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From Dostoyevsky to Diplomacy

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Growing up on a dairy farm in Western Washington, Allan Mustard dreamed of working and living abroad. Since then, he has lived in half a dozen foreign countries and spent time in dozens more during a long career with the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). His current home is Turkmenistan, where he serves as U.S. Ambassador.

Allan Mustard inspects crops in Russia, 2006.

Allan Mustard inspects a barley crop in Orenburg Oblast, Russia, in 2006.

Turkmenistan was not on the world map when Mustard (BA, Slavic Languages & Literatures; BA, Political Science; 1978) was starting his career. It was part of the vast Soviet Union. But with neighbors that include Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan is now a critical player in Central Asia—even if many Americans are unfamiliar with it.

“It’s a tough neighborhood, and both the U.S. and the Turkmen recognize that,” says Mustard. “Turkmenistan’s efforts are pivotal to supporting regional stability, including provision of much assistance to Afghanistan.”

Mustard’s UW majors in political science and Slavic languages and literatures seem a perfect fit for his current role. He began studying Russian and German at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen—those were the only languages offered—and continued with Russian after transferring to the UW. He grew to love Russian literature, but initially he studied the language for a less lofty reason.

If we have the patience and expertise to negotiate effectively, diplomacy can accomplish a lot.

“To graduate in poli sci you needed either a foreign language or statistics, and I thought learning Russian would be easier than statistics,” admits Mustard. His theory was later tested at the University of Illinois, where statistics was required for his master’s degree in agricultural economics. “I discovered I was right,” he jokes. “Russian is easier than statistics.”

All of Mustard’s academic choices furthered his goal of working abroad. He pursued his graduate degree after meeting the agricultural attaché from the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union, who commented that Mustard’s farm background and fluency in Russian would make him a great candidate for the Foreign Agricultural Service—if he got a master’s in agricultural economics.

US Ambassador Allan Mustard (right).

U.S. Ambassador Allan Mustard, right, greets a Government of Turkmenistan official at the U.S. Embassy’s 2015 Fourth of July reception.

Mustard joined FAS as an agricultural economist in 1982; over the next 30 years he rose to FAS’s highest rank. With multiple postings in Slavic countries, his background in Russian language and literature proved invaluable. 

“The fact that my UW professors and my Russian House ‘parents’ taught me to speak fluent Russian has been an enormous strength,” he says. “The biggest surprise, when I arrived for my first tour of duty in Moscow in 1986, was how often Russians will probe your knowledge of Russian literature to see if you are someone to be taken seriously as an intellectual or if you can be safely disregarded as a lightweight. If you don’t respond correctly, your credibility is shot.  If you do respond correctly, your stock rises.”

In the Foreign Agricultural Service, Mustard’s work involved gathering information about international food production, promoting the export of U.S. agricultural products, and helping negotiate access to foreign markets. In times of regional upheaval, he also provided food assistance and other aid. In 1991, Mustard was part of a team that evaluated the Soviet food situation and recommended actions to ensure adequate food for the coming winter—at the request of President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had recently returned to Moscow after surviving an attempted coup by government hardliners. “The world’s second largest nuclear power was asking us for help, and I had the honor of participating in that set of missions,” says Mustard.

Even more memorable were efforts to aid Bosnian refugees displaced by war in the 1990s. In addition to assuring delivery of wheat and cooking oil to Bosnia, Mustard collaborated with private charities and NGOs to provide microcredit for Bosnian war widows, farmer credit to get food production restarted, and other assistance to rebuild the economy. “That was some of the most satisfying work of my diplomatic career,” says Mustard. “To succeed at this, I had to understand the Balkans and the ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions in the region, and thus drew heavily on what I had learned at the UW.”

Allan Mustard shares his thoughts about diplomacy in Turkmenistan as he testifies to the U.S. Senate to become U.S. Ambassador.

All those experiences prepared Mustard for his greatest challenge yet, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan. The country has a troubling human rights record, and the Embassy raises the issue of human rights and democracy “regularly and at all levels,” says Mustard, who believes that an ongoing dialogue is important. But the U.S. also finds common ground with Turkmenistan, particularly in seeking stability in the region.

“When tensions rise and conflict is close to erupting, we often face a choice,” says Mustard. “We can reduce tensions and reach some mutually acceptable compromise through negotiation, or let things boil over and come to blows.  As we have seen from recent examples, wars are expensive, destructive, and cost us the blood of our finest youth. If we have the patience and expertise to negotiate effectively, diplomacy can accomplish a lot.”

So can cultural and educational programs. The U.S. Embassy reaches out to Turkmen citizens through performances, lectures, movie screenings, and other events that showcase American culture; it also offers an array of educational resources for Turkmen students hoping to study in the U.S.  English classes offered by the Embassy fill quickly, with hundreds on the waiting list. “In our four locations, we get over 11,000 visits monthly from people eager to learn about U.S. culture and education,” says Mustard. The Embassy also collaborates with the Turkmenistan government to preserve historically important Turkmen cultural sites and objects.

The Ambassador’s three-year appointment in Turkmenistan ends in 2017. What comes next is still unknown. He’s lived in the U.S., USSR, Russia, Turkey, Austria, Mexico, India, and Turkmenistan, and has relished the opportunity to immerse himself in each culture.

“A strong sense of curiosity is an absolute necessity in this career,” he says. “To be happy working in an embassy, it helps if you love to explore and discover. The Foreign Service isn’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine having done anything else for the last thirty-plus years.”