Diplomatic Paths: From Marquette to the World with Robert Hilton
Join David Haynes in this engaging episode of the Rural Insights Podcast, featuring a special edition of the Rural Voices series.
In this conversation, David sits down with Robert Hilton, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Army and a Marquette native with a storied international career. They delve into Robert’s journey from a history major at the University of Michigan to a distinguished 35-year service in the foreign service, discussing the transformative power of education and the values shaped by his upbringing in Marquette.
Robert shares insights into the foreign service examination process, the diverse career paths available, and how his small-town roots have influenced his global interactions. They explore the theme of service in different capacities and contemplate the future beyond a career in foreign diplomacy.
David Haynes: Good morning everybody. This is another edition of the Rural Insights Podcast, and we are going to combine today a little bit with our Rural Voices feature and a renowned person on a substantive topic. So we welcome you all and we’d like to welcome to join us today Robert Hilton, who is the Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Army right now. Did I get that right?
Robert Hilton: You did, absolutely.
David Haynes: And Robert, welcome. Thank you for doing this. So tell us a little bit, you grew up in Marquette, went to Marquette High School, is that correct?
Robert Hilton: Absolutely. Marquette Senior High class of 1983, and we just had our 40th high school reunion. God help me. It doesn’t seem that long ago.
David Haynes: Yeah, yeah. It’s really amazing how fast it goes. And from there you went to the University of Michigan.
Robert Hilton: I did. And I studied history.
David Haynes: You were a history major. So tell us a little bit how that evolved for our listeners. Robert went into the foreign service and I think right out of college, right?
Robert Hilton: Correct.
David Haynes: He’s had a very distinguished career all around the world working in our embassies and consulates and other foreign service assignments. So how did this history major from Marquette High School, class of 83, graduate U of M decide on foreign service?
Robert Hilton: It was a lucky break, you might say. I had a professor at Michigan, a professor of history, who had been in the foreign service and had resigned during the Vietnam War for reasons of conscience. He felt he couldn’t advocate for those policies, but he said, aside from that, it’s a good career. And I didn’t know what else I might do with my history degree. I will say, just parenthetically, perhaps that a history degree I think is a great preparation for a lot of different careers. You learn to think, to analyze, to research, to process ideas, to reproduce ideas. I think it’s a great grounding for many things, and in my case, it turned out to be a good grounding for what has now been a 35 year career as a foreign service officer.
David Haynes: So how did you tell, especially for families listening to us that may have a child, a student who wants to, they think might want to look at foreign service, how do you take that step from, is that happening in your junior year, your senior year, and you take the foreign service exam? What’s that process?
Robert Hilton: The first step is absolutely taking the foreign service exam and the Department of State has a pretty decent website, I believe it’s careers.state.gov, which explains how the foreign service officer test is administered. It’s a two or three stage process. It starts with an online test, a lot of multiple choice. You submit some essays and personal information, and then a smaller group who passed that first round are invited into an intense all day oral examination process. I will say that I always tell people, if you’re at all interested, go ahead and take the test because it’s the first step. It is, I believe, still free, and our hiring process can take a long time for various reasons. So I did take the test my junior year. I took it again my senior year and improved my score, which gave me a better chance of getting hired. There are, of course, plenty of people who do this after obtaining a master’s after a few years in the professional world. And there are people who take on the foreign service as a second career members of the military who’ve served 20 years in the armed forces then come over to state people who’ve had careers in academia, in journalism, in education, we’ve had lawyers, ad execs, all sorts of people decide that they want to represent the United States as a second career. So wherever you are in life, I urge you to consider it.
David Haynes: Well, somebody who, as you just said, has been a teacher, a professor, a lawyer, and they’re about ready to retire. They’re 50, they can take the foreign service exam and apply for a position?
Robert Hilton: You can, we do have a mandatory retirement age of 65. People should bear that in mind when they consider if they want to embark upon it. But there are certainly people who do come in at the age of 50 or 55 and do two or three overseas assignments, have that great experience, and then move on to other things.
David Haynes: So tell our listeners, what are some of the assignments you’ve had worldwide? Where have you been that you could tell us?
Robert Hilton: No secrets. It’s all in my LinkedIn profile. I think I started out in the Middle East at Michigan. I studied history with a focus on the modern Middle East, political science, history, international relations, and I spoke Arabic reasonably well. So I spent three years in the Middle East in Tunisia, then North Yemen and Saudi Arabia, including serving in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was launching scud missiles at Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. My former wife was also in the Foreign Service and she was an East Asia specialist. So when we got married, we needed to find places we could serve together, which led us first to DACA Bangladesh where we spent three years, and then we were in Moscow, Russia for four years in the 1990s. Following that, we came back to Washington DC for a number of domestic tours. We went to Sweden together, Stockholm, Sweden returned to Washington, and then as the marriage and our careers began to diverge, I went and served in Kabul, Afghanistan as the US Embassy spokesperson. Well, all times in Kabul were periods of violence and danger. And I was there for one of those periods, one more domestic assignment, and then I was the Deputy Chief of Mission and the Acting Ambassador at the US Embassy to Sri Lanka and Maldives where we were covering two countries out of one embassy. And then my last overseas assignment, I was Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Turkey.
David Haynes: Well, you really have, most of your career has been serving internationally in that 35 year career, except now you’re in Washington DC. So here you are, you grew up in Marquette, not the most rural area of the UP, but still a rural area. Your family where your father was a renowned professor at Northern, I had, as a student. Your mother was a historian, she wrote a book about 75 years of history here at Northern. How did growing up here in Marquette in the UP, how do you think it impacted your values as you served around the world and how you interacted around the world? Are there some things that jump out at you?
Robert Hilton: Well, I don’t want to sort of overstate small town values, but growing up in Marquette, you do learn to be a little self-sufficient. You learn to take care of yourself. You learn that you are expected to do well in school, to try your best at all, the activities you undertake, which is sort of how I was raised, and I’m sure many others were raised. And so I think that can set you up for success in many different areas of life, just to believe that you need to strive to do your best, even if you don’t always succeed, and then that carries you forward. Certainly I benefited from many fine people in the community, some marvelous teachers at Marquette Senior High School, Bob Proberg, who taught me history, the late Tom Baldini, who I had for political science and economics, and then many distinguished figures in our community. The late Dan Mizuki who just passed, my own parents, as you mentioned, who contributed in many ways, other members of the Northern faculty, people associated with the hospital, with the city government. You looked around and you saw role models, I would say, and people who inspired you again to try to do the best that you could do.
David Haynes: As a former president of Northern Michigan University, I of course encourage students to go to Northern. But I’m also intrigued by the notion of young people, and I’ve talked to school counselors and teachers around the up who talk about the sometimes difficult nature of convincing a student from a very rural area in the up to go to someplace like Ann Arbor or East Lansing, Florida, Cambridge, somewhere to go to school, leaving Marquette. And I’m not so sure that it’s different from a kid like me leaving Brooklyn, New York. But how did that impact your life as a student at U of M? I mean going, did it not, it was just like any other student or did it have an impact when you left here? Was there hesitancy?
Robert Hilton: I would say no hesitancy on my part. I’m the youngest of five children and the other four all went to Michigan. I swore that I wouldn’t, and yet there I was. Because it was hard to pass up such a great institution. To be honest I would say I felt fairly comfortable at Michigan just because most, although certainly not all the school body was other relatively academically successful kids from the Midwest. I think frankly, I would’ve felt more out of water if I had accepted an offer from Georgetown where I was admitted. That would’ve probably been a bigger struggle for me and maybe a little more comparable to what you did, David, coming from New York City to the relative quiet of the Upper Peninsula.
David Haynes: So what the other thing I’d to talk a little bit about, I don’t want to keep you too long, but there is a very large growing writing about, a lot have written about it and a lot in the media about the people’s faith in institutions, governmental institutions and society and challenges, not in a political sense, but in a sense of the training that you had and the experience you had–talk a little bit about faith in the institution of foreign service and policy, not the political side, but the policy and how you feel.
Robert Hilton: Sure, I would actually back up a little bit and call it faith in the United States of America, because what I do, what is my honor to do is represent our nation. And of course, it’s not possible for me to represent all 300 million citizens of the United States, but I do my best and much of my career has been devoted to what we call public diplomacy, which is to say engaging more or less directly with foreign publics in addition to foreign governments. And in that role, you have to be prepared to discuss honest and difficult truths about America. We used to call it telling America’s story, warts and all. You can’t try to deceive people about the reality of the United States, which does not mean that you undersell our achievements, our greatness as a nation, but you acknowledge where we have not lived up to, let’s say, our American ideals, more specifically the State Department and the Foreign Service.
I benefit from being surrounded by colleagues who are committed to our national security, who are committed to advancing American interests overseas, whether that’s political and security interests, whether that’s seeking opportunities for American business, of course, looking after American citizens who may be in situations of one kind or another overseas. And really with very few exceptions, the people that I call colleagues are great to work with. And we really believe in the mission. Of course, we can be buffeted by political wins. We all work for the government elected by the American people. The American people choose the president. The President appoints the Secretary of State. The Senate confirms the Secretary of State, and they give us our direction. And sometimes to go back to the example of my professor at Michigan, sometimes individuals say, I can’t do that. And resigning certainly does occur. Most people, most of the time recognize the need to advance those policies, even if it means stomaching a certain amount of displeasure or dislike, because we are committed career professionals and that’s what our job is.
David Haynes: To a certain degree it’s very similar to my life in the military, which was, you had to accept certain principles and certain things. You may gulp a little bit. It may not make you smile, but you go and do what you need to do or you resign. But it’s still a good–there’s plenty of opportunities to serve within that. Speaking of serving as we close here, have you thought about your post career as foreign? You got 35 years in, you’ve got certainly more years in you there in the foreign service. Any thoughts about after foreign service?
Robert Hilton: So many possibilities and so many ideas, but I haven’t, my thinking hasn’t coalesced around anything. If I’m fortunate, I’ll have maybe two more overseas assignments and then we’ll see what that might lead to. But foreign service people sometimes simply go into a quieter retirement. Sometimes they go into teaching jobs or educational jobs. People will sometimes go into the private sector as international representatives for corporations. There are a variety of ways in which our skillset, I think, can be applied domestically. But in my case, que será será, whatever will be, will be.
David Haynes: That’s a good answer. So as we close, how was your high school reunion? You were just here for it, right?
Robert Hilton: We met at the Elks Club. It was great. There were, I think 75 or 80 of us.
David Haynes: Wow.
Robert Hilton: And my class from MSHS was I think about 350. And so we didn’t all know each other, but I got to meet people that I maybe hadn’t known 40 years ago. And then to get reacquainted with some people who had really been good friends in the corridors of Marquette Senior High, it was very nice to see everybody again.
David Haynes: Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. One of the things I love about that, including at university alumni reunions, is the chance for people to share about what they’ve done and how they’ve grown from where they were and their lives have progressed beyond going to Andy’s Bar in Marquette.
Robert Hilton: That’s a pretty good life, but yes.
David Haynes: That’s a great life. Well, the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor.
Robert Hilton: You got it.
David Haynes: So well, that’s great. I enjoyed having coffee with you the other day and catching up. And thank you for doing this. We’re working on a program now to encourage more students to consider public service, so this is a great addition to that for us. So thank you Robert Hilton of Marquette and Washington DC and good luck to you and stay in touch with us.
Robert Hilton: Thanks very much, David. Happy to do it and talk again. Bye.
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