When Edward “Skip” Gnehm Jr., ESIA BA ’66, MA ’68, arrived at GW in the fall of 1962, he already had his goal in sight. He spent the next six years studying international affairs. A distinguished career as a diplomat, including three ambassadorships, followed. He is currently Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs. During GW’s Alumni Weekend, Ambassador Gnehm will join former classmates to celebrate the 50-year reunion of the class of 1966. We recently caught up with Ambassador Gnehm in his book-lined office on the fifth floor of the Elliott School building, and he shared a few thoughts about GW in the 1960s and about the diplomat’s life.
You grew up in southern Georgia. What influenced your decision to come to GW?
One day my eighth-grade civics teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said something like a preacher or an archaeologist, and she asked if I had ever thought about the Foreign Service. I said: “what’s that?” She said: “it’s about being an ambassador and living overseas.” And I thought: “Well that sounds like a lot of fun.” Do you know what she said next? She said, “You need to go to George Washington University. It’s the best university in the country for that.” I decided right then and there that I wanted to come to GW.
What did you think about GW at first?
I was lonely. Then I met Mike Enzi [now a U.S. Senator]. He was from Wyoming, and I was from Georgia, and everyone else seemed to be from Long Island or New Jersey. He and I pledged the same fraternity and were roommates the next year. We’re still friends.
Fast forward to the Middle East, where you spent so much of your diplomatic career. What about the Middle East attracted you?
My mother was a history and geography teacher, and I just was fascinated with ancient history. I wanted to see all the sites. The region is just so rich in terms of culture.
You’ve served in Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Australia. Do you have a favorite country or posting?
Each situation was different. If you ask me which country I’m most invested in, it’s Kuwait. I was appointed ambassador, but the Iraqis invaded before I could get there. Later, I went in with the troops when we liberated Kuwait and worked to rebuild. I was there through an historic moment in time. I have a lot of my heart there. I have the deepest relationships with people I met in Jordan. I served two tours there; my kids went to school and grew up there. I arrived the night before 9/11 and was there when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Each country was a moment in time, and each country had something distinct.
What qualities do you think an ambassador needs to be successful?
Leadership. The ambassador has more authority in that kind of setting than is usual in American society. The community depends on the ambassador; the morale of the post will be very much driven by the personality of the ambassador and how he or she leads.
Also humility. It’s very important that the person who is ambassador doesn’t forget who he or she is. Just never forget the human element.
What is the oldest piece of GW memorabilia you own?
A cloth patch with the GW logo. GW still had a football team in the 1960s. We played at RFK stadium. I was part of the team’s three-member “yell-leader” squad and wore the patch on my yell-squad sweater. We had a lot of fun.
When you look back at your GW education, do you remember a shaping class or professor?
Absolutely. There were plenty of times in my career when I would remember something from my GW experience. A course in speech I took as a senior stands out. I learned a ton about how you speak effectively.
What advice do you give students who wish to follow in your footsteps?
Persevere. Don’t ever get discouraged when things don’t develop the way you anticipated they would. The thing you need to say to yourself is “what new opportunity is here that wasn’t here before?” Because it’s there, and you just have to seize it.