Former U.S. Ambassador Reflects on C.C. and “Carmania”

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Dell_Lisbon

Dell with his wife, Theodora, in Lisbon.

Christopher Dell ’78 is the former U.S. ambassador to Angola, Zimbabwe and Kosovo. He earned an M.Phil. in international relations at Balliol College, Oxford, on a Kellett Fellowship. Dell joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1981 and in his 32-year career served at various posts in Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as in Washington, D.C., where among his assignments he was the Spain and Portugal desk officer and the director for NATO Affairs. Other overseas tours in the Foreign Service included assignments to Mexico, Portugal, Mozambique, Bulgaria and Afghanistan, where he was the deputy ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Dell’s last government assignment was as deputy commander of the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Since retiring, Dell has been the country manager in Mozambique for Bechtel, a large engineering and construction firm, and a consultant to Fieldstone, a private investment bank focusing on power and infrastructure projects in Africa and elsewhere. He is a non-executive director of Sicona Battery Technologies, an Australia-based startup, and has recently been invited to join the board of the National Center for State Courts. Dell continues to provide support on civil-military affairs to the training directorate of the U.S. Joint Staff.


During his Foreign Service career, Dell received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Distinguished Service Award; the Ghazi Mir Masjidi Khan High State Award, from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan; the State Department’s Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for his work in helping end Angola’s civil war; the Order of the Madara Horseman from the Republic of Bulgaria; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Service Award. He is currently working (albeit slowly) on a popular history of the Portuguese navigations, trying to study the Portuguese guitar (even more slowly) and, reflecting on the lasting influence of Professor Karl-Ludwig Selig and “The Quixit,” renovating a windmill in Portugal (this last more quickly).


What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I suppose I was a lot like most other 18-year-olds arriving on campus. I was excited and nervous, cocky and insecure, all at once. I grew up in New Jersey, near the Shore, but had never spent much time in New York, and certainly not on my own. So, it’s fair to say I was pretty inexperienced and had a lot to learn about life in the City. I came to the College thinking that I’d be pre-law and go into politics, but when I discovered that about 40 percent of my class had the same plans (and another 40 percent were pre-med), my contrarian nature kicked in and I began to rethink my plans. It wasn’t until my junior year that I discovered international relations in a course on strategic studies that I took with Professor Warner Schilling, and this awakened my interest in the Foreign Service as a career. The rest, as they say, is history.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in one of the Carman suites in the era when the (in)famous “Doc” Deming ran the dorm. My roommate was a very quiet fellow who spent most of his time in the library and left on weekends. We had different habits — he’d be up at dawn and asleep by 10:00 p.m. I was more or less the opposite. John left the dorms after that first semester (I believe he eventually left Columbia to enter a seminary) and my roommate for the second half of the year was from Panama. He was a great guy and gave me my first real contact with the Latin world, which has been a big part of my life ever since. The other two guys in our suite were both engineers and football players. Despite these differences, we all came from a similar background (today you’d say we came from working-class families, but at that time strong trade unions helped ensure that our families saw themselves as quite middle class). We hit it off well and roomed together again (in Carman again, sigh) in our sophomore year. We’re still in touch today. On the first day of freshman Orientation I met Nick Serwer ’78, LAW’81 on the food line at John Jay and it turned out he lived on the same floor of “Carmania.” We became lifelong friends; I owe my taste for Maryland blue claw crabs with Old Bay Seasoning (accompanied by a pitcher of Natty Bo) to Nick.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

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Use this Dell

Dell (right) on a mountaintop in Afghanistan with then-Senators Joseph Biden (D-Del.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), along with the commander of the 101st Airborne Division and his political advisor.

I took CC during my first semester. The TA who taught my section ripped apart one of my first essays, accusing me of Social Darwinism for taking an 18-year-old’s optimistic view of human nature. He made it sound like the height of intellectual malpractice, but it wasn’t long before I discovered that many greater thinkers than I had also committed the crime of believing that human society could evolve positively. And despite a career working in places that ought to have forced me to know better, I still believe it. On a more upbeat note, Lit Hum sparked a lifelong love of the ancient Greek world. About 15 years later I had a Foreign Service assignment that took me to Athens frequently and I had a chance to explore some of ancient Greece firsthand. The highlight was being taken by the director of the American School of Archeology to visit the then-newly excavated “Stoa of Socrates,” and being one of the first people in two millennia to stand on the spot where the father of Western philosophy had been tried and convicted. The memory of attending a performance at the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus (ancient Epidivros) still gives me goose bumps. It was electrifying, even though I couldn’t understand a word.


Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

When I eventually escaped from Carman, I moved into Hartley; my window provided the only access to “The ‘T’ain’t” — the little covered passage connecting Hartley and the neighboring dorm (“’cause t’ain’t Hartley ’n’ t’ain’t Livingston”). It became our private terrace and a great place from which to rain snowballs down on passersby.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I’d have taken greater advantage of New York. The possibilities that come with living in the city while in college is one of Columbia’s best sales pitches, I know, but I didn’t really use it to the fullest. The ’70s were one of the city’s low points and maybe it was less alluring for that reason. Fortunately, my wife, who was born abroad, first got to know the city in the ’90s and has never seen it with my jaded ’70s-survivor gaze. She wants to visit every chance we get, so I’m making up for lost time now.