Tom Kennedy brings that proverbial wealth of experience to his first ambassador’s post.
The newly arrived British ambassador, 49, has worked in arms control, Middle East affairs, and, of course, other consular posts. And then there were shoes.
Kennedy’s first position after graduation from the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology was in export sales, training and marketing for the Bata Shoe Company, work that took him mostly to East Africa.
“I think I’m genetically programmed to travel,” he explains.
Kennedy joined the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1992, working in its Southern European Department, particularly with Greece and Turkey, neighbors with age-old disagreements.
He also headed the Foreign Office’s Levant Section, with an active role in Britain’s relations with Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and was chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Export Controls Section.
The new ambassador, who also speaks Spanish and French, most recently served as the British Consul General in Bordeaux, in southwest France, traveling extensively in a consular district the size of England and Wales combined. He plans to do the same in his new post.
“So far, I’ve only seen a lot of Escazú and a lot of the center of San José,” he laughs, but motions to the stupendous view from his 11th floor office in the Centro Colón office building on San José’s west side.
“I have a desire to go beyond those mountains and see what’s on the other side,” he says.
Kennedy, in the country since July 8 with wife Clare Marie and six-year-old son James, replaces Georgina Butler, who retired from the Foreign Service and returned to London in June.
The ambassador, who hails from Sheffield in England’s industrial north, enjoys soccer, swimming and golf.
“I can swing a cricket bat,” he says. “But none of this is to high levels of expertise.” Kennedy describes his musical preferences as being “fairly Catholic tastes.”
“I was born in 1957. My music is ‘60s rock music,” he says, adding that he has come to appreciate blues and classical music too. Kennedy presented his credentials to President Oscar Arias July 20, and expects to do the same later this month to Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños. (The embassy in San José has been accredited to Nicaragua since 2004.)
The veteran diplomat recently spoke with The Tico Times in his office. Excerpts:
TT: How does one move from a managerial position in a shoe company to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
TK: The British Foreign Service is open to people coming to a diplomatic career from different experiences and backgrounds. I think it’s a very positive thing.
When you talk to colleagues from other foreign services, it’s practically unheard of. In my commercial career, I traveled a lot and [acquired] linguistic ability. That counted in my favor. While I’d been in Africa, I’d met British diplomats and seen what their career was all about. It allows you to work overseas but also to come back to the U.K. and remain in touch with family and friends back there. It was a career structure that appealed to me.
You’ve spent a substantial portion of your career dealing with thorny issues and working with troubled parts of the world. How has that influenced your work in subsequent posts?
Typically in a diplomatic career you’ve got different jobs. In each one, you’re addressing difficult issues, whether you’re dealing with environmental issues, disarmament or simple bilateral relations. In each area, there are problems that need to be managed. You establish dialogue with other actors who are involved in that problem, trying to reach ways forward. I think it’s fairly classic for a diplomatic career.
There’s a project called the Arms Trade Treaty. It’s a very ambitious aim to try and regulate conventional arms sales worldwide. That’s an issue where the U.K. and Costa Rica share quite a common perception of a desirable way forward.
But there are also day-to-day issues of people losing passports or getting lost, so there’s the whole consular side of things to deal with. There’s the commercial side too, of trying to increase trade in both directions.
How would you describe relations between the U.K. and Costa Rica and Nicaragua as you begin your work here?
Very good. There are no hugely contentious issues between the U.K. and Costa Rica or Nicaragua.We’re on the same side on a whole host of issues, so very amicable relations, with areas of strong cooperation, can really be developed.
We’ve got a new Foreign Secretary in London, Margaret Beckett. She has started off very strongly looking at issues like climate change. She sees that as one that affects a whole host of other problems across the world, particularly food supply, poverty and trade, with a huge potential to be more powerful than any other single problem we’re dealing with today. Costa Rica has very strong environmental and ecological credentials, and so that’s an area I’m hoping to explore with the Costa Rican government.
How do you view the United Kingdom’s role in Central America?
We have a bilateral relationship with all of these countries in Central America, going back a long way. If you go down the Caribbean coast, you’ll find English-speaking peoples with English-sounding names. There’s a whole historical British presence in our relationship here.
But also now, since 33 years, we are part of the European Union and the E.U. is also taking a great interest in Central America, looking at an association agreement between the regions. So the U.K. is here in that capacity as well.
The target is that, at the start of 2007, formal negotiations will begin between representatives of this region and the E.U. The Central American nations are looking at how they will organize themselves and how they will speak as a coordinated region.
Do you foresee any difficulties in covering Nicaragua from the embassy here?
You have to go there, generally by air.My predecessor used to go about every three months on average, for maybe four to five days at a time, but it’s not an awful lot of time to be physically in the country, so, yes, it’s difficult. I’ve never done that, but it was one of the attractions of the job, covering two countries that are different in many ways.