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How an ambassador’s Native American heritage gave him a diplomatic edge
By Lauren Monsen
November 21, 2023

How an ambassador’s Native American heritage gave him a diplomatic edge

Retired Ambassador Keith Harper speaks at the National Museum of American Diplomacy November 15. (National Museum of American Diplomacy)

Keith Harper has always believed his Native American heritage helped him better represent the United States abroad.

“The extraordinary advantage we have in the United States is our diversity,” Harper told the audience at a November 15 event held at the U.S. Department of State’s National Museum of American Diplomacy in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Harper served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council from 2014 to 2017. Harper was part of a U.S. delegation to the U.N. that also included ambassadors of African and Asian descent. “No other country had this kind of representation in Geneva,” he said.

Harper said that while the United States has considerable capabilities to promote human rights and sustainable development around the world, it should wield its influence with humility and fairness. “Being a Native American gives you a certain set of tools, as a diplomat representing the world’s sole superpower,” he added.

During his tenure, the diversity of the U.S. delegation often served as an icebreaker with other nations’ diplomats, Harper said, noting some had never met an American Indian. At the U.N., where progress often happens slowly, connections that spark communication can lead to compromise.

“We’re always working to build up alliances,” Harper said. “And the more you can make an intimate, one-on-one connection with someone — of whatever heritage, for whatever reason — the easier it will be to find common ground and advance towards your goals.”

“Diplomacy is about relationships,” he added. “We’re all just human beings; you represent your country, and I represent mine. We won’t agree on everything, but let’s work to get some things done.”

Ensuring the U.S. government reflects America’s diversity is a continuing priority. After taking office in January 2021, President Biden assembled nearly 1,500 people from previously underrepresented minority groups to serve in high-level positions in the executive branch.