Government career takes on ‘a life of its own’

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Barack Obama and Chris Backemeyer shaking hands

How an interest in Latin American issues set Chris Backemeyer ’04 on an unexpected path to becoming an expert on the Middle East

When Chris Backemeyer finished his undergraduate degree at Arizona State University in 1998, with a dual degree in finance and political science, he initially intended to spend his career in the financial sector. 

“I got interested in foreign policy kind of late in undergrad and took a couple of classes, but at that time I had never traveled outside of the country,” Backemeyer said. 

He took a role at a bank after graduating, but his interest in foreign policy continued to grow, and after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, his interest turned into a calling to work directly in government. Little did he know at the time, but his choice to move into the policy field would lead to a number of crucial government roles, including work during the Obama Administration on the Iran nuclear deal, serving as special adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, and his current role as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.

“I was interested in international issues, but 9/11 happened after undergrad and before I went back to grad school, and that really pushed me from being interested in international issues to deciding that I wanted to change my career in that direction,” Backemeyer said. “I also started doing some of my own travel, and that experience got me very interested in Latin America.”

Backemeyer decided to quit his bank job and backpack around Central America, and around the same time, he began applying to graduate schools across the country, including many on the East Coast. 

“I really liked UC San Diego’s Latin America and quantitative focus, particularly since I had a finance background,” Backemeyer said. “At the time, I was a little nervous about going to California and not to Washington, because I knew Washington was where I ultimately wanted to go, but spending two years in San Diego instead gave me a very valuable and different perspective.”

Charting a path to government post-GPS

After earning his master’s degree at the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) in 2004, Backemeyer was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellows program.

“It’s a program that a lot of people starting out in the government, especially right out of grad school, take part in,” Backemeyer explained. “It’s a two-year program where you do different rotations throughout a government organization to get an understanding of how the organization works.”

His first job under that program was with the Bureau of Public Affairs’ Office of Regional Media Outreach, which is tasked with communicating an administration’s foreign policy to regional and local media outlets. 

“It was our job to try to explain to your average American about what we were doing in foreign policy and why it mattered to them, so I did things like bringing in camera crews and setting them up for interviews with senior officials and briefing officials on their press engagements,” Backemeyer said. “This was during the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, so it was a really great opportunity to hear senior officials explain what was at the time one of the most challenging, controversial foreign policy issues out there.”

After that stint, Backemeyer also completed a rotation in New York as part of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where he worked on multilateral diplomacy for the first time.

He then served at the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, while the country was still under the control of Hugo Chavez — a fascinating point in the country’s history when it was thriving economically but still under authoritarian rule. 

Once his stint in the Presidential Management Program was complete, he took a job in the Economics Bureau in the Office of Terrorism, Finance and Sanctions Policy. Building on his finance background, Backemeyer worked on trying to cut off financial flows to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and other malign actors. 

“Eventually, that job started to focus almost exclusively on Iran and Iran sanctions,” Backemeyer said. “At the end of the Bush Administration, we were pretty bogged down in Iraq, and there was a lot of focus on sanctions on Iran, trying to pressure them to change their nuclear policies and human rights policies.”

And though Backemeyer initially wanted to work on Latin American issues, once he gained expertise on Iran sanctions, he began to build out his expertise in the Middle East. 

“It sort of took on a life of its own,” he said. 

Negotiating Iran’s nuclear deal

Backemeyer ended up moving to a role at the White House, as the National Security Council’s director for Iran. 

“That was probably the luckiest break I had career-wise, because during President Obama’s first campaign, he campaigned on being willing to negotiate with the Iranians to address their nuclear program,” Backemeyer explained. “And that was all on the back of sanctions pressure that was building up both through Congress and through the administration.” 

His NSC role also coincided with Iran electing Hassan Rouhani in June 2013.

“Rouhani was by no means a liberal in any sense, but he ran on a campaign of getting sanctions removed and opening up their economy, and it paired very well with the fact that Obama was willing to negotiate,” Backemeyer explained. 

Thus began years of negotiations with the Iranians about their nuclear program and ultimately to remove sanctions in return. 

“I was very lucky to be there on the ground floor and part of a very small group that could work on something so secret,” Backemeyer said. “Later, we brought that deal to the public and began international negotiations of what became the Iran nuclear deal that everyone has heard of.”

Backemeyer transitioned back to the U.S. Department of State’s negotiating team for the nuclear deal, working on it for a year. He continued working on issues relating to Iran until the Trump Administration, which changed priorities on relations with Iran. 

Making an impact in multilateral relations

Backemeyer then transitioned within the State Department to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, where he has remained, with the exception of a temporary assignment from 2021-2022 as Vice President Harris’ Middle East adviser.

“In my current role, I coordinate all of the foreign assistance that we provide throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which is about $7 billion worth of economic, military and other assistance,” Backemeyer said. 

Backemeyer credits the quantitative background he received at GPS, as well as the focus on international economics, as hugely beneficial to his career. 

“The organization I work in is not a quantitative one by its character, and so having these skills is very much a huge advantage in the State Department,” Backemeyer said. “That background gave me a boost.” 

Backemeyer also said across his career, he has seen a transition from bilateral to multilateral relations — incorporating a global perspective he believes a degree from GPS well prepares students for. He used the example of a project he’d worked on, Project Prosperity — an energy agreement among Jordan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates in which Jordan would build a solar farm to supply electricity to Israel and Israel would build desalination plants to provide water to Jordan, with the UAE providing financing. 

“It’s a really optimistic and positive project for the region that is, unfortunately, on pause, given the Gaza conflict,” Backemeyer said. “But things like that are the future of diplomacy and international relations. It’s something that’s been really exciting for me to work on but also something I think GPS students will be well suited to help build in the future.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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