down at a roundtable with my 27 colleagues and we have to negotiate positions. And there are differing positions within the alliance. Just because the United States says, well, we want Afghanistan policy to be like this, if Germany or Estonia or Italy see it a different way, we have to talk until we find common ground.

So much of it happens through the personal connections. I know people think that diplomats just go to cocktail parties and socialize, but it's a result of the work that's done, in the course of those social events sometimes, that, just as General Jones said, that makes it easy, when you need to make hard decisions, you have a rapport, you have an understanding of each other personally, of each other's governments, of each other's cultures, that makes it a lot easier to know where your common ground is. If we didn't invest in that kind of relationship building, I don't think America would be able to do as much as we do. It really pays off.

You began as a foreign service officer in Pakistan in 1994, and it's obviously moved to the center of this year's summit. Having started out in Pakistan when you were in the foreign service, and then coming back around, being posted in Afghanistan before you went to work for the U.S. Mission to NATO, how does your experience then feed into what you do now?

I was very lucky to have served in Pakistan. I was in Peshawar, which is very close to the border. When I was in Afghanistan, I was in eastern Afghanistan, again, on the border but on the Afghanistan side, so I was already familiar with the Pashtun culture, which is the dominant culture on both sides of the border. So it was very familiar to me.

They have a very complicated cultural system there. It influenes all aspects of their lives. It basically rests on three things: hospitality, revenge—if certain things happen, you are required to take revenge—and, in essence, property. It's not that different from many cultures, but that is the basic structure. Just the fact that that was not foreign to me, that I understood the way they looked at things, the priorities they placed on things, the simple niceities—you have to go through a certain greeting ritual when you meet a Pashtun or it will be quite offensive to them—that gave me a huge advantage.

Another thing that came up in the Young Atlanticists Summit was a great deal of concern about the public perception in Pakistan of the United States, which is very low right now. What do you see as the best path moving forward to improve that relationship in relation to the public.

My sense is that it's usually the people-to-people contacts that make the most difference. I regret that when I went to Pakistan we were required to draw down our USAID mission at the time, because under the Pressler Amendment Pakistan had just purchased some restricted military equipment from China, and under the amendment we couldn't provide assistance to them. So we had to draw down all the people-to-people contact that had really built up Pakistani support and awareness of Americans. And I think we are paying the price for that in some ways, because then we had about 20 years where they didn't have military-to-military exchanges, grassroots development projects, all those kinds of developments were cut.

And I think this administration and the previous administration were trying to revive that, and trying to restore our people to people contacts with the Pakistanis. That to me is the only way we're going to help them understand our motives, our interests, and our commonalities.

In the press conference that closed out the summit, President Obama was relayed a question by one of the troops stationed in Afghanistan. He was wondering what NATO's role would be if, after 2014, Afghanistan looks like it's not ready for combat troops pulling out. If that happens, what role do you see NATO playing?

That's one of the outcomes of this summit: more clarity on the role that NATO can play over a continuing period. The goal for ISAF was to build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces so that they can provide security for their own country, because they're going to do it more effectively than outsiders. And there's not just confidence, but also demonstrations of the fact that the Afghan national security forces have reached a level of capability that gives us confidence that they will be able to play that role. They've demonstrated it on a number of occasions.

When I was there, three years ago, you were already seeing the Afghans' ability to respond, to plan, to execute operations, and to react quickly to developing situations. In the east, where I was, there were a number of complex insurgent attacks, and the Afghan police and army were able to respond and control the situations, and perform quite impressively.

That's not true in all parts of Afghanistan, but in the last three years, they've become quite good. We have to have the right level of expectations on this too.This is how the timetable was developed: based on the kind of training and evidence of their capability, we should be ready by 2014 for them to be in the lead, and the goal all along has been for Afghans to be running the show in Afghanistan. As the president said, our footprint there puts a certain strain on the society, because we are outsiders.

So we're on the right trajectory. And then our role can be more of a behind-the-scenes role with trainers: finishing that job and polishing the skills of the Afghan national security forces.


Photograph: U.S. Department of State