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  • April 18, 2022

    Micro-diplomacy and the Lawyer’s Role in Foreign Policy, National Security, and the Rule of Law

    Lawyers working on international projects – here or abroad – can further U.S. foreign policy and enhance national security. John Vaudreuil discusses his experience with "micro-diplomacy."

    John W. Vaudreuil

    diplomacy handshake

    Sept. 11, 2001, was a watershed moment for all, and certainly for me as a career federal prosecutor.

    From that day forward, the main focus of the U.S. Department of Justice was protecting the people of the United States from violent terrorism. With local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners, we worked to stop violence at home before it happened, and prosecuted those who committed violent acts and actively supported terrorist organizations.

    Beginning in March 2001, I also carved out an international teaching role, working with judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and defense advocates in 38 countries (at last count), many of them with troubled criminal justice systems, struggling to support the rule of law.

    I’ve made over 90 trips, flown thousands of miles, and conducted more than 100 classes in trial advocacy, anti-corruption and anti-money laundering, leadership and management. I also addressed structural changes with judicial reform, and introduced plea agreement concepts to systems crushed by case backlogs.

    I’m often asked “Why fly all those miles? Why do all this pro bono work?” My answer: I firmly believe that building international relationships and helping our partners improve their capacity plays a key role in a successful foreign policy, protects and strengthens the rule of law abroad, and works to keep us all safer here at home by enhancing our national security.

    Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

    Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been – with a few exceptions now and again – one of engagement, building partnerships, and keeping in contact even with our adversaries. On Feb. 14, 2021, President Joe Biden reaffirmed this foreign policy history when he spoke at the State Department. He said, in part: “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy … We will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law … There’s no longer a bright line between foreign policy and domestic policy.”

    John Vaudreuil John W. Vaudreuil, U.W. 1979, was a federal prosecutor in Wisconsin for 38 years, the final eight years as the U.S. attorney appointed by President Barack Obama. Since 2001, he has been involved with over 100 international rule of law projects in 38 countries.

    These wise words spoke directly to me. When I travel to the far corners to work with our justice system partners – when all of us working abroad treat our partners with respect and decency – America is safer because of our engagement.

    My international projects from 2001 until my resignation as U.S. Attorney in March 2017 were for the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT).

    OPDAT was formed in 1991 to work with prosecutors, judges, and police around the world. OPDAT’s mission is keeping America safe by building partnerships; helping develop fair justice systems; and increasing our partners’ capacity to fight corruption, terrorism, money laundering, human trafficking, and cyber crime – and to do this fairly, building trust with citizens and respect for the rule of law.

    Since March 2017, while continuing to work with OPDAT, I’ve also done numerous projects for the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI) and the Central and Eastern European Law Institute (CEELI), both of which utilize pro bono attorneys from the public and private sector.

    ABA-ROLI’s mission is “to promote justice, economic opportunity, and human dignity through the rule of law.” Similarly, CEELI’s mission is “to advance the rule of law in the world in order to protect fundamental rights and individual liberties; [and] promote transparent, incorruptible, accountable governments. …”

    ‘That’s a Damn Good Week’

    In my experience, working with numerous other lawyers abroad, every day, in ways small and large, these missions are achieved.

    In June 2012, I taught an advocacy class for war crimes prosecutors in Bosnia Herzegovina. As the U.S. Attorney, I met with Ambassador Patrick Moon. Ambassador Moon was serious and direct, asking me “What does this embassy and the United States get from your training here with Bosniac prosecutors?”

    My answer summarizes my view of the role for a teaching attorney to further our foreign policy aims. I told the ambassador I was confident we could help these prosecutors improve their trial skills, and make them more effective in prosecuting war crimes arising from the fall of Yugoslavia.

    But I also told him that I was 100 percent certain, and I promised him, that when our two weeks were finished, there would be 60 prosecutors – all possible future leaders – who would be our friends and would always remember the time the U.S. took to help, and how we treated them fairly and with respect.

    The ambassador leaned over, smiled for the first time, and said “That’s a damn good week for the U.S. here in the Balkans.”

    And that is how the teaching lawyer helps further U.S. foreign policy.

    National Security and the Work of Individuals

    Each U.S. president forms a national security strategy. The president who appointed me – President Obama – set out this strategy in 2010 and again in 2015. Several sections of the national security strategy spoke to the role I believed I could play working on international projects. The strategy stated that our national security depends:

    • on strengthening justice systems in other countries;

    • on building partnerships and strong institutions abroad;

    • on promoting a just and sustainable world order; and

    • on a “whole government” approach.

    As with foreign policy, on a micro level, I believe individual attorneys working abroad – either teaching as I do or in other public or private projects – play an important role in our national security strategy.

    Security at home is furthered by working to advance the rule of law abroad, whether in the criminal justice area or working to ensure fair and open markets. In the words of President Biden, “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign policy and domestic policy.”

    Each time I meet with prosecutors, I give a presentation I’ve titled “The Role of the Prosecutor in Protecting the Rule of Law in a Free Society.” From Africa, to South and Central Asia, to the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, I’ve strived to export the best of the U.S. criminal justice system, as I see it, to:

    • build trust;

    • make decisions based only on facts;

    • ensure that “what a person did” is all that matters, not who they are, who they know, or how much money or power they have; and

    • work every day to ensure citizens that the game is not rigged against them.

    It is my hope – and my sincere belief – that building stronger and more just systems abroad makes us all safer at home.

    Boosting the Dream of Brighter Futures

    What have I seen that gives me confidence in micro-diplomacy?

    • judges and prosecutors in Libya designing a mentor program to ensure a fair system of pretrial release in criminal cases;

    • judges in Nepal and Lebanon exploring a pretrial plea agreement system to reduce the huge case backlogs, and deliver speedy justice;

    • anti-corruption prosecutors and police in Tanzania and Sri Lanka working hard to improve their skills to attack entrenched corruption;

    • prosecutors in Pakistan working, against all odds and clear personal danger, to fight violent terrorists; and

    • defense advocates in Azerbaijan and Turkey striving to protect the basic human rights of their clients, and to be ripples of hope in the face of oppression.

    I have learned that our system – while certainly not perfect – is watched and respected, and others want to learn from our experiences.

    I have seen people everywhere who dream of brighter futures for their countries. Futures where people are safe and free to live, work, and raise their families without fear. And I have seen people willing to do the hard and dangerous work to make those dreams come true.

    It is my hope – and my sincere belief – that building stronger and more just systems abroad makes us all safer at home.

    Let’s go back to the questions I posed at the start. Why fly all the miles and do all the work? Is there a micro-diplomacy role for a prosecutor like me or other attorneys working internationally?

    I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

    This diplomacy must, however, be an all-the-time thing, not a now-and-then thing. We are diplomats for the United States in classrooms and business meetings; on buses and trams and walking the street; and in bakeries, hotels, and restaurants. We may be the only Americans our partners and people outside our meetings ever meet. Our respect for cultures, our fairness and decency, our kindness, will be long-remembered.

    Less Expensive than the 82nd Airborne

    Let me close with one final story.

    An old friend of mine – quite conservative politically and fiscally – once asked me “Why do we taxpayers spend all the money to send you around the world?”

    My answer was – and remains – that one-on-one diplomacy is less expensive and more effective than sending in the 82nd Airborne. He smiled, and agreed.

    There is a foreign policy role for the lawyer working internationally, whether teaching or working in the private or public sector. When abroad, we are the face of the United States. Respect other cultures and systems. Support the rule of law. Promote and protect fundamental rights and liberties. Build lasting friendships and partnerships.

    Micro-diplomacy works.

    John W. Vaudreuil is a co-author of “Trial Advocacy: The International Edition” (2021) for the U.S. Department of Justice; and a contributing author to “Building the Rule of Law: Firsthand Accounts from a Thirty-Year Global Campaign” (2021) for the American Bar Association.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin's International Practice Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the International Practice Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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