Talking Diplomacy and Politics with Former Ambassador Joseph Paolino Jr.

Former US Ambassador to Malta, Joseph Paolino Jr.

JWU students interested in hearing about the day-to-day life of an ambassador got a firsthand account during a wide-ranging talk by the former U.S. Ambassador to Malta, Joseph Paolino Jr. The talk was organized as part of Assistant Professor Kevin DeJesus’ Political Science course, “Contemporary Dynamics of Diplomacy and Statecraft.”

Paolino had an established career in politics at the time of his appointment to Malta. In 1978, he was elected to the Providence City Council. He was serving as City Council Chairman when Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci was removed from office on felony charges. As a result, Paolino became acting mayor at age 29. He ran in the special election to succeed Cianci and served as Mayor until 1991. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Maltese post.

At JWU, students from multiple majors, including Media & Communication Studies, Political Science and Criminal Justice, brought their questions and curiosity about what the role of ambassador entails. Paolino was candid when sharing the mundane, the surprising and the surreal aspects of life on an isolated but politically-charged island archipelago.

After years of working in city government, Paolino jumped at the chance to get involved in an entirely different aspect of public service. At the time of his appointment, he was asked to facilitate the investigation into the tragic Lockerbie (PanAm Flight 103) bombing, which was believed to have been carried out by Libyan nationals working on the ground in Malta. (The investigation revealed that the suitcase containing the bomb had been purchased on Maltese soil.) “It was the first time I really knew what terrorism was,” he told students. “Now we see it every day.”

"Every ambassador represents the President of the United States."

In addition to making sure the Lockerbie investigation ran smoothly, Paolino also liaised with US business interests (at the time, AT&T was laying underwater cable in the Mediterranean) and organized meetings of local and foreign dignitaries. “Every ambassador represents the President of the United States, and ensures that his or her foreign policy is carried out,” he explained. He called himself a “political ambassador” — as opposed to a career diplomat who had attended policy school and worked his or her way up the ranks into consecutive ambassadorial roles. (In 1996, Paolino left the Maltese position and returned to Rhode Island to take over his family’s real estate development business.)

Pre-internet, Paolino and his team communicated by cable to the US. “First thing in the morning, I would read the overnight cables,” he told students. “By 3pm, I was on the phone or sending cable replies back to the US. Any major decisions would have to be put in writing.” Keeping up on US news was also a challenge — newspapers and magazines would typically arrive at least a week late. “So much different than reading everything on your iPad!”

Paolino admitted that the hardest part of the job was being 6,000 miles away from home. “I was on the phone with my mother and father every day,” he said. “My wife missed her family, too.” Being uprooted from school and familiar surroundings was tough on his four children, to varying degrees: “My older kids loved it. Some day I’ll take them all back for a visit.”

To students interested in careers in diplomacy, he recommended a few pathways: “Apply to the CIA or the foreign service. Georgetown University has a great foreign policy service program. Another way is to be successful in private life and get heavily involved in the political process in some way.”

He also stressed travel and opening up one’s world view as a necessary prerequisite for a career in diplomacy — or any career, really. “My advice is to know more. Travel, read, explore.”

Learn more about Political Science at JWU. Follow Joseph Paolino on Twitter.

Paolino speaking to class.

Class photo during Paolino visit.