Ask an American expatriate “Why did you leave the country?” and more often than not you’ll get an explanation that begins “There was this guy…” or “I met a woman…” Ask Jeffrey Hawkins, a former foreign service officer who has lived in some ten countries on four continents since graduating from Cal 30 years ago, and you’ll hear a different story. “In my case,” he says, “I met a language.” Although actually, in the very beginning, there was a woman too.
Hawkins explains: “As an undergraduate, I had to satisfy the foreign language requirement. There was this woman I thought I was interested in. She was going to take French, so I registered for French.” His relationship with the woman went nowhere. His relationship with the language lasted.
Which explains how he could wind up, after all these years, chatting in his office in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, just up the street from the Eiffel Tower. His hair close-cropped but his blazer-and-shirt tieless and his manner American-casual, Hawkins talks about his long career in the U.S. Foreign Service, its abrupt ending last year, and his new job as director of the American Library in Paris, a venerable private lending library and American cultural center in the French capital.
Though he describes the French language as “a real love in my life,” Hawkins majored in history at Cal, earned a master’s degree in International Relations from USC and took a position at the Commerce Department—a fairly typical career launch. “I grew up with hippie parents,” he says with a big grin. “I think working for The Man and eating meat was my rebellion.”
After four years with Commerce, he moved to the Foreign Service. “I had done some embassy work with Commerce and decided that I wanted to make the Foreign Service my career,” he says. “I had always assumed speaking French meant Paris and Brussels. In the Foreign Service, it mostly means francophone Africa.” His first posting, in 1994, was to the Ivory Coast.
Over the next two decades, there followed stints in India, Pakistan, Washington, Afghanistan, Brunei, France, Angola, Washington again, and Nigeria, none for longer than three years. In 2015, he was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate as ambassador to the Central African Republic, a onetime French colony. The country’s capital, Bangui, is hardly Paris or Brussels.
The CAR has long been a troubled land. Of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, it ranks dead last. Regional and ethnic conflict and serious political instability are constant concerns. The Department of State keeps the CAR on its “Do Not Travel” roll for U.S. citizens, warning: “Large areas of the country are controlled by armed groups who regularly kidnap, injure, and/or kill civilians.” For those who choose to ignore the advice and go anyway, the Department provides a checklist of things to do before you travel. First on the list: “Draft a will….”
By this time married with two young sons, Hawkins wasn’t allowed to take his family with him to his new assignment; the area was too dangerous. He agreed to a two-year term, with occasional time off for visits to Paris, where his wife, who works for a large French oil and gas company, had settled with their children. As ambassador, his job was focused on helping a recently elected government struggling to expand its reach—and establish peace—in anarchic regions of the country.
Then came the 2016 Presidential election.
“State always has a lot of Democrats,” Hawkins says. “But they’re Democrats who love the country and can work for any administration. This was different. I was serving my country, but as an ambassador I’m the President’s personal representative, and it was very clear that Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s policies did not reflect the American values I believe in. So I walked away from a career that I absolutely loved. More than a hundred diplomats have left the State Department, some by normal attrition, some just saying ‘I’m outta here.’ I’m in that category.”
He stayed through the summer of 2017, fulfilling his two-year commitment (“a point of pride,” he says), then fled to Paris. In December, he wrote a brutal op-ed for Le Monde, the most prestigious French daily, under the headline “American Diplomacy Is Dying.” For top political appointees to leave the State Department when the White House changes hands is normal, the ex-ambassador wrote. But this time “it’s the career diplomats who are going. The highest ranked, the most seasoned. Experts in human rights, terrorism, China, all the big problems that a world power has to handle…. There are people leaving every week.”
After Trump, in a widely reported comment, disparaged nations in Africa and elsewhere as “s-hole countries,” Hawkins wrote another Le Monde column in which he called Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s follow-up visits with leaders in five African nations an “apology tour” with no substance. When Trump, as was long expected, finally tossed Tillerson, Hawkins told the New York Times: “I don’t think there will be a Secretary of State less missed than Rex Tillerson.”
Harsh stuff coming from a diplomat. Says Hawkins: “That’s why I left. So I could talk this way.”
Meantime, having settled in Paris (“I thought I’d take some time to get to know my kids again”), Hawkins heard from a friend that the American Library was searching for a new director.
The Library traces its beginning to a drive coordinated by the American Library Association during the First World War, when U.S. libraries donated two million books and magazines for American troops serving in France. At war’s end, a core collection was kept in Paris to establish a membership library for literary-minded Anglophones; it quickly became a gathering place for American readers and writers. Edith Wharton served on its board. Other members included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller.
Today, Library leaders like to call the place part small-town library (albeit one with 3,000 members and 100,000 books and other items), part literary salon. Hawkins, who had overseen libraries and cultural centers in some of his Foreign Service postings, landed the directorship in time to start planning for the institution’s centennial in 2020.
“I’ve spent a career building bridges between America and the world,” he says. “The Library does exactly that, celebrating American culture with a certain missionary sense by way of the written and spoken word. Paris has a strong American literary and intellectual tradition, and we thrive on that. But we’re more than a collection of books. We have a strong program of readings and talks by authors and poets and filmmakers and music makers, and terrific kids’ programs, which I consider very important to our future.”
In his office in the recently renovated Library, Hawkins keeps several memorabilia of his time as an ambassador. The one he calls his favorite is a photo of a Central African man gazing at a sign that reads: “Peace. Tolerance. Social Harmony.”