An Interview with Mario Mesquita, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to the Holy See
Mario Mesquita began his assignment as the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in August 2011. Mesquita is a career diplomat and has served in avariety of foreign and domestic assignments with the U.S. Department of State since 1998. Prior to this assignment, he served as the Deputy Director of the State Department’s Executive Secretariat Staff. Mesquita also spent one year as a Senior Watch Officer in the State Department Operations Center, the 24-hour crisis management and communications center of the Department. In earlier assignments, he served in Poland, Colombia and in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. A graduate of the University of California at Davis, Mesquita speaks Italian, Spanish, Czech, and Polish.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
There were two reasons. The first was that I always had an interest in international affairs. I studied political science at university, but I really focused on international relations. I carried that with me throughout my studies, and the Foreign Service seemed like a good fit. The second reason was a desire to do some form of foreign service. For people with an interest in international affairs as well as public service, the Foreign Service is the most natural place to go.
The Politic: You have served as a diplomat in countries ranging from Poland to Colombia to the Holy See. What do you do to learn about a country in order to prepare yourself for a diplomatic position?
Generally speaking, we do two things in the U.S. Foreign Service. The first is to study the language. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Foreign Service are very proud of the fact that our diplomats generally speak the language of the country they are going to serve in. I learned Polish before I went to Poland. I learned Spanish before I went to Colombia. I learned Czech before I went to Prague. The second is to understand the culture and the politics of the country you are going to. Oftentimes, while we’re studying a language, we will simultaneously do what we call area, or country, studies to learn about the place — both the specifics of the country and that country’s place in the region, so we have a broad understanding of the regional politics.
The Politic: I have read that you spent a year as a Senior Watch Officer in the State Department Operations Center. What was that like?
It was an exciting office to be in. It is 24-7, so there is always a group of people on duty monitoring world events from crises to normal spot reports on things that are happening. It is really what we refer to as the nerve center of the State Department. It was an exciting time; I was there from 2008 to 2009. It was a great opportunity to see fast-breaking events from the center of American diplomacy.
The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel the average American citizen has toward the Holy See? And vice-versa?
I will be honest: I think that Americans are actually quite savvy when it comes to understanding the Holy See and the Catholic Church. And vice versa, because there are in fact so many people of the Catholic faith in the United States. Somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the population — 70 to 80 million people — [are Catholic]. So I think there is a great amount of knowledge among Americans about the Holy See, and among Holy See officials (some of whom are American) about the United States. And it is because of this understanding that we are able to have such a good and productive relationship on a day-to-day basis.
The Politic: Do you think non-Catholics in the United States are as well informed about the Holy See?
I think many of them are. Certainly, we have non-Catholics that come to Rome who we work with. We have many members of Congress who come for meetings at the Holy See and have great respect for what the Holy See stands for and what the Pope has to say about world events and global issues. I think there is an understanding, absolutely.
Both the United States and the Holy See have global interests and global influence. The Holy See has been a great partner with the United States for making a difference on a range of global issues, from human rights to world hunger to global health issues — HIV/AIDS, for example, stopping [human] trafficking, working on interreligious dialogue and conflict resolution. Additionally, the Church provides humanitarian assistance where there are crises happening through organizations such as Caritas Internationalis. We are able to also link up with those organizations to learn more about crises and late-breaking events occurring on the ground and help put together US organizations with ancillary organizations of the Holy See to help impact those global issues and global crises.
The Politic: To what extent do you attempt to promote American economic, political and cultural interests/values in the Holy See?
As you can imagine, because the Holy See itself is not a traditional type of country, we obviously have to tailor our efforts and our work to that reality. We are not focusing on military issues. We are not focusing on trade issues as might happen in a normal, bilateral embassy. (By bilateral embassy, I mean the United States and another sovereign state, as opposed to an international organization.) That said, we still perform all of the traditional political work of an embassy. We meet with Vatican officials on a broad range of foreign policy issues, from the ones I just mentioned, to more typical country-specific/regional issues we work on. We have a public affairs office for media outreach to the Vatican and Catholic communities, which includes any number of religious and non-governmental organizations present in Rome. For example, if you look at our Facebook page or our Twitter feed, you will see all of the things that an embassy in a typical country might have, like statements from the President and statements from Secretary Kerry.
The Politic: How significantly do you believe American elections affect diplomatic relations with the Holy See?
As with relations with all countries, our diplomatic work continues on a day-to-day basis — even as leadership of the country changes. There might be some issues that come to the forefront more as Presidents or Secretaries of States change. There might be interests or focuses that are different, but the basic work remains the same. One of the hallmarks of our democracy, of course, is that we have smooth transitions of power. So even when that leadership changes, we are overseas working to improve relationships with host governments.
It was a real, personal honor to be Chargé d’Affaires during that period. Obviously, it was a historic opportunity: first papal resignation in 600 years, the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit pope. After the conclave, we were able to welcome Vice President Joe Biden, former Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and other American officials who came representing the United States to the papal inauguration. For those of us who were working as diplomats at the Embassy, it was really a unique period and a unique experience.
The Politic: Have you ever met the Pope?
I personally met Pope Benedict once in January of 2012. What generally happens is the Pope will greet the diplomatic community normally once a year and normally in January. He delivers an address to the diplomatic corps, laying out how he sees the world — state of the world, you might even call it. And after the election of Pope Francis, he greeted diplomats to the Holy See the Friday after his inauguration. I met him again just a couple of weeks ago, actually, with a group of Americans that were here.
The Politic: In your experience, what is the biggest difference between the two Popes?
I think that they share more than they are separated. They are both very intelligent and very dedicated men — dedicated to the Church and dedicated to the cause of human dignity around the world. As has been noted, there have been some changes to the way the Pope approaches his job. For example, Pope Francis hasn’t moved into the Papal apartments, instead living in the Casa Santa Marta, the guesthouse that is inside the Vatican. He has also focused on different issues. One thing that Pope Francis has been talking about in his first hundred days (which we just finished) is [human] trafficking. Something that he cares very deeply about is the struggle of what we call modern-day slavery. That is of great interest to this embassy, and we have been working on it from Rome for the last fifteen years. So you see, perhaps, some subtle differences there.
The Politic: How do you — and the State Department more generally — reconcile America’s commitment to religious freedom with a diplomatic relationship with the Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church?
Personally, I don’t think there is any conflict between the two. The Holy See is a nonmember observer state in the United Nations, and either a member or an observer in virtually all international organizations. I do not have any problems reconciling those issues. Having an embassy here, in the Vatican City, does not in any way indicate the establishment of a state religion or a preference for any religion. It is simply a recognition of the role the Holy See plays globally and the basic political reality of the Vatican as an international, sovereign territory.
I would note too that although we are a unique embassy, the State Department also tries to work very hard to engage with faith organizations, because faiths play such a huge role in the minds of many people
The Politic: You have said several times that your embassy is unique. Aside from what you have already mentioned, in what ways is your embassy different from any others?
As you noted before, we are the Embassy of the US Government to the Catholic Church and we are not working day-to-day on those normal issues that might occupy the time of a typical embassy. We aren’t working on military affairs or on economic affairs. Even in our public affairs, we aren’t engaging the population of the Vatican as we would engage the population of, say, Italy, because it is a fundamentally different state. Our size also makes us unique. We are quite small for a bilateral embassy — there are five diplomats here. And then there is the simple fact that the Holy See is, in and of itself, so historic and so different that it makes us recalibrate with regards to what issues we focus on.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in the Holy See that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
I would say that, overall, the Holy See’s commitment to human dignity is a great example for us to follow. As I mentioned, Pope Francis has been speaking frequently about the need to counter [human] trafficking. That is something that isn’t only a shared concern of the United States, but something that most people who believe in human dignity can get behind and support. Examples like that — which shine a light on the centrality of the human person — are always something to focus on for those of us in diplomacy.
The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
As a career diplomat in the United State Foreign Service, I might be biased, but I think that Americans are represented very well abroad by the hardworking representatives of the State Department and other agencies. We have great leadership right now from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, all the way down through the State Department. Projecting American ideals abroad and telling people in other countries America’s story is very important. Going beyond government-to-government and leader-to-leader, working people-to-people is very important. I happen to think that Americans can be proud of their representation abroad and the work that the people in the State Department and our embassies do.
In terms of things to change, nothing really comes to mind. Right now, things work. That said, it is a living business, like anything else. We in the State Department — we as diplomats — are always looking at how to improve what we do, how we can be better stewards of US taxpayer funds, how we can do more when we’re overseas and how we can better utilize technology. So we have that constant learning process. While I do not have one specific thing, I would say that there is a life-long learning in diplomacy, like there is in any organization.
Embassy of the United States to the Holy See: http://vatican.usembassy.gov/