Lessons from William Stanton, U.S. Diplomat and Director of the American Institute in Taiwan

Between 1978 and 2012, where the U.S. was needed in the world, William Stanton was there. The Lebanese Civil War, Tiananmen Square in 1988, deputy chief of mission in South Korea, acting ambassador to Australia, and, Bill led the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Amongst worldwide posts around the U.S. foreign service, AIT usually ranks 1st or 2nd amongst most desired worldwide posts.

The new American Institute in Taiwan, designed by Moore Ruble Yudell

The new American Institute in Taiwan. One of director William Stanton’s contributions to the American presence in Taiwan.

What does AIT do? AIT represents Americans in Taiwan and serves as the de-facto “embassy.” Basically, the U.S. recognizes the independence of Taiwan. But, not as a nation separate from China. While he was at AIT, William was the first to fly the American flag at AIT, increased visits by high-level U.S. officials, and:

  • Oversaw Taiwan’s inclusion to the U.S. visa waiver program
  • Solved the beef trade dispute between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan
  • Helped increase U.S. exports to Taiwan in 2011 by 43%

William Stanton and NTU International College

U.S. Diplomat William Stanton on Integrity

Bill just gave a talk at National Taiwan University (NTU) titled, “Lessons from a U.S. Diplomat, 1978-2012.” He’s here to head up NTU’s new International College, a move to grow the number of bi-lingual bachelors degree students. It’s rare for the university to bring English speakers to campus, so it’s good to see a faculty initiative that really supports these learning opportunities.

NTU needs this. After Jeremy Lin came two years ago, the 2016-17 school year felt short on this kind of international exposure. We tried our best. I’m part of a crew that brought Twitter’s head of Asia-Pacific, a co-founder of Sina, the head of HTC’s Vive VR platform, and the founder of Zhangmen Brewing to NTU.

Short of a superstar, we have to push to keep these events going. Most NTU students know some English, but not enough to sit thru an hour or two hour-long presentation. Otherwise, Bill’s auditorium should have been full.

Jeremy Lin at National Taiwan University

Jeremy Lin at National Taiwan University in June 2016. Not typical of the English speakers and local crowds who come out to these events!

Lessons from a U.S. Diplomat, 1978-2012

Expectations and reality of foreign service are two different things. Or in Bill’s case, four different things.

What Diplomats Do, according to William Stanton

To my ears, Bill went into foreign service for many of the reasons other Americans venture overseas for business reasons.

“I was tired of sitting alone in a room reading and writing. I wanted to see more of the world and to experience more of life. To do work of broader significance that might be of benefit to my country. And to be a witness to, and perhaps even a participant, in history.”

Lesson Learned in China by U.S. Diplomat William Stanton

“Every U.S. President… Winds Up Toasting China in the End”

Some parts of Bill’s work history might be controversial to people who didn’t live his life.

For example, you need to drink (a lot) in Korea. See? Sometimes, drinking is part of the job.

On China. “Every U.S. president, no matter how rhetorically tough about China at the start of an administration, winds up toasting the Chinese in the end.” This is the kind of power China has in the world.

For more hot takes, you should be attending his classes, or just come to more of these presentations. I’ll bullet point some general takeaways from my notes, and things Bill’s learned about Taiwan.

Career Lessons

  • Choose the life or work and be clear about the difference.
  • Many things can upset people in leadership positions, but nothing is really important except for the lives of people.
  • Policies can quickly change even as governments say their policies are firm.
  • Sometimes, nothing stands between what you write and what leaders say.
  • Constant stress is very bad for your health.

United Nations

  • The United Nations (UN) is no better than its members. True of all organizations.
  • Many members of the UN are neither democratic nor free. The UN General Assembly decided to hold a moment of silence in honor of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il following his death in 2011!
  • The Security Council remains unbalanced and unrepresentative. Among the Permanent Members of the Security Council who have veto power, there are no African or Latin American countries. Only the U.S., China, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
  • Reform appears very unlikely.


  • You must always try diplomacy first. Sometimes it succeeds! There were some high-level officials in Washington who wanted to halt the negotiations with Libya.
  • Protectionism is a powerful force in all countries. Leaders have a responsibility to take care of their own citizens.
  • Even with tough negotiators, you can make progress on hard issues.
  • Allies are not necessarily always friendly.

William Stanton, AIT, and Taiwan

  • There are some places in the world where the work is important and interesting, and life is good. ??
  • You can’t always rely on Taiwan media. When Bill began his post at AIT, different newspapers quoted contradicting statements about him.
    • “Stanton would be a controversial choice because he has a history of strong support for Beijing’s policies and had impeded internal reports critical of the Chinese regime.”
    • “One source… claimed Stanton was excessively pro-Taiwan.”
  • Taiwan is a great success story, but a story too few people know or understand.
  • Taiwan faces tremendous challenges. Perhaps Taiwanese do not worry about Taiwan enough, sometimes.

The One Thing

“Not enough attention is paid to U.S.-Taiwan relations by either the U.S. or Taiwan. Nonetheless, progress can be made if you are wiling to keep pressing both Washington and Taipei.” – William Stanton, 2017

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