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Ambassador John W. McDonald: In for the Long Haul

6 June 2012 3 Comments

Ambassador John W. McDonald

It’s June, the month of Fathers Day, and once again we’re featuring peacebuilding men we love.


Ambassador John McDonald is a lawyer, diplomat, former international civil servant, development expert, peacebuilder, and professor of law and peace. He spent 20 years of his diplomatic career in Western Europe and the Middle East and worked for 16 years on UN economic and social affairs. He wrote the first book on citizen diplomacy and co-founded and chairs the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, which focuses on national and international ethnic conflicts and promotes the Millennium Development Goals of clean drinking water and sanitation. In his 91st year, his regular activities include teaching a course in peace at the US National War College.


Ambassador McDonald, you’re well past the age when most people retire. What keeps you hoping and working for peace?

We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy. Since 1992, we have had 285 passionate peacebuilders from 65 countries as project managers in this organization. To qualify, they must be registered in a Master’s or PhD program in conflict resolution and they must be passionate about peacebuilding. That passion is essential! Many applicants don’t make it.

This is not a job; it’s a commitment. It’s not an internship in the usual Washington sense either, though it’s unpaid. Each one takes charge of a project in a conflict region, and when they raise money to send a team, they go as part of that team. Now we have 285 far-flung young people doing good locally, nationally, and internationally all around the world, and many of them keep in touch with me. Two were Special Assistants to Prime Ministers. One is the executive director of J Street, the Jewish peace lobby here in DC. How could I not be hopeful?

Tell me about the one accomplishment that gives you the greatest satisfaction.

We make a five-year commitment to any country we work in. We’ve been working with the Dalai Lama since we began. We were in Cyprus for nine years and Bosnia for eight. We’ve been in Kashmir for almost 15, since 1997. Maybe the most exciting and far-reaching thing happened there.  On April 7, 2000, I went to the capitol of Pakistan/Kashmir to speak with 1,000 refugees in a very poor refugee camp. As always, we were invited to go there, and we listened first.

Something like 95% of Kashmiris have family members on the other side of the border. The year before, in 1999, there had been a Politicians’ Bus that took the Prime Minister from New Delhi to Lahore to talk. The agreement that resulted fell apart quickly. The people wanted a People’s Bus so they could move back and forth across the line of control. We got press, made speeches, used our influence with people in government. (That’s always the hardest part.) Five years later to the day, the People’s Bus ran. Sonia Gandhi waved goodbye as it set out. It made the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. It’s still running. It was a confidence-building measure that changed the history of the subcontinent.

I’m a graduate of the National War College. In 2005 I was asked to give a lecture there. I proposed putting on a course to show the colonels especially that there are ways to win besides the gun. We recently finished our 11th semester. It’s a 12-week elective, so they choose it. So far, 162 people from 32 countries have completed the course.

Now here’s how things happen. Six weeks ago I was visited by a seven-person delegation from the Republic of Macedonia, headed by the Minister of Defense. He’s a 36-year-old PhD, former Minister of Economics. He asked us to set up a Peace Institute in Macedonia, at his expense, and we’ll be sending a team at the end of July. I wondered how that came about. Two days ago I learned that a colonel from the Republic of Macedonia was a student in an earlier class, and he was the one who spoke to the Minister about IMTD.

What are the main points you want people to take away when you teach or work with them?

First, to use positive and not negative means to your end. Then, my mantra: The only way to solve a conflict, at any level of society, is to sit down face to face and talk about it, without any preconditions. That’s a lifetime lesson, easy to say and hard to do.

The story of the Panama Canal is a worst-case scenario, a lesson in what happens when people don’t do that. The US signed a treaty with Panama to get land for the Canal in 1903. It was given in perpetuity, but by 1904 Panama’s government thought better of that and asked for a meeting to insert a date into the agreement. That wasn’t in our interest, so 60 years went by before rioting in the Canal Zone moved the State Department to open talks. The talks went on for 10 years. In 1976 President Carter secured an agreement to give it back―by one vote―and in 2000 it was finally agreed that Panama could take it over. Almost 100 years!

Ambassador McDonald with K.C. Soares, Louise Diamond, and Mar Fitzduff

Do women have a special role in building peace?

Are you kidding? I have been in 103 countries, in all 50 states, and in all the provinces of Canada, and it’s true everywhere. Women are the ones who get damaged most by war: beat up, raped, killed. They always get it, the importance of peace,  before the men do.

Between 1974 and 1978 I was made Deputy Director General, the #2 person, at the International Labor Organization in Geneva, the ILO, which became the first specialized agency of the United Nations in 1946. It had a 3,200-person staff from 102 countries and operated in 120. On the first day I was there they had a reception so I could meet the senior staff: 79 men and 1 woman. And 53% of the workers of the world are women! I decided on the spot to change that. I had to convince my boss, the Director General. I planned carefully and wrote out what I would say to him. “Mr. Director General, how would you like to be a hero in the eyes of the women of the world?” He was a Frenchman, so of course he jumped at that!

I needed his approval to present my plan to the governing body that met three times a year and then to the annual meeting. The plan was to create the first-ever women’s bureau in the UN system. We did, and his representative announced it during the first hour of the First UN World Women’s Conference, in Mexico City in 1975.

Yes, of course women have a special role in building peace. It takes all of us, women and men.

Many thanks for listening to my stories and including me in this report.

Also in the June PeaceTimes:

Sami Awad: To Create a Common Narrative

 John Hunter: Teaching Peace, Reaching through Time

Generation Peace: Alex Simon, “Empathy and a Loud Voice”

or read the pdf version of PeaceTimes.



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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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3 Comments to “Ambassador John W. McDonald: In for the Long Haul”
  1. jessica swartz amezcua says:

    I loved reading about Ambassador McDonald. What an inspiring and remarkable man! Reading about people like him and the far-reaching work that he does is truly inspiring. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Mary Liepold says:

    I’m very glad you enjoyed it, Jessica. Comments make us so happy!

  3. William says:

    Thank you for your continuing good works Ambassador McDonald. Indeed you are an inspiration — providing us with both ways and means of continuing a commitment to world peace and prosperity around the globe.

    With World Refugee Day coming up this month, I recently had contact with several of young people I met in the Tuzla orphanage (between 2003 and 2007) who were surviving children of the massacres in the Bosnia war, especially Srebrenica. They are now adults, but still living in a society that has NOT been able to progress past the Dayton Accord. It’s hard for me to be more positive about these continuing dynamics, but your work certainly gives me the inspiration to try.

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