Visiting Professor of Economics and former U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Gordon Streeb has a career that has spanned from chemical engineering to developmental economics — subject areas that have taken him from West Berlin to New Delhi. After working in the foreign service for three decades and then transitioning to the Carter Center as associate executive director of Peace Programs, Streeb is set to retire from Emory at the end of the Fall semester.
Streeb traces his affinity for international affairs back to his German roots. Born in 1935, Streeb grew up in a majority-German agricultural town in Colorado. As World War II approached, Streeb became surrounded by conversations about the place of Germans in the world, and identifies these conversations as an early determinant of his international bent.
“There was a lot of conversation among people [in my family] about international things, and especially… [about] the second world war… this question of the role of Germans,” Streeb said.
But Streeb didn’t immediately gravitate toward international development as a career. He graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1959 with degrees in chemical engineering and business. Still, when he had his choice of classes, Streeb said he would often opt for history or international affairs classes.
Following university, Streeb worked as an engineer at a nuclear plant run by Dow Chemical Company. It was there that a co-worker suggested that foreign service might better fit his interests. Streeb took the required set of foreign service entrance tests and passed them all, and just after returning from his honeymoon in Yellowstone National Park with his wife, he got a call to come to Washington, D.C. to join the U.S. Department of State.
Streeb’s first two assignments were in West Berlin in 1963 and Guadalajara, Mexico in 1965. But in the late 1960s, the State Department’s primary goals shifted, triggering what Streeb described as a 180-degree change in his career trajectory: the department decided it needed more trained economists.
“It began to dawn on people that issues in international trade and finance … were becoming very prominent issues in international relations, and [the State Department] had almost no trained economists,” Streeb said.
The State Department assigned Streeb to a six-month intensive training course in economics. Excelling in the course, he received partial funding to pursue economics at the graduate level.
Former U.S. ambassador and Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science Marion Creekmore, a longtime colleague of Streeb, emphasized that Streeb was chosen to attend the University of Minnesota to study economics because he stood out in the training course.
“[Streeb] was one of the top students that ever went through that economic program in the State Department,” Creekmore said. “When I went through that same course two or three years later, the instructors were still talking about what an outstanding student [Streeb had] been.”
Because the Foreign Service wouldn’t accommodate him while he completed his graduate degree, Streeb left the service to finish his degree. Streeb reentered the foreign service with his newfound economic expertise and finished his dissertation while stationed in Geneva in 1978. He was then assigned as an economic officer to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, before being nominated as U.S. ambassador to Zambia in 1990 to 1993.
Right after Streeb arrived in Zambia in 1990, former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda changed the constitution to allow for multiple political parties. Once Kaunda’s party, the United National Independence Party, was removed, Zambia went through a major economic transition whereby many state-owned enterprises had to be privatized.
“There were too many people in the military, too many people in the civil service,” Streeb said. “The country was built on the idea of everybody having a job … [and] you ended up with a lot of redundancy, particularly in the government.”
Though Streeb had no prior experience in Zambia before becoming an ambassador, he emphasized that it was crucial that he understand the country’s culture.
Streeb would often meet with American Christian missionary groups that had an ongoing dispute with Zambian Christians regarding church land. The conflict placed Streeb in a difficult position. On one hand, he had to respond to American interests. On the other hand, he had to follow one of the embassy’s core principles: relinquishing control to locals whenever possible, a goal Streeb said has been emphasized in recent years.
“Your overall motivation is to gradually transfer everything you possibly can to local management and control,” Streeb said. “It’s their country.”
When assessing the efficacy of his tenure in Zambia, Streeb highlighted both positive and negative trends in the country. Streeb expressed pride about managing a drought well and bringing the Peace Corps into Zambia for the first time. He was also initially hopeful that the new government would bring about lasting changes, but stated that his hopes of them were later let down.
School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health Professor Susan Allen works alongside Streeb to develop public health approaches to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Allen underscored that Streeb’s approach to international development brought a welcome tone of respect to the table.
“In meetings, in the first five minutes, the Africans would relax … because of [Streeb]. They would realize he was not there to bully them,” Allen said.
After his tenure as ambassador, Streeb took a job at the Carter Center as Associate Executive Director of Peace Programs, before becoming a visiting professor at Emory. Streeb draws on his wealth of diplomatic experience in his effort to impart understanding of the world to his students.
“I find all of the things that are going on in the world have an economic dimension to them, … and I like to see students get that kind of knowledge and begin to build it into their thinking,” Streeb said. “The idea of [bringing] students [a] more in-depth … understanding of what’s happening in the rest of the world … is invigorating.”
As Streeb prepares for retirement, he hopes to teach another summer economics course for high school students at the Emory Pre-College Program and become involved in a 2020 political campaign.
When asked to pinpoint the primary drive behind his career, Streeb described his straightforward drive to help others.
“It may sound a little bit corny, but my motive has always been to be there where you’re helping somebody,” Streeb said. “In fact, you had to write an essay [to enter the foreign service]. That was one of my opening [essay] points about going into the foreign service — an interest in … serving.”