Diplomat Lucy Abbott ’79 Gives Nicky Chapin Lecture

As Nicky Stout Chapin ’52, an alumna and beloved former Chapin faculty member, recounted to Upper School students in her introduction of Lucy Abbott ’79 for the 18th annual Nicky Chapin Lecture, Lucy’s mid-year arrival from Africa in her seventh-grade Geography class was something she still remembers clearly. Also memorable, she noted, was Lucy’s Chapin yearbook that predicted she would one day be ambassador to Maine, which by then would have seceded from the Union. “The prediction was amazingly accurate, considering I didn’t plan to be a diplomat and didn’t plan to live in Maine,” Ms. Abbott remarked with a smile.

From Ms. Abbott’s first diplomatic assignment as the Visa Officer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to her final assignment as acting head of the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, she worked to protect American citizens abroad and to represent the interests of the United States. After graduating from Smith College, Ms. Abbott tried a range of jobs – including working for an advertising agency in New York and in a Maine Congressional office in Washington, D.C., all of which enriched her work as a Foreign Service Officer.

Over the course of a sweeping career, Ms. Abbott served six U.S. administrations in nine countries, and moved 15 times in 30 years. In addition to Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, she served in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), Yemen, Japan, Canada, Liberia and Niger. In between her international assignments, Ms. Abbott served in several positions in Washington, including as the Senior Watch Officer in the Operations Center, where she oversaw the State Department’s global crisis management initiative. She conducted diplomacy in French, Arabic and Japanese and taught herself a bit of Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.

Ms. Abbott packed an incredible amount of information into her captivating talk. She started with some history of the State Department, such as why it is not called the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the fact that the entire Foreign Affairs budget, including the State Department and all embassies, foreign aid and U.N. funding, including peacekeeping operations, has always been less than 1% of the federal budget. Reflecting on her experiences around the world, she highlighted the most significant challenges that confront Americans at home and abroad: environmental degradation and expedient security policies.

Citing examples, such as the population crash in pollinators, the presence of fire-retardant chemicals in Inuit breast milk, and severe water shortages in Cape Town, Ms. Abbott said that environmental damage posed an urgent threat around the world. “We have always counted on Mother Nature to filter our air and our water for free, but we are exceeding that capacity,” she said. “Worrying about climate change seems like wondering if you might get lung cancer when you already have a sucking chest wound.”

Regarding U.S. power, Ms. Abbott said the post-September 11 prioritization of security and the military war on terrorism had led to policies that we have seen destabilize countries around the world. The United States is, she said, strongest when we lead by example, but noted that trends like the militarization of our police, the use of drones for assassinations abroad, and support for the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen sow the seeds of long-term problems.

Ms. Abbott ended by stressing that despite the challenges we face in international relations, the United States has made an important difference, and global trends are positive. Our advocacy of free trade, transparent governance, free press and independent judiciaries has created a world in which the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has decreased, literacy is up, and maternal/child mortality is down. The number of people living under some form of democratic government, although wavering since 2005, is up dramatically in the last 50 years.

As she concluded her remarks, Ms. Abbott ended with an ardent call to action. “Be mindful of how you use resources, not only petroleum-based resources like oil and plastics, but your time and attention. Vote! If Afghans are risking their life to vote, there is no reason for your voice not to be heard. And consider a career in the Foreign Service.”

As the students filed out of the Assembly Room, Ms. Abbott’s talk offered them much to think about as they begin to chart their own paths. Lucy Abbott ’79 certainly stands out as an example of a brave and determined Chapin alumna who has indeed made a difference in the world.

Browse photos from the lecture below: