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Acting Assistant Secretary of State to discuss diplomacy in Asia during Common Hour

February 16, 2018

Today, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton ’85 will return to Bowdoin to deliver a lecture titled “The Asian Century: Myth and Reality,” at 12:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium. The talk, postponed from October 30 due to major blackouts across campus and Brunswick, has been rescheduled as a Common Hour event.

Thornton has held her position at the State Department since March. In December, President Trump nominated Thornton to the position permanently, and she is now awaiting Senate confirmation. Daniel R. Russel held the permanent position during the Obama administration.

“It’s very rare that we have the opportunity to have such a high-level official come to give a talk at a college like this,” said Assistant Professor of Government and Legal Studies and Asian Studies Christopher Heurlin, who helped schedule the event.

He anticipates Thornton will speak about North Korea and China in her lecture. Students will have an opportunity to ask Thornton questions following the talk as well.

After graduating from Bowdoin in 1985, Thornton attended the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and went on to research Soviet bureaucratic politics and contemporary Russia at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington, DC. She also speaks Mandarin Chinese and Russian.

Thornton joined the State Department in 1991. Her focus is U.S. foreign policy in Eurasia, specifically the former Soviet Union and East Asia. According to the U.S. Department of State website, she has served various roles in the State Department, including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan, Deputy Director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs and Economic Unit Chief in the Office of Korean Affairs. She has been posted in China, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Heurlin said that Thornton’s appointment to the position as a career diplomat is distinctive.

“It’s not always the case that it would be a career state department official who’s in that position, and oftentimes it might be someone who’s a political appointee, maybe an academic. Some kind of outsider. It’s really quite an accomplishment to be nominated for that,” Heurlin said. “She has a long career in Asia, so it’s a very good choice.”

Heurlin noted that her position in the Trump administration is particularly relevant.

“Her particular position as the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia is very much in the news. We are hearing a lot these days about not only China, but especially North Korea. The areas she’s responsible for are really vital in understanding U.S. foreign policy,” he said.

Thornton’s talk will take place during Common Hour, a one-hour slot set aside on certain Fridays during which no classes or meetings may be scheduled. Attendance at Common Hour events has decreased over the past few years. In December, a working group examining the College’s academic schedule suggested suspending Common Hour to reconsider its goals and role on campus. Common Hour has since been reinstated, with Thornton’s talk as the first event of the semester.

Though Thornton’s schedule is very busy—Heurlin explained that Thornton accompanies the president on most of his trips to Asia—she is available today.

“It’s great for the Common Hour to have a really high-profile speaker like this, as we’re also trying to re-invigorate the Common Hour program,” Heurlin said.

Heurlin hopes that students will gain a deeper understanding about the cooperation and compromise necessary to enact foreign policy.

“One of the themes that we often try to impart on students in terms of foreign policy-making is that there are trade-offs with every foreign policy that we choose,” he said. “Oftentimes, we have to balance competing interests.”

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