Turkmenistan ambassador originally from Grays Harbor visits college

Allan Mustard, the U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan since 2014, has spent more than 30 years living and working as an agricultural counselor and embassy worker in places such as Russia, Vienna, India and Mexico. But he first gained an interest in foreign affairs while growing up in Grays Harbor County, specifically Brady. He then attended Montesano High School and Grays Harbor College, where he graduated from with an associate degree in 1975.

On Wednesday, Mustard returned to Grays Harbor College to get a tour of how things have changed, and hosted a Q&A lecture in Dr. Gary Murrell’s American politics class to discuss his background and rise to becoming an ambassador. The session was open for faculty and students from other classes and about 40 attended. Public Relations Director Jane Goldberg said she had always wanted Mustard to visit, and then just last week got a call from his office that he would be coming back and would like to stop in.

His father, Donald Mustard, was a well-known veterinarian in the county, and would often invite international students to stay at their house, a habit that got Allan interested in foreign culture from an early age. When introducing Mustard, Grays Harbor College president James Minkler talked about one occasion when Mustard was only five and his dad brought home a freighter crew from Mumbai, India, to stay the night after docking in Hoquiam.

For much of the time, Mustard remembers Brady as not being much more than “a rural wide spot in the road,” and with not much to do there he became an avid reader. He was particularly inspired to pursue foreign affairs work after reading political commentaries such as Bill Lederer’s The Ugly American, which describes the failures of American diplomats during the Vietnam War.

“I read Lederer’s accounts of how diplomats were going about their work, and I thought, ‘I could be a better diplomat than the people in these books,’” said Mustard during his lecture. “That’s what really gave me the inspiration to see if I could become one.”

Some of the impactful classes he recalls from Grays Harbor include former Daily World sports editor Robbie Peltola’s journalism class, which he said prepared him for writing assignments as an ambassador making sure reports on his meetings and observations were accurate and detailed, and a zoology class, which he initially took to have more talking points with his veterinarian father, but later on allowed him to grasp the details of biotechnology when he was doing agricultural policy work.

After starting to learn the Russian language at Grays Harbor, he went to the University of Washington to get his bachelor’s degree in politics and Russian language before beginning his long career of jobs in Russia and beyond. Agricultural consulting work in embassies has been his main focus area, something he went into by chance after meeting an agricultural attache while working at an American exhibit in Moscow. The attache encouraged him to get his masters in agriculture.

His work as an ambassador consists of a variety of tasks to maintain a good relationship between the U.S. and Turkmenistan, and weighs each decision by whether it helps their goal of maintaining independence in the five central Asian states, which “not everyone in the neighborhood agrees with,” he explains. Turkmenistan is a mostly desert environment, with a people who are mostly nomadic sheep and camel herders who have only just recently gotten adjusted to having an organized government.

“They were nomads and sheepherders for the most part, and as a result there was no organized government in Turkmenistan until 1881 when the imperial Russian army came in and defeated them in an epic battle about 30 kilometers from where I live,” said Mustard. “As a result, you have a culture that is psychologically still very nomadic with how they approach life and issues. The only government structure they’ve ever known is the Soviet style government. So Turkmenistan is known as the most Soviet of the post Soviet states. All land still belongs to the state, there’s no private ownership.”

He also described the country as being patriarchal and very conservative when it comes to women’s rights. According to Mustard, Turkmenistan is a very peaceful country compared to other Middle Eastern countries that have recently been embroiled in war, and said a small group of about 100 Turkmen immigrate to the U.S. each year.

“They tend to be good citizens, get here, spend five years getting U.S. citizenship and are good contributors to the U.S economy,” said Mustard, who declined to say what he thought about last January’s order that temporarily restricted immigration to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries in the Middle East, saying it mostly depends on how Congress shapes immigration laws.

“Yes, the president can issue executive orders within the framework of the law, but in the final analysis, we look to Congress and the law,” he said.

On a normal day, Mustard’s work is pretty uneventful, but he does have conflicts once in a while that require him to intervene. On one occasion he had to find new housing for a center for American cultural information and English language learning in one of Turkmenistan’s cities. When all 14 landlords contacted by U.S. officials refused to rent out their space, Mustard had to work through the matter with local police.

“We became rather suspicious there was something going on behind the scenes, which led to a discussion with local authorities. They eventually found a landlord who was interfering because he didn’t want an American presence in the city,” said Mustard, whose Russian language skills allow him to speak with people in Turkmenistan where many are billingual in Russian as well as Turkmen.

Now, Mustard is nearing the end of his career, as there’s no position in his field above ambassador and he doubts that he will receive another presidential nomination to maintain his job past the typical three years in service. Whereas President Donald Trump mandated that all politically appointed ambassadors leave their positions by last January’s inauguration, those who were career-appointed ambassadors, such as Mustard, were allowed to stay on. About 30 percent of U.S. ambassadors are politically appointed, while the others who are career diplomats worked their way up like Mustard as an agricultural adviser.

“[Those dismissals] were done right after the administration came in and made political appointees. They’re gone now, but those of us who were career appointees were asked to stay on,” he said.

Many of the ambassador spots are still vacant months after Trump’s inauguration, including South Korea and China where former Ambassador David Rank resigned in response to Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

When one student asked Mustard how the U.S. could improve in regards to understanding foreign countries and policies to work together better, he said a big issue is how there’s very little emphasis on learning multiple languages in America.

“If you scratch the average Slovenian, they speak Slovenian, classical Serbian, English, and then one other language,” he said. “In the United States, to find someone bilingual you have to go to southern Texas, Florida, parts of Southern California where they speak English and Spanish. We can do a lot better. I’m a true believer in the value of knowledge, and believe people knowledgeable about foreign cultures, languages, economies, have a better chance of successfully negotiating or obtaining what we need as a nation from foreign countries, than someone who blunders in not knowing anything about the country they’re dealing with.”