Former Ambassador Gary Grappo’s had a favorite to share with the audience.
It wasn’t the most beautiful country he’s visited, or a funny experience with a foreign leader, though he did share a great story about being chewed out by a group of tribespeople when he was ambassador to Oman.
It was about the movie “Apollo 13.”
Grappo wanted to share his favorite scene, which, as it turns out, was the one where Tom Hanks drops his “Houston, we have a problem” line as the Apollo loses oxygen in space.
The ambassador didn’t pick that scene for its drama, though. He chose it for the collaboration between engineers, scientists and technicians who brought the astronauts home safely.
“Only the combination of ideas that came from each one of them allowed them to finally solve that problem,” Grappo said. “That’s what openness and free exchange of ideas can do.”
The Apollo 13 metaphor encapsulated the 90-minute keynote lecture and Q&A the former ambassador delivered Sunday at the Center for the Arts, kicking off the Teton County Model United Nations 2019 conference. Drawing from his multidecade career in South America, the Middle East and, most recently, with an organization working to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Grappo regaled the crowd with tales from his past.
He also presented his ideas about America’s role in today’s global society, chiefly its importance as a “convening power.” Like the Apollo 13 mission director who brought together a team of technicians to solve the oxygen crisis, Grappo said the United States is a country uniquely capable of bringing disparate nations together to exchange ideas and solve problems.
“No other country has that,” Grappo said. “I can’t underestimate the importance of that.”
And because the United States is the only country capable of convening nations in the way it does — whether through the United Nations, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group or a coalition assembled to intervene in Syria — Grappo suggested it’s the only nation capable of maintaining a free flow of ideas. That’s especially true because the network of partners that have come to the table with the United States since World War II have done so voluntarily.
“Not a single nation has been forced to join it,” Grappo said. “They’re willing to join with us because they share our values and many of our interests.”
But Grappo’s vision of the U.S. wasn’t starry-eyed. The ambassador admitted that the country has made many mistakes. He confessed that the United States often faces backlash in countries like Oman, where people may mistrust our role. And he acknowledged that our country’s short-term interests occasionally overrule our long-term values, as was the case in 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government for economic goals.
“I don’t like saying this, but, very often, when it’s our interests versus our values, which one do you think wins out?” Grappo asked.
It was a rhetorical question.
Though he allowed himself to spar — diplomatically — with question askers whose premises he disagreed with, Grappo contended that leading by association was the only way to solve the biggest issues facing the world: climate change, terrorism, foreign interference in domestic elections and countless others.
“We work together, we talk it out, we figure out a solution, we try it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work we come back, we do it again. The international system is geared to bring countries together.”
The former ambassador made it clear he thought that shouldn’t change — and the U.S. should continue to lead the world in doing so.