Former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter said being a diplomat is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
"We don't go out there with guns," he said. "We go out there with ideas."
Delivering the semi-annual Ashe Lecture on Wednesday at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, Munter discussed his experiences as a foreign diplomat, the 2011 operation to capture Osama bin Laden and how U.S. relations with Pakistan must change in the future.
After the covert operation to capture bin Laden, the head of Islamist militant group al-Qaida, in his compound in the northeastern Pakistani town of Abbottabad, relations with Pakistan became strained, Munter explained.
"I watched C-17s take away millions of dollars worth of sniper rifles, night vision goggles and computers back to the United States because of this growing collapse of our relationship," Munter said. "It took us six months to apologize, and in the meantime, the Pakistanis closed the supply routes that go from Karachi to the southern part of Afghanistan."
The Pakistani people, in Munter's experience, perceive American politics and government to be callous, but nevertheless appreciate U.S. businesses, philanthropy and culture.
Referencing the death of Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who was killed in 2012, Munter advised future diplomats to the Middle East to learn Arabic, talk to security forces and fully know the area.
"One thing that diplomats can do and should do, in addition to telling America's story overseas, is to listen," Munter said. "If we feel bending countries to our will is the way to do things, then don't bother to listen."
In a country divided by tribal and ethnic groups – Punjab, Sindh, Pashtun, Hazara – Munter said the importance of understanding the culture is multiplied.
"Yes, we are investing in Pakistan, but it's worth investing on the people to people level," Munter said. "It's worth investing in outside of government."
In Munter's opinion, "one size fits all" policies in the Middle East are useless. Rather than focusing all diplomatic efforts on the bond between two governments, Munter said he envisions a future for U.S.-Pakistan relations that emphasizes interpersonal relationships.
"It would be wise for us to stay engaged, but in a different way – an engagement led by universities, led by foundations, led by civic groups and led by businesses," Munter said. "We need to show the face that I'm most proud of."
Following his 30-minute lecture, Munter opened the floor to questions from the audience.
"I've dealt with the Pakistani press, so no question you ask will be more difficult than that," Munter said, inducing laughter from the large audience.
When asked about the implications of the information distributed through WikiLeaks, Munter recalled his two years as ambassador to Serbia during the Kosovo independence crisis. When the embassy was under threat, the first action, Munter said, was to destroy the communications equipment, a testament to the importance of confidentiality.
"It was very hard for people who looked to us with trust to keep a confidentiality in the age after WikiLeaks," Munter said. "From the parochial standpoint of a diplomat, it is a disaster if you cannot keep confidences. That's what diplomats have to do to stay credible."
In regard to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Munter warned against a single-minded global outlook, placing too much importance on one volatile situation.
"We're a superpower: we do have the capacity to work on more than one issue at once," Munter said. "I think we have to guard against the danger of only thinking of one big crisis."
Among the many points of Munter's lecture, he expressed a hope that those in attendance would better understand the importance of diplomatic relations with the international community and see ways that they can have an impact on those relationships.
Victor Ashe, Knoxville's mayor from 1987-2003 who started the Ashe Lecture Series at the Baker Center in 2012, invited Munter to the Baker Center to speak because of his broad knowledge of U.S. diplomatic relations and experience working and speaking with students.
"One thing I hope students can take away from this is considering a career in the Foreign Service," Ashe said after the lecture. "Students who are juniors and seniors are starting to look at what's next, and foreign and public service is definitely an option."