BRATTLEBORO — W. Patrick Murphy is a diplomat. Ask about his 25-year career at the U.S. State Department and he can answer in English, Burmese, Cantonese, French or Spanish.
Then again, W. Patrick Murphy is a diplomat. Ask about the latest headlines involving geopolitics or the new president and he’ll choose his words carefully.
“These days there are many challenges out there,” the 53-year-old said Friday, encompassing everything from terrorism and cyber threats to nuclear proliferation. “Every administration has its own approach.”
Murphy, a graduate of Brattleboro Union High School and the University of Vermont, works in Washington, D.C., as deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia, having served abroad in Burma, China, Iraq, Guinea, Lesotho, Mali and Thailand.
Murphy’s Twitter page shows the Vermonter next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
But having served under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, the diplomat is careful to limit his public opinions to baseball (“Go Sox!”), football (“It’s great to be from #NewEngland”) and basketball (“Great fun to watch my alma mater @uvmvermont at the Big Dance. Go Cats! #MarchMadness”).
Such caution extended to the title of Murphy’s talk in his boyhood hometown of Brattleboro. What sponsors at Marlboro College and the Windham World Affairs Council originally headlined “Promoting U.S. Interests in Asia During a Time of Change” morphed into “Advancing U.S. Interests Through Diplomacy” by the time the speaker greeted 50 attendees.
“We’re going through a transition,” Murphy said. “Our new president is my fifth, our new secretary of state is my ninth. As career foreign service officers, we’re nonpartisan.”
Murphy’s interest in diplomacy dates back to his participation in his high school model assembly, Boys State and Boys Nation programs. Through the latter, he met President Jimmy Carter before being reunited 16 years later while on the job in Guinea.
After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Murphy went on to join the Foreign Service in 1992 and was named a senior officer in 2010. He has aided refugees, addressed HIV/AIDS, helped Iraq transition to democracy, and organized historic visits to Burma by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Murphy demonstrated his diplomatic skills fielding questions Friday in Brattleboro, where just 15 percent of the electorate voted for the current president.
Asked about Trump’s proposed 37 percent budget cut to the State Department, Murphy noted the figure was just the start of “a long process” that will be decided by Congress.
“What you have heard is the first salvo,” he said. “There’s a lot of internal discussion now as to how to proceed.”
Asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, Murphy suggested it was too early to predict what will happen now that the nation has withdrawn.
“We have a new administration that’s very keen on not just having free trade but also fair trade,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s campaign criticism of the United Nations, Murphy said the commander in chief had appointed a strong and vocal ambassador in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“Every administration has a different rhetoric, different philosophy, different approach,” he said. “I will watch with you what our new president does.”
For all the talk of change, the career diplomat said the nation still has “capable people around the world tending to business.”
“One of the big challenges I find is not many Americans know of the State Department’s work,” Murphy said. “When it’s going well, the successes are less visible. We view diplomacy as the first line of defense. We speak frankly — when we choose to do so.”