Carmen Suro-Bredie remembers watching the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on a blustery winter day in 1961. She recalls hearing the young politician dare the American public: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
It's a challenge that Ms. Suro-Bredie took to heart, dedicating her life to serving the United States and logging more than 30 years of public service. In 1991, she helped negotiate the first intellectual-property agreement with the Soviet Union and Poland. In 1994, she was chief architect of the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that was signed by 34 presidents, including Bill Clinton, Carlos Menem of Argentina, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico. And, in 1998, she became involved, on a pro bono basis, in the Ireland peace talks where she coached the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, bringing women into the discussions that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and, eventually, peace.
In the past year, Ms. Suro-Bredie has supervised the interagency team that approves the negotiating policy used in the free trade areas of Australia, Central America, and Morocco. She's also the editor of the President's report to Congress on trade that was issued in early March. "I'm lucky to have been part of a team that negotiated some very groundbreaking agreements," she says.
But admirers of Ms. Suro-Bredie are more blunt. "She's fearless," says Maria Zammit, vice-chairwoman of the World Affairs Councils of the Americas, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to international affairs. "She's dynamic and talented and can conduct trade negotiations with the best of them."
Helping Ms. Suro-Bredie has been a life lived on a global plane. She grew up in the political backyard of Washington, D.C., and spent summers in her mother's home country of Ecuador. As an adult she has lived in Singapore, Paris, Boston, and Washington.
Her father, Guillermo Suro, emigrated from Puerto Rico to Florida, and eventually became chief of conferences and translation for the State Department. A second-generation American, he spoke several languages – including Spanish, German, English, and Portuguese – and helped invent the system of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials. Ms. Suro-Bredie's mother, Piedad, was a former journalist who later joined the Foreign Service and was named president of the InterAmerican Commission of Women in the 1960s.
It was her parents, especially her father, who instilled a sense of duty in a young Ms. Suro-Bredie. "He was very, very dedicated to the fact he was an American," she says. The Suro family constantly debated politics, and her parents openly discussed various issues with their children. Should Kennedy be elected over Richard Nixon? Was Fidel Castro a real threat? Such dialogue instilled a form of respect in Ms. Suro-Bredie for various opinions. "You had to be prepared if you had something to say," she says. "But if you did say something, it was listened to."
Foreign affairs were also a constant in Ms. Suro-Bredie's life. Her parents invited ambassadors, friends from the Foreign Service, international artists, and women leaders to their home. It was this influence that would later inspire her to join the Foreign Service. "The dinner table was a fixed multicultural event every night," she says. "I had really strong role models in my parents and their associates."
Ms. Suro-Bredie entered professional life during a time of political change. In 1969, she graduated from Manhattanville College of Purchase, New York, just as the women's movement was flourishing. She joined protest marches against the Vietnam War, worked on Eugene McCarthy's failed presidential campaign in 1970, and then attended Johns Hopkins University for a master's degree in advanced international studies.
In 1973, she joined the Foreign Service. Diplomats, she says, are the face of the United States in many countries. But at that time, the agency was working to promote a more equal representation of its female recruits. "The Foreign Service, like every other group, suffered for a long, long time," says Marilyn McAfee, a former co-worker who retired from the agency in 1998. "But to the state department's credit, it took action to redress that in a very positive way for minorities and women."
Policies that hampered women, including a rule that required them to step down if they married, were changed. Now, the Foreign Service provides ample opportunity for women, women of color, and Hispanics, says Ms. Suro-Bredie.
"In many respects I have been, and others of my generation have been, beneficiaries of lots of serious legal interaction and other efforts by women to gain opportunity," she says.
Married for 30 years, Ms. Suro-Bredie credits her family and her husband, a Dutch auditor at the World Bank, for their support. But most of all it was the commitment she learned from her parents that has kept her going, even after giving birth to two sons. "My father deeply believed in public service and that there were no boundaries as long as you worked very hard and had a good education," she says.
Although she has helped formulate policy in some groundbreaking international pacts, Ms. Suro-Bredie's current role is closer to home. As assistant U.S. trade representative for policy coordination, she's responsible for pulling together the trade and investment disposition of some 20 government agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Each agency, she says, has its own particular culture that must be understood. Her goal is to come up with a combined policy for all the agencies, though each represents different aspects. Throughout the negotiation process, she strives to understand the other person's point of view and interest. The information gained by the interagency process is used to negotiate with foreign governments, she says.
Ms. Suro-Bredie's role is like "trying to get General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler to all agree on the same policy," says Polly Coreth, a co-worker and special assistant to the deputy U.S. trade representative. "But Carmen does it without anyone having hard feelings."
As a Hispanic woman, Ms. Suro-Bredie says she believes it is important to set goals and learn to be flexible. During her last assignment in the Foreign Service, she was in Paris and noticed that all the French diplomats had a background in business as well as government. So, in 1979, she took a leave of absence and attended Harvard business school. The endeavor meant losing two years of salary plus having to pay tuition. But Ms. Suro-Bredie felt that she would gain analytical skills that would aid in forming public policy. "This proved to be true," she says now. "The interaction between government and business proved true."
The next frontier for Ms. Suro-Bredie may lie in the Middle East. The lessons that she learned during the Ireland peace talks could be used to bring women into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. However, the idea is still being researched, she says. "My experience in Northern Ireland is that women are natural negotiators," Ms. Suro-Bredie says. "And their commitment to the peace process is important. It ensures a much more democratic agreement because it integrates half of the population into the process."
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