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Northwestern University

What did you do with your arts and sciences degree?

John Malott ’67 has led a life of public service as a U.S. diplomat to Asia

headshot of John Malott

In March 1982, a mob attacked the U.S. consulate in Bombay, India, to protest American arms sales to Pakistan. The rioters burned cars and smashed windows before the police restored order.

The consul general was away, so in the shocked silence of the aftermath, the question of what to do next lay with a young second-in-command. “Everyone was standing around waiting for me to make a decision,” recalls John Malott. “They wanted leadership.”

The Northwestern graduate moved quickly, closing the con­sulate for only a day while the burned cars were moved and the windows repaired. “We needed to show that we would not be intimidated,” Malott says.

Not a typical day on the job, but in a volatile world not really unusual either. Malott’s 32-year career as a foreign-service officer immersed him in demanding assignments throughout Asia, from wartime Vietnam to Malaysia, where he served as ambassador from 1995 to 1998. The future diplomat enrolled at Weinberg College in 1963, when a seminal event — the assassination of John F. Kennedy — inspired his decision to pursue a career in public service. Malott majored in political science, but courses in cultural anthropology and “non-Eurocentric” world history provided key lessons that would be reinforced throughout his career. “It’s vital to under­stand that not everybody thinks the way you do,” Malott observes.

Less obvious influences were the marching band (Malott was a drummer) and the Waa-Mu Show, for which he composed music and served as a rehearsal pianist. Those experiences cultivated logistical finesse, show-business instincts, and calm in the face of crisis — all useful, it turned out, for a career on the world stage.

Malott’s first posting, in 1969, took him to war-torn Vietnam and planted the seeds of a fascination with Asia. Afterwards, stints across the continent alternated with posts at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

Along the way, there was language training — he became fluent in Vietnamese and Japanese — and an intensive program in economics, which built on the macro- and microeconomics he studied at Northwestern. “Every foreign service officer should study economics,” he says. “And writing is critically important: you have to be able to write with clarity and precision.”

Malott’s greatest expertise and most visible contributions involved Japan, where his roles ranged from economics specialist to consul general. In April 2017, the Japanese government gave him one of its highest honors, the Order of the Rising Sun, praising him as “a steady guide” during the bitter U.S.-Japan trade conflicts of the 1980s and noting his post-retirement achievements as president of the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.

Underlying his success, Malott says, was his arts and sciences education, because a good diplomat is continually learning new things. “Northwestern instills the ability to see that there are many ways to approach a problem — to think in 360 degrees.”

(Photo: John Malott)

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