Alumni Profile: John Riordan

Name: John Riordan

Program Completed: MA in REECAS, 2003

Works as: USAID Development Advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command (Tampa, Florida); formerly Country Director, USAID Uzbekistan Program (Tashkent) 2014-2017, and Country Director, USAID Belarus Program (Minsk) 2009-2013

John Riordan presented with certificate from Latvian diplomat.
John Riordan (left) receiving a certificate of commendation from Latvian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Andrejs Pildegovičs. (Photo courtesy of John Riordan)

Tell us a little about your current position.

Currently, I am assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command as a USAID development advisor. Here I help support the “3D” concept, which is defense, diplomacy, and development all working in tandem to achieve United States Government strategic objectives across the globe. It’s only in the last handful of years that the U.S. government is formulating this idea, and now we are starting to see USAID people placed at the combatant commands. To that end, following an assignment to USAID/Iraq in 2006, I was selected as the first U.S. Foreign Service Officer to attend the Army’s Advanced Military Studies Program (AMSP) at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth. I received a Master’s Degree in Military Arts and Sciences and learned the value of understanding the military decision making process in pursuit of “whole of government” solutions to complex, adaptive problem sets. While many across the USG see the value in this approach, the employment of the concept is a work in progress. In any case, this is really a fascinating way to put my hybrid civ-mil skillset to use.

Can you elaborate on how development and defense are related?

In the field, wherever it may be, you find that government agencies are looking at things more holistically now. Instead of the previous compartmentalized approach where everyone did their own thing, they are trying to make sure there is a more complete understanding of what is happening in stability and fragility operations, for example. No one agency can do everything, and I think they want to have more of a complimentary process that requires people to be embedded in each other’s organizations to understand planning processes and things like that.

So that is the intent. This helps bridge the gap between the civilization and military spheres to get a better appreciation for what’s happening.

Where were you before completing the REECAS program?

Before starting my MA I was in the Peace Corps. I spent a couple years on the Kyrgyz side of the Ferghana Valley, down in the heart of it. While there, I was picking up on some of these challenging issues surrounding identity and nationality, and that would actually help shape my experience at UW-Madison.

A few years later, I returned to the region (this time, the Uzbek side) as a Fulbright Scholar. I was teaching current events at Ferghana State University, doing archival work, and interviewing World War II veterans who fought in Leningrad, Stalingrad, and across the whole front. I was supposedly the first American allowed in the Ferghana city archives, and none have been given access since. I know that for a fact, because I followed up a few years ago when I was living there as the country director for USAID!

Who were your favorite professors at UW-Madison?

So the ideas that I explored in the Peace Corps came to fruition in my Fulbright experience, and I was lucky to continue that conversation with Bob Kaiser, Uli Schamiloglu and, especially, Mark Beissinger in political science. I owe a great deal to CREECA for the support and encouragement from the staff at the time. The program definitely opened multiple doors in the education sphere, and also professionally. It was a really positive experience.

What do you like best about your career?

Every day is a new challenge. Wherever I am—be it Belarus, Uzbekistan, Romania, Iraq, etc.—I’m using the full toolset I developed during my education. That helped strengthen my analytical abilities for immediate use in a concrete and beneficial way for the populations that we work with. That to me is fulfilling, so the job is thoroughly engrossing and rewarding. I remember seeing the USAID people working when I was on the Fulbright or in the Peace Corps, and I thought I could do that, too.

And of course, I love being abroad and working within new cultures. That experience paired with doing something positive is what attracted me to USAID.

John Riordan will be giving the final CREECA lecture of the spring 2019 semester on May 2, 2019 at 4:00 pm in 206 Ingraham Hall.