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US State department official visits UH, addresses international concerns

Elizabeth Trudeau, acting assistant secretary for global public affairs at the U.S. State Department held a roundtable discussion Sept. 9 at UH. | Photo courtesy of UH Global

The past several years have marked a period of increasing global instability and political uncertainty. For college students, these existential concerns have only added more stress to the existing mental burdens of academia.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of Elizabeth Trudeau, acting assistant secretary of global public affairs for the U.S. State Department, and was one of the reasons for her visit and roundtable discussion held on Sept. 9 at UH.

For Trudeau, the realities of the modern world have created a situation wherein citizens can no longer afford to concern themselves simply with domestic affairs and must also take into account the global context. 

“As a citizen, you have rights, but you also have responsibilities and being informed is one of those responsibilities,” Trudeau said. “Whether we like it or not, we live in a deeply interconnected world, and what happens outside the U.S. affects us profoundly here at home.”

Ultimately, according to Trudeau, isolationist policy just isn’t suited for the current geopolitical setting.

Aside from the general concerns relating to international stability, Trudeau also addressed more specific questions. Top of mind for several students was the detainment of WNBA star and Houston native Brittney Griner by Russian authorities. 

“She needs to be home with her wife, she needs to be at home with her family, she needs to be home in her country,” Trudeau said. “We are still fully committed to getting Brittany home to her wife and family as soon as possible. We had representatives from the U.S. embassy sitting behind her because we want the courts to know she is not alone.”

Trudeau said that while the State Department is committed to bringing Griner home, she could not comment further on any potential for a prisoner swap. 

Griner was recently sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for allegedly possessing a small amount of hashish oil. The ruling has been criticized as being motivated by the war in Ukraine, with many claiming Russia is using Griner as a political pawn.

“Where Ms. Griner is detained, wrongfully, is complicated because she’s in Russia,” Trudeau said. “What Russia is seeking to do is just wrong.”

Griner’s story is just one example of a long list of injustices committed by the Russian Federation in recent months, as the civilian death toll in Ukraine continues to climb.

During the discussion, Trudeau touched on these injustices briefly, highlighting the valiant efforts on behalf of Ukrainian journalists who have put their lives on the line to cover the conflict.

“I think this conflict has really shown the importance of trained journalists putting themselves on the line,” Trudeau said. “They’re telling the story of the people of Ukraine, and I think that that’s made a difference not only on a global level but for the people themselves, knowing someone is telling their story.”

However, as the war approaches its seventh month without resolution, many have begun searching for a light at the end of the tunnel. While some have called for reparations and a total withdrawal of Russian forces from contested territory, international pressure to end the conflict by any means is beginning to grow as the war’s effects start to spill into other countries, particularly in developing countries

Trudeau addressed this, and while she stressed the State Department’s strict pro-Ukraine stance, she acknowledged that the conflict will only end through diplomatic means.

“It’s got to be through negotiations. It has to be a negotiated settlement,” Trudeau said. “The reason we continue to provide defensive arms to Ukraine is that they need to be strong when Russia is finally forced to the table to negotiate.”

Finally, Trudeau wanted to emphasize the State Department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion concerning employment.

“For a long time, the State Department had a reputation for being pale, male and yale,” Trudeau said. “There is nothing further from the truth right now.”

Though some students voiced unease about potential moral concerns inherent to working in foreign policy, Trudeau’s response was to effect change from within.

According to Trudeau, there are existing systems within the state department for employees to express dissent about a given policy.

“The dissent channel is a state department tradition that allows us to confidentially express our descent directly to the secretary of state,” Trudeau said. “We are fiercely proud of it, and we actually have an annual award for the best use of the descent channel.”

Trudeau concluded her visit by reiterating the State Department’s goal for its representatives abroad to reflect the diversity of the American population.

“What we want to do is make sure that people who represent America look like America, act like America. In all of our richness and diversity, our unevenness and beauty,” Trudeau said. “And that all starts right here.”

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