An Interview with Michael D. Kirby, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia
The son of a diplomat, Michael D. Kirby grew up around the world, spending time in Hong Kong, Benghazi, and the United States, among other countries. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate work in History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A career foreign servant, Kirby has nearly 32 years of experience in the State Department. He was sworn in as United States Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia on September 11, 2012, after working as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. It is his second ambassadorship; he served as the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova from September 2006 to May 2008. Kirby has also served as Consul General in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea and in Warsaw, Poland. He and his wife, Sara Powelson Kirby, have two daughters, Katherine and Elizabeth.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
Um, I got a D in organic chemistry [laughter]. Seriously, though, my dad was in the Foreign Service and I grew up interested in things “foreign.” I have always been interested in that kind of stuff, and I ended up marrying a woman who is American but didn’t live in the States until she started college. I thought representing the U.S. would be kind of interesting, and it was a lifestyle I had known.
The Politic: What is the hardest or most taxing part of your job?
People. When you rise up in any organization, it is all about people. In foreign policy, you are dealing with foreigners when you are abroad and understanding the people with whom you are dealing when you have a large organization. You have human beings who are working for you — if you’re lucky, you do. You want real people; people have needs; they have families; they have wives, husbands, partners, and they have those kinds of needs. So I would say probably the hardest part is people because they’re the most important part of what we do.
The Politic: Speaking of people, is there one person — or experience or event — in Serbia that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
Well, don’t forget that I do not set my policies. We in the Foreign Service carry out the policy of the president for whom we work, and the secretary of state. That being said, I think it is a combination of working with the people in Washington who direct policy and then the various people here. I work pretty closely with some key members of the government: the prime minister, the first deputy prime minister, the president, and the minister of foreign affairs. And then I work with my diplomatic colleagues, particularly the ones in the EU. I said earlier in my response to the other , it is people rather than person.
The Politic: A 2009 state department cable with the subject header, “Serbia in the wake of Vice President Biden’s visit,” said there are entrenched “imperialistic, anti-Serb, and pro-Albanian” stereotypes in Serbia of the United States. Is that still the case?
As a matter of policy, the Department of State does not comment on alleged leaked documents. Whatever might be in some alleged document, I can’t comment. I can say that we have a long relationship, more than 130 years now. We have had differences, but we cooperate on a variety of things. I think having Serbia on its European path — having a strong, prosperous Serbia — is in our interest as well as theirs.
The Politic: Allow me to modify the question. Do you think there are any perception issues with the Serbian people towards the United States?
Well, there are some realities that they’re trying to deal with. In many countries in Europe, history is more current than it is for many Americans. They remember well that Serbia and the U.S. were on the same side in World Wars I and II, and they remember well that we offered great assistance to them in 1949, 1950. They had some loss, they had some famine, and we helped a lot. And they also remember that in 1999 we, with NATO, participated in bombings because of what was going on in Kosovo. So they are having to deal with that conflict: on one side, a very close relationship, and on another, less close. Also, many people here have family members in the United States. I would just say that with any person, especially in a country where people remember history, you have to deal with all of the history rather than a small part of it.
The Politic: You mentioned Serbia as a part of Europe, and my understanding is that Serbia is currently an EU candidate country. What are its prospects for full membership, and what might a potential timeline look like?
There was an important meeting in Brussels on the 28 of June in which the EU’s 27 member countries decided:
- Should they give a date to start EU ascension talks?
- If so, what should the date be?
- Would they want to review anything before totally fixing that date?
You take many steps. I believe that there are 72 steps along the road for membership. The EU has rather arcane language. I think they’re moving to join the EU. It is a multi-year process. The laws have to be matched to the laws of the EU. Where there is a conflict in law, it has to be sorted out, whether this is a basic law or a law where they have some differences. You also have to modify your agriculture to meet certain standards that the EU has and a whole variety of things. I would expect that process would take at least to 2020, but that is a fairly ambitious schedule.
The Politic: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. When the United States recognized that independence, Serbia withdrew its ambassador to the United States for about half a year. To this day, Serbia considers Kosovo part of its territory, although there was an agreement in April to move towards normalized relations. Is Kosovo still a source of tension between Serbia and the United States?
Well I think you’ve laid out at least part of it very well. We have a fundamental difference in the fact that we consider Kosovo independent and Serbia does not. At the same time, we have been heavily involved in trying to improve that relationship between Serbia and Kosovo because Serbia understands that it does not control all of that territory. I think they are moving in the right direction.
My own view is that there has been a little bit too much focus on Kosovo and that relationship. It is an important one, but there are a lot of other things that Serbia has to do. There are rule of law issues; there are corruption issues; there are a variety of other things. We have been working pretty closely with them on that. You have a source of tension — shall we say it is a difference of opinion? And I wouldn’t say that tension is the word I would use. But I am a diplomat and I chose my words very carefully. Some people use different words.
The Politic: How do you feel the United States is represented abroad — not necessarily just in Serbia — and are there any elements of U.S. foreign policy that you would like to change?
Of course I think we have a wonderful foreign policy that needs no changes! [Laughter] I think that maybe how we approach foreign policy has changed over the years. I started this in 1980 on the day Ronald Reagan was elected. We had a different world then. We had the Cold War still, and we had a different foreign policy structure; it was the State Department and National Security Council — and the Senate and the House — but it was a fairly small group of players. We had some very important newspapers abroad — Newsweek and TIME. Now it is a different world.
The U.S. has recognized that we are a much more diverse country than we necessarily thought before. We’re trying to be much more reflective of the culture in which we live: having members of the Foreign Service who are straight and gay, having members in the Foreign Service that are of the rainbow of colors that we have in the U.S. — single, married, whatever. I think we’re starting to become more reflective of the society as a whole. That is something that is a change that is something this administration supports and previous ones have. So it has evolved in a way that I think many people don’t focus on, and also I think people in my position have had to get out and try to explain better what our policy is because we have more stakeholders, more nongovernmental organizations; we have a variety of different interest groups that I think we pay closer attention to.
For those of us in Europe, the institutions of the EU and NATO both have evolved tremendously. It is much more interwoven; there is change happening.
The Politic: What advice might you have for anyone who aspires to be in the Foreign Service?
I guess the first thing would be, if you are going to take the exam, which I think is offered in the not-too-distant future, try to understand broadly what is going on in the world. Of English-language media — I don’t mean to plug anything in particular — I think probably the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal cover news pretty well. Internationally, The Economist is probably the magazine in English that covers the broad world. Each one has its own set of biases. I would say if reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal or The Economist doesn’t turn you on, then you probably don’t want to be a diplomat.
When I take a look at some of the skills that are needed, I think that the modern diplomat needs to be adept at public speaking; we need to be comfortable doing an interview like this one with you. We need to really work on foreign languages. If you are still in school, think about courses that can help you think on your feet. Focus on giving the other person a say — actually listening, answering the question you are asked. I would say that if those kinds of things interest you, go for it.
I would also say think about how you want to have a life because it’s consuming; you have to move every couple of years. If you have a spouse or if your have a partner, that person’s job opportunities really get messed up. You are only going to be successful in this career if you have a stable home environment. Maybe these are aspects that aren’t talked about as much, but I think it is important to think those through. There are very few careers that you have to move every couple of years — and continents. In my time, I gave lived in Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe (and North America). There aren’t that many continents left! That is different from other kinds of jobs. Because you are a diplomat, you are living sometimes in a goldfish bowl. A lot of us now live on Facebook and that kind of stuff. You don’t have a private life — not everybody is comfortable with that. My advice would be to think it through.
The other thing is I took the exam three times. I passed the written each time but I flunked the oral twice. The first time, I was a senior in college. For people who are interested, don’t be discouraged by the first time.
The Politic: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Some people are concerned that, “Geez, I can’t support this aspect of our policy or that aspect of our policy.” And I have to say now I have been an ambassador for a Republican president and a Democratic president. I have worked for the Foreign Service under a bunch of different presidents and we have a lot of continuity of interest. You’ll find that probably 90 plus percent of time, it is easy to go forward with policy. The other 10, you suck it up and go forward with it. If you like American values, if you are perfectly comfortable pushing for diversity, if you are perfectly comfortable thinking that NGOs are important, that you actually believe in capitalism and some of these things, then go for it. Every once in awhile, they’ll push a policy that makes you scratch your head, but that’s okay. Be comfortable with that ambiguity. Some people see the world in black and white; I lecture in gray.
Embassy of the United States to Serbia: http://serbia.usembassy.gov/