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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Piper Anne Wind Campbell, U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia

A senior career Foreign Service Officer, Piper Anne Wind Campbell was confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia in August, 2012. From 2011-2012, Campbell was the senior civilian representative of the U.S. government in southern Iraq, where she opened Consulate General Basrah in July 2011. Before this, Campbell worked as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. Over the course of her career, Campbell has also served as an administrative officer in the Philippines, as a general services officer supporting all three U.S. missions in Brussels, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and has worked in the State Department’s operation Center, the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, the civil affairs section of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the U.S. Missions to the United Nations, and an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which she opened in Eastern Slavonia, Croatia. Campbell is a native of Buffalo, N.Y. and received a Bachelor’s Degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined the Foreign Service after having studied at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, but in fact had not actually anticipated that I would join government. For me the attraction was the opportunity to live overseas and to experience different countries and cultures. I grew up in Buffalo, NY and just from a very young age was fascinated to live in and to be exposed to other countries.

The Politic: You have worked in a lot of countries in the past, including the Philippines, Belgium, Croatia, Switzerland, Cambodia, and Iraq. How have you found the travel-intensive lifestyle?

I have loved it. When I joined, I thought I might only do it for a couple years, in fact, and imagined that I might then do something else. But I cannot imagine a more interesting and a more varied career. Although the countries that I have lived in sound extremely various and perhaps even a bit random, there are two very clear, continuing streams through my work. The first is focused on East Asia, so whether in the Philippines, Cambodia, here in Mongolia, or even in New York, where I was the East Asian specialist working on issues in the Security Council. So part of my career has followed the track that I defined in college, when I did Japanese Studies and got a certificate in Asian Studies. But the other half, something that I moved into, is multilateral diplomacy, which is the type of diplomacy that takes place, for example, at NATO, engaging with the OSCE or for much of my career, working with other countries in the context of the UN. That just turned out to be something I really enjoyed.

The Politic: When you first joined the Foreign Service you said that you would only do it for a couple of years. What changed your mind?

Well something did happen, though not necessarily after a couple years. In fact, ten years after I began working for the Foreign Service, I took a year of leave without pay and went to Harvard Kennedy School and got a Master’s in Public Administration. For me, one of the things that I really wanted to do that year was a bit of soul-searching, so that if I stayed in the Foreign Service it was a very conscious decision, as opposed to sort of just drifting along in the career. During the year that I was at Harvard, I noticed how many of my colleagues were fascinated by policy, and they talked about how they wanted to be involved in setting policy or influencing policy. I realized in the job that I had, I had already had remarkable opportunity to be involved in the policy arena, and sitting at Harvard trying to imagine another job that I would enjoy as much helped me to realize and to put the appropriate value on what I was doing. I always think back to that year as almost a re-commitment to the Foreign Service. I think that very conscious decision to stay in definitely influenced the second half of my career.

The Politic: Over a year ago, you told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while some of your family members have visited you at nearly every one of your overseas posts, Basrah was “off-limits.” What are some of the trade-offs or sacrifices you have had to make as a Foreign Service officer?

Well actually it is funny you ask that question. Because in the next room I have my sister and her husband and their four kids eating breakfast. So I do have family visiting here in Mongolia. I am hugely appreciative of the fact that my family has made a tremendous effort to really share my different overseas experience with me. But certainly a major trade-off, a major thing which I miss, is that regular connection with my family. I make a real effort to get back to the States almost every year but I have nieces and nephews who change so much each time I see them… That has actually gotten a little bit easier with Skype, so I could at least see and interact with them. But I think almost every Foreign Service Officer would say that there is a bittersweet element about being so far from home.

The Politic: Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world and the World Health Organization called it the “second-most polluted city in the world.” What is the best part about living there, and what is something that has perhaps taken you more time to get used to?

A joke with Mongolians who ask me how I am doing is that I have good preparation for coming to Ulaanbaatar (UB). First of all, growing up in Buffalo, I learned early that cold is really what you make of it — so you can stay inside and you can shiver, or you can put on the right clothes and get outside and get things done. I am very much of the second school. Also I had spent a year in relatively constrained settings like in Basrah before coming here. For me what I appreciate most about Mongolia is the incredible wide open spaces. So you can get out of UB in half an hour and be in incredible vistas, hiking, walking along the river, riding horses, or just appreciating the incredible nature here in Mongolia.

The Politic: The Foreign Service is quite a male-dominated field. As one of a few but growing number of women U.S. ambassadors, can you share any difficulties you have faced as a career diplomat that you feel you wouldn’t have faced if not for your gender?

I think it is a double-edged sword. One thing that I have talked about in interviews is that Mongolians are wonderfully direct. I have had some really fun interviews here where they asked me, for example, “What was it like to be a woman in a war zone?” And one of the things that I have said is — as a woman there are horrible things which I experienced and saw, whether it was in Iraq, or whether it was working with refugees, talking to them about rape and things like that — I have always felt very comfortable showing my emotions. If there is something horrible that I am talking to somebody about, I feel very comfortable to cry, and to show my sadness and to show my sympathy. And in some cases, certainly in Iraq, I think that was more of a strength than a weakness. I had male colleagues who I know went back to the containers (we lived in container boxes) and cried, alone. I was comfortable to show my emotion in front of other people and I think it allowed me to connect with Iraqis, or with rape victims or refugees or other people I have encountered in my career. In a way that someone trying to be stoic — they wouldn’t make those same connections and they deal with a lot more emotion on their own. One key downside to being a woman — again in the Iraq context — we wore body armor. About 20 to 25 pounds for some movements. And I can tell you being in 120-degree heat and trying to walk around carrying an extra 20 pounds… I became as fastidious I have ever been during that confinement just because I needed to physically work out to develop a little bit more strength in order to comfortably wear that much weight.

The Politic: How has the gender imbalance in the Foreign Service changed over the years?

I joined the Foreign Service 24 years ago, and I joined the State Department just in the aftermath of a lawsuit brought by some women who felt that they have been marked down or discounted on the Foreign Service entry exam. So I have lived through different stages of attitudes in the State Department, generally. But I have to say that I personally have never felt that my sex was something that was holding me back in my career. I have had fantastic mentors, both men and women, and I try very hard to be a good mentor to both male and female junior officers. Certainly when I entered, I think roles within a family – they were changing dramatically, but it was still more usual. People were more comfortable with the idea that men would work and women would be what were called “trailing spouses.”

For my generation of Foreign Service Officers, that was not a comfortable concept. If we had partners, our partners had careers as well. If you were moving every two or three years, you were dealing with not just the questions of changes in your status but also the question of the changes of the people moving with you. One thing that I see these days is that that’s an issue now for both young male and female Foreign Service Officers. So the big change has come that nobody wants to just be a “trailing spouse.” We have women Foreign Service Offers with male spouses, we have male Foreign Service Officers with female spouses, who have careers and are looking at the same challenge of balancing career and this lifestyle. So I think it has become a shared challenge, which is a good thing because it pushes the system more to recognize that challenge and to be engaged in trying to assist families as they look through it.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

I think of two things. The first that comes to mind is just being in New York on September 11th. For me one of the strangest aspects of that was that I had been involved in other disasters when I was posted at embassies overseas and always knew I have this integral role. But in New York on that day, I was sort of just like any other New Yorker and living through that trauma but without a defined role, without something particular that I could do. So I went along with so many other people and stood in line to give blood, just because I had this tremendous compulsion to do something. And I realized that I would oftentimes feel much more engaged and able to help than in an overseas setting. But being in New York on that day certainly had profound personal effects.

The other is maybe a little more subtle, but certainly influenced my career. I was in Iraq on a trip with then-Deputy Secretary [of State for Management and Resources], now-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. We were working on a plan on how to staff the U.S. embassy during the U.S. military withdrawal. And I talked to a Foreign Service Officer who said, “Wow, it is just going to be so hard and so dangerous here next year. I wouldn’t want to be here at that time.” He was in essence saying he was happy he was there earlier. I started to talk about why I thought military-civilian transition was so important, was something we had to all work on and fully engage in. I honestly had almost like an out-of-body experience, when this little voice in my head was saying, if you believe that as much as what you’re saying, then you need to be engaged in that more directly. And that was how I found myself, eight months later, in Basrah, setting up the consulate. That certainly stands out in my head as a profound experience.

The Politic: Thanks for sharing that. I’d like to move on to talk more specifically about Mongolia. Could you give our readers a description of what your job entails?

Well, let me say a little bit about the U.S.-Mongolia relation to frame that answer. Actually, the U.S. relationship with Mongolia is pretty new. We’ve only had bilateral relations with Mongolia for 25 years. We celebrated the 25th anniversary just last year, and the first 25 years of the relationship were very much about helping a young democracy stand on its feet. Mongolia made the decision that it wanted to be a democratic country only in 1991. So we’re really talking about a country who has developed its democratic institutions quite quickly. The first 25 years the American taxpayers provided over half a billion of assistance to Mongolia.

Most of the programs of the embassy, whether they were public affairs programs sending Mongolians to America like Fulbright scholarships, or those for our U.S. Agency for International Development, were all about “building.” These programs were about helping Mongolia to build its internal system, and also building a relationship between Mongolia and the United States. Mongolia calls the U.S. a “third neighbor.” They have got Russia and China, those are their first neighbors, and they don’t have any say as to whom they live next to. But they have quite wisely said, “We couldn’t choose those two, but we would want to sort of imagine who else we would want to be our neighbor, and be aggressively engaged with those people as if they were our neighbor.” So the U.S. is a “third neighbor.”

My job as an ambassador right now is steering the U.S. government interaction with Mongolia, driving that relationship through a change, a transition. Twenty-five years in, Mongolia is not the fishing country it was in 1991. It doesn’t need the same type of development assistance; it wants a different partnership with the United States. And that means that some of our programs have to change. It means some of our engagements like the Millennium Compact actually will come to an end. And it means we have to do a lot of soul-searching internally at the embassy and have very open conversations with the Mongolians to make sure the relationship that we’re building for the future, which is primarily an economic and commercial connection, is one that both countries want.

The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel the average citizen of Mongolia has toward America and vice-versa?

I think Mongolians are pretty well-informed about the U.S. They see a certain amount of the U.S. on TV and movies, and many Mongolians have travelled to the U.S. I suppose the Mongolian misconception about the U.S. would be the type of perceptions that we talk about with many countries, where they will tend to think that the America that they see on TV and sit-coms is the real America. And often in our public interactions we talk about the fact that — I am so off of my recent television shows — but you know we talk about the fact that not every family in the U.S. are like some of the families, the drama you see on TV. As for the other way around, what [Americans] express surprise about when they come to Mongolia — and I see that in my own family and friends — is that Mongolia is a more sophisticated country than many Americans imagine. There are many beautiful spaces.

It is a country that is about the size of Alaska, and it has about a three million person population. Almost half of that population, 1.2 million, lives in Ulaanbaatar. So you can imagine that there are huge wide open spaces, almost like New Mexico, areas where you can drive for 45 minutes and maybe only pass a car or see another person or two. But if you’re in UB or a medium-sized city, there’s a lot of construction, there are five-star hotels going up, there are big apartment complexes and office buildings. Most of what Americans express surprise about is, “Oh my gosh, wow you have Internet! Oh, you have this…” Also, Americans are often pleasantly surprised at the level of English, which is spoken especially by younger Mongolians. Mongolians have a tremendous aptitude for languages. As I struggle with learning Mongolian, I find the Mongolian ability to speak English, Russian, French, and Polish for example, really intimidating.

The Politic: President Elbegdorj, who like you earned an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, was just re-elected to his second term. How has your experience been interacting with him and his administration?

Oh it’s certainly fun for me, and I think for him, to have that shared connection. It’s something we talked about right from our first meeting. I appreciate the fact that he has made himself very accessible to me, and we have had the opportunity to have really in-depth private conversations. We have excellent access to the administration — I regularly meet with his ministers. If there are issues in the foreign policy relationship, I have very easy access to Foreign Minister Bold and have an excellent relationship with him. I’ve had him over for dinner and things like that. President Elbegdorj once said to me, “The U.S. and Mongolia have to be friends.” He said we are two countries that have the same sort of dreams and are committed to democratic ideals. We’re increasingly working together, and we fought side by side.

Mongolia provided troops to the Polish effort in Hillah and continues to have troops in Afghanistan. So he said, “We dream together, we work together, we fight together — how can we not be friends?” I think that is a great way to summarize the relationship. Certainly, there are conversations about how to build the relationship in a positive way — what decisions Mongolia should take as they try to develop responsibly. We all know that those conversations are not easy or necessarily effective, but it is a very focused conversation, a very comfortable conversation.

The Politic: Let’s talk about the mining boom in Mongolia. Like you said earlier, formal U.S.-Mongolia relations are entering their 26th year, which is relatively young. Does the fact that China is Mongolia’s biggest trading partner and immediate neighbor mean that U.S. businesses are disadvantaged in tapping into Mongolia’s resource-rich economy?

There are advantages and disadvantages. Certainly, with Mongolia being a landlocked country and being as far away from the U.S. as you can get, American companies are often at an economic disadvantage. It costs U.S. companies a lot more to get here, to establish here, and to move goods here, so any American business trying to establish itself in Mongolia has to work through logistical issues and find the area where U.S. technology or U.S. competency will create a competitive advantage. We are certainly seeing that there are areas in which U.S. companies have a competitive advantage, and one nice thing is that the Mongolians will steadily acknowledge some of those areas. I had a conversation with a minister who was talking about some heavy equipment which they had purchased 20 years ago from a U.S. firm, and the same U.S. firm was trying to persuade the minister to buy 20 or 30 more of these things for a new facility. And he said, “You don’t need to sell me. I have got one of these. I have had it for 20 years, it is never broken, and is so clearly superior to what I can buy from closer neighbors. Let’s just talk about how we can get them here.” And those are nice conversations.

The Politic: There seems to be an increase in Mongolian students studying in the U.S. and on cultural exchanges. To a U.S. student taking a gap year off or looking for international work experience, what about Mongolia makes it appealing?

It is appealing partly due to the fact that it really is, in many ways, one of the last frontiers. This is a rapidly-changing society and it is fascinating to be here right now to see some of the changes the society is going through and the issues they are grappling with. These issues include how to mine responsibly while also respecting the environment, or how to shift from a nomadic tradition to being much more urban, yet still maintaining a sense of what it means to be a descendent of Genghis Khan.

The Politic: As you said, Mongolia is known for its nomadic traditions, but it’s now among the world’s five fastest-growing economies — its economy grew by 17 percent in 2011 and 12 percent last year. From what you have seen, how is the Mongolian nomadic culture adapting to globalization and growth?

Well, we joke that the nomads are giving up their horses and buying SUVs! Certainly the traffic in Ulaanbaatar has gotten terrible. It’s something they’re grappling with, and one of the things that I like is that it is a very open conversation. So people talk about the pros and cons of that change, and they express a certain nostalgia for the closeness of connection that families had when everybody lived in the same room and you probably had a гэр [yurt/ “home”] right next to your grandparents. As younger people have moved into the city, some of the social fabric of Mongolian society has been challenged. But those are things people talk through vocally, and I think the fact that President Elbegdorj has a very strong anti-alcohol campaign… at his inauguration dinner he did a toast with milk! It reminded me of the “Got Milk?” campaign in the States where you would have famous people with milk mustaches… I wish I had a camera because I thought it was such a great visual — president of the country, on the day of the Naadam, a formal event, and being comfortable to toast with milk. Because milk, both milk from cows and also milk from horses, “mare’s milk,” are important parts of the Mongolian tradition. So he was both supporting some of those traditions, but also sort of fighting against the influence of vodka and other things which are prevalent in the area.

The Politic: What is a current program or initiative that the embassy is working on that you are particularly excited about?

There are so many things we’re doing that I’m pleased about or think are great initiatives… I have one that we did recently that still stands in my mind so clearly. As part of the public diplomacy program, we had two choreographers come recently to engage with an organization that the embassy works with quite a bit — it is an organization of people with disabilities, primarily wheelchairs [DanceAbility International] — and UB is a pretty tough city to get around in if you have any physical disabilities. We have a great Mongolian alumni association here — these are Mongolians who went to the U.S. on different programs: Fulbright, short-term study programs or got college degrees. The Mongolian Alumni of America Institution has taken on as their project to work with this group of people with mobility challenges. They identify banks and restaurants that are wheelchair-accessible, and it is an ongoing project. It’s great as it’s very much tied to social media, people can tweet when they have been someplace disability-friendly.

I am really proud that this is what they have chosen to focus on as their volunteer activity. In part because of their activism with this wheelchair group, we brought two choreographers from the U.S. who have been involved with “mixed abilities” dances, where artists with and without disabilities perform together. In fact on the Fourth of July the Alumni Association and some of the [DanceAbility] performers had an event — and it is almost indescribably beautiful… It is a very pretty, very enthralling dance scene, so it is quite enjoyable, but what really sticks in my mind… I am tearing up… is just the look of joy on the faces of the dancers, and it is just really wonderful to think that this was an activity that we were involved in and continue to be involved in, that has really opened up the lights of some of these people who have felt really homebound before.

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?

I am so proud of my embassy, and I love seeing all of the officers — the military officers, my folks from U.S. Treasury, from USAID, from the Millennium Challenge Corporation Millennium Compact, our Peace Corp volunteers. They are representatives of the U.S. — and any U.S. citizen seeing their seriousness, seeing their diligence, seeing their pride in their country should feel proud to have them as their representatives here. You should recall that I said earlier that while at Harvard, I realized I had the power to influence policy. I love the fact that there are mechanisms in the U.S. government within the State Department to express your view on any subject, including sending in a dissenting view.

If you think there is an aspect of foreign policy that the administration has wronged, the Ambassador or any Foreign Service Officer has the ability to put in the argument for what they think we should be doing differently. For me, the frustration is that every year we go through a difficult conversation with Congress on State Department funding and on foreign assistance programs. And regularly when you poll Americans asking how much we should spend on foreign assistance, it is so much higher than what we spend in reality. I know that Americans are very generous, often when I am speaking to American groups, the most difficult part of the conversation is explaining why we, the U.S., provide as little as we do to Mongolia. And so I sometimes find myself having to explain and justify a shift away from our development relationship.

The Politic: Last question: What was the last book you read?

The last book I read was “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother,” by Chinese author Xinran. It is an incredibly sad and moving book about experiences over the last 20 or 30 years of Chinese women giving birth to girls during the One Child Policy and dealing with societal preference for boys. It is beautifully written and really heartbreaking. She is an excellent author. She has written another book called “The Good Women of China,” which I know was widely acclaimed.