An Interview with Deborah A. McCarthy, U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania
Deborah A. McCarthy has served as the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania since February 2013. Her most recent prior roles include serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Greece, and the Special Coordinator for Venezuelan Affairs. Her other posts abroad have included Canada, Nicaragua, France, Haiti, and Italy. Within the U.S., McCarthy has worked as the Senior Advisor for Counter Terrorism, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and an employee at the Department of the Treasury. A career member of the Foreign Service, she has won numerous accolades for her work on behalf of the U.S. government. McCarthy received her Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Virginia and Master’s Degrees from Georgetown University, in addition to a Certificate in Airline Strategic Management from the International Air Transport Association.
The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service?
Basically, I chose to enter public service — which the Foreign Service is all about — and chose deliberately international issues. I had first tried working at an NGO, and then I worked at a major bank in New York. I would say there are a couple of main things that influenced me. One, I wanted to live overseas. My father had served in U.S. missions overseas for many years, and I grew up in Argentina and France. The second factor was wanting to be involved in international relations. I studied international relations both at the undergraduate and the graduate level, and I wanted to apply what I had learned, as well as drawing on my NGO and banking experience. That’s probably a good summary of why I chose to join the Foreign Service.
The Politic: In a personal rather than professional sense, what do you find to be the most rewarding and also the most challenging aspects of life as a Foreign Service Officer?
The most rewarding part is to be a witness to, or to participate in, history. Time and time again, in assignments we have overseas, you witness history in the making or you participate in a major political change.
Here’s one example: I was in Haiti in September of 1991 when there was a coup against the president at the time, President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. Mostly the poor had elected him, and they were outraged that he had been taken out of office. Those who were against him and who instigated the coup felt that he was not a democrat. So it was quite a struggle to witness, and it included a lot of upheaval in the country. We played a key role in negotiating. I remember participating in sessions with the military to have them relinquish power and return the country to civilian rule.
Another more recent example was when I was posted in Greece. A few months after I got there, a young 15-year-old boy was killed during an intervention or altercation he had with the police. I was just a few blocks away when it happened. And [throughout] the entire city, and then across the country, there were massive protests, violence, mayhem. It triggered anger in the entire country: an anger toward security services, an anger toward the system in general. It was history in the making for those who were there, but it was also a good portend of the subsequent upheavals that have taken place in the country as they have gone through their financial crisis.
So that’s just a couple of examples of participating in key moments in a country’s history. Today, those who are in Kiev — like my colleagues in the [U.S.] Mission in Kiev — are witnessing history in the making, right there outside of their window, and they’re talking to people.
On the challenging side, it is uprooting family every few years because we have to change homes, schools, and friends. It takes a special family to go through that. This is a particularly challenging aspect of the Foreign Service.
The Politic: How large is your immediate family?
My immediate family consists of my daughter and myself.
The Politic: You’ve moved all over the world. You’ve served in both the Americas as well as in Europe. Have you preferred one over the other — the Americas over Europe, or Europe over the Americas — and why?
From my background — I mentioned that I grew up both the Western Hemisphere and Europe, in Argentina and France — and I’ve always had three base languages. So I’ve always been drawn to both. I’ve had the French, the Spanish, and obviously English. I’ve gone back and forth because the challenges are different in each area. In some parts of working in Latin America, there are always sort of specters, real or imaginary, of past U.S. political involvement in the country’s history. That often comes to the forefront if we work on new objectives. With others in the Western Hemisphere, you’ve got a strong economic agenda, such as in Canada and Mexico.
In Europe, it’s different. It’s more about partnering with Europe on global challenges, from Iran to Syria to climate change. We share leadership in the global fora on common causes, so to speak. So the challenges are different in each. But again, as my entire lifetime has been spent between the two, I don’t pick one over the other.
The Politic: I want to go back to your points about how you are a part of history. Is there a single experience, event, or person specifically in Lithuania who has influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?
At the end of [last] August, President Obama invited the presidents of the three Baltic countries to talk about our relationship going forward. It’s important to keep in perspective the fact that just slightly over two decades ago, all three countries had just gotten their independence from the then-Soviet Union, now Russia. And we have stood by them through thick and thin, through all the years of occupation, keeping their embassies open. They’re full members of the EU; they’re full members of NATO — we help them.
In that meeting, there was a shift that took place because we turned from a discussion about how we could help these three countries as we had in the past to a discussion about how we could work together — especially as they’re members of NATO, members of the EU — in terms of working on global challenges, whether it’s working on military issues, cyber security, promoting democracy, human rights, a vast panoply of an agenda. That shift, which was officially made at the meeting, has very much influenced the work that we do here at the Embassy in Lithuania. Again, we now focus more on partnering with them on global challenges, as opposed to where could we further help them, now that they’ve achieved international stature, so to speak.
The Politic: Adding onto that idea of international stature, right now, Lithuania is the President of the Council of the European Union, and it will remain so until June 2014. According to its presidency statement, it has three goals, which are improving Europe’s finances, growing its economy, and making the continent more “open,” whether it’s by tackling those global issues you were mentioning earlier or by promoting democracy in general. Does the U.S. believe these are the best goals for the Council of the EU to focus on at this point, and why?
As President of the Council — which they’re only going to hold only until they turn it over to Greece in January, so they don’t get a whole year — it’s an intense six months. They have had a very broad approach to this presidency, starting out with certain goals but then moving beyond them rapidly because of developments. They have done, for a small country — but I will note that the President was a former Commissioner in Brussels and certainly knows the Commission and its operations — an excellent job.
They’ve tackled things such as approving a budget for the EU, which is important because it sets aside what they can do, including assistance to countries outside and a number of other areas that we track. They’ve also looked at furthering Turkey’s accession process, which has been a long process, to welcoming Croatia in. They’ve done key work on data privacy, all the more important after all the NSA issues. They’ve worked a lot, and it very much continues up through today, on the Eastern Partnership, including the meeting that took place at the end of November on the Eastern Partnership area and Ukraine. They’ve also worked with us through the EU Presidency on Syria, the Middle East, and a number of other issues. So we’ve engaged with them regularly on where they see the EU Council Members going, as well as what their individual country positions were on all these issues. And it’s been a fluid interchange. It’s been really good.
The Politic: In general, how does the U.S. feel about the outcomes of this meeting, and then in a more specific sense, does Ukraine’s decision to not sign an association agreement in any way reflect on Lithuania’s leadership? Or do you think this is a matter of time, and waiting to figure out the correct terms for a potential association agreement to eventually happen?
At the outset, let me just say that we as the U.S. have strongly supported this Eastern Partnership process since its beginning. It started before Lithuania, under a previous EU Presidency. We got some recent figures, which are just amazing. Since 1992, we’ve provided 14.3 billion dollars to the Eastern Partnership region, which is a huge amount.
At the meeting that took place here in Vilnius, it was a great privilege to have to read a message from Secretary Kerry addressing the civil society forum, which was one part of the meeting. It pointed out our support for civil society and what it’s done over the years and also what it still has to do, and noting its importance and shining a light on key aspects that are not always working.
For Ukraine — and today is an important day, because there are a number of important international personalities there as they further decide how to meet the opposition’s requests — it is an ongoing process. What we’ve said, and what Secretary Kerry said himself just a few days ago, is that in terms of not assigning an association agreement, it was a personal decision made by President Yanukovych. The people of Ukraine did not agree with that decision. What we’re seeing is the unfolding of that process.
Lithuania, just like other EU Member States — and I participated in some of the discussions — is clear that they’ve left the door open, and they continue to say this. They feel that the Ukrainian people should be able to express themselves, and that they should be listened to. They have to decide whom they affiliate with, without pressure. As far as the EU is concerned, they were going to keep the door open, which they have. So they never shut the door by any means.
Overall, in terms of the process and what it’s trying to achieve, plus what was done through the Summit and continues, the door being open, is something that we fully support. Assistant Secretary Nuland, my boss back in Washington, went back into Kiev today to have discussions. So we’re there as they continue to discuss what they’re going to do next.
The Politic: Continuing on with this theme of integration in general, Lithuania hopes to join the Eurozone in the next few years. Does the U.S. support this move, and if so, how does your Embassy attempt to help Lithuania prepare for the transition to a new currency?
Lithuania, as I mentioned, is a full member of the EU. It has actually been preparing for the Eurozone for a while. Its currency is pegged and has been so for a number of years. So the process is one they’ve been engaged in for a while.
In that process, it is really up to them to meet the master criteria, which involves issues such as budget deficits, inflation rates, etc. It is not a process in which the U.S. is involved in with the preparations; that comes fully from within the EU and in terms of their own preparations.
We interact with the Minister of Finance and others to exchange on how things are, but it’s something that we encourage. And certainly what we hear from both European business and American business is that, once they get on the euro, it will make it easier in terms of fewer transaction costs. It will also make them more attractive for investment and business, although they’re doing quite well right now. As I said, we don’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of whether they are meeting the criteria. It’s not for us to guide them at all. It’s their own process with the European Union. But it’s something that we think is an important part of the future, and we support it.
The Politic: A new topic that your Embassy’s website has seemed to highlight quite a bit recently [is] women’s rights. It featured both your remarks at a women’s leadership and entrepreneurship forum in late November as well as an open letter you signed against violence toward women in early December. How would you characterize the status of women in Lithuania — whether regarding the respect they receive, or their roles in the workplace and home — and what changes would your Embassy like to see regarding women’s status in Lithuanian society, if there are any changes you want to see at all?
My approach, and the approach of the Mission, has been to look at this issue more broadly than Lithuania. One of the things that we wanted to highlight in general is what the U.S. has done and is doing globally to support the inclusion of women in economic-political decision-making and economic activity and opportunity. It has become a top element of our foreign policy. We actually have been directed to enfold activities working with and including women — women of power, I must note, as well as women who don’t have opportunity.
Lithuania has been a partner in this effort. For example, they’ve worked to help educate girls in Afghanistan, because they’ve been in Afghanistan with us. And I think I highlighted in the presentation how well — and this is not just the U.S., it’s [also] Lithuania and others—how the number of girls that are being educated in Afghanistan [has taken] a huge leap since we’ve both been in Afghanistan.
Lithuania is also the home for the European Institute for Gender Equality. It is doing quite well. Actually, an interesting statistic which I got the other day is that, if you put [Lithuania and Latvia] together, 51 percent of the scientific researchers in both countries are women, which is a really high statistic compared to a lot of other places. So we have a common cause with them on this agenda in general. The focus is on, as I said, a broad agenda, both including and ensuring participation.
The Politic: In an ideal world, how would you hope Lithuania-U.S. relations would have progressed ten years from now, and then realistically, how do you think relations will have changed ten years from now?
As I noted, when we met in August in the White House, it was clear that these three [Balkan] countries, including Lithuania, have achieved a certain status. Ten years from now, I would see us cooperating on a broad array of fronts, based on the fundamental elements [of] our values, [which] are very much in line. The values for which they stood in all their years of being occupied, the values they have exhibited in all sorts, including communities, democracies, etc. — are values that we totally share. So I do not see any cleavage in our common values at all.
In terms of their ability to act internationally, which is what we’re partnering with them on, [this] will depend a lot on their economic situation, which is quite good right now, [and] their own ability to partner with the other two Baltics and Nordic countries. The Baltic-Nordic arc is an important area, and it’s also an area, which, if it works in concert, can have a significant role in international issues.
The Politic: In general, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change?
My sense is that America is represented abroad not just by embassies but also by the private sector, NGOs, academic communities, medical communities, philanthropic organizations, faith-based organizations, and media and social communication entities. I always go back to what Anne-Marie Slaughter has said: It’s populated by state and non-state actors who are networked. For our missions overseas, how we link and partner with these groups are all very important to how we solve problems and advance agenda. We serve in embassies very often — and I think this is the future — as connectors. We connect the dots overseas for a lot of these organizations and serve as kind of a base, so we don’t just negotiate things with state to state, but we actually network.
Maybe an example will make this real. I participate in what is called the Sub-National Dialogue with China, which was an attempt to forge links between governors of the U.S. and governors of the provinces in China, not just [for] state-to-state partnership but to build links [between] businesses and medical communities. It is quite a formidable process that now has a life of its own. And it’s not at the state-to-state level; it’s below that. It has entailed a lot, and it’s been a huge success.
Another example of how we network and pull together: When I was posted in Greece, there was a huge wave of immigration coming in from all parts of the East and the South. We partnered with a lot of local immigration associations and groups of immigrants. We sponsored the first-ever public discussion on how you integrate immigrant communities. That had never taken place in Greece before. Again, we used the platform to network with all these organizations and brought in some experts from the state. Again, as I said, it’s not just the state-to-state and the embassies. So all these actors played a role in our foreign policy. And the importance of all these actors is only going to grow. That’s my vision going forward. It’s not just embassies representing America.
Embassy of the United States to Lithuania: http://vilnius.usembassy.gov