An Interview with Rose M. Likins, U.S. Ambassador to Peru
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Rose M. Likins serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Peru. Likins is a former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (2000 – 2003) and served previously as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Before that, she served as Chief of the Political Section at the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay; Consular Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs in Washington, D.C. Her most recent assignment was Deputy Director of the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., where she was also Dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Professional and Area Studies. Likins received a B.A. in Spanish and International Affairs from Mary Washington College in Virginia.
The Politic: As a career ambassador, what motivated you to join the Foreign Service?
I would say a couple of things. One is I was lucky enough to be the daughter of a career air force non-commissioned officer and we moved all around the world, or rather all around the United States since my father had already done his international work by the time he had family, so we moved around the United States. When I was in 6th grade and I was in Texas and I had the chance to start learning Spanish as part of my public school curriculum and I really loved it. I think it was the combination of coming from a family where public service was the norm and having had the opportunity to see much of the United States, in addition to learning Spanish and thinking, “Wow. I want to see the rest of the world.”
The Politic: What are the main challenges that you have faced or that you have seen other people face in the Foreign Service?
Well there are a couple. I think that obviously one is to have a normal family life and to find a spouse or life companion who will also have a career that is portable. To be able to not just have one career but also two careers and a normal family life, I think it’s a challenge that we all face. I am exceptionally lucky that the man with whom I fell in love in college was ready to join me in my vagabond lifestyle, and he has been just amazingly supportive and a terrific partner. That was an important first hurdle, and then came raising a family, having children and moving your children around the world.
On one hand it was a wonderful and terrific opportunity for them to see the world, but when your eleven-year-old is faced with leaving all of his friends and says “Mom, please don’t do this to me,” it’s hard to say, “Don’t worry it’s good for you, when you’re an adult you’ll thank me for this experience.” All he knows is that he’s not going to be on the same team next year, he won’t be able to see or talk to the people that have been around him for four, three years. So I think those are some of the challenges, in addition to trying to find a world-life balance. But overall it has been just an amazing experience for my family and me and if I had to do it all over, I would do it again.
The Politic: You said that one of your motivations in becoming an ambassador and joining the Foreign Service was learning Spanish, but what is the system like in terms of where you actually get placed? How did you end up in Peru?
In the State Department we have something called open assignments, and separate from that we have a bidding system—we have one year in advance of our transfer date a list of all the jobs that are going to be open. And so you put in your bid for jobs in your area of personal expertise where you meet the requirements of that job and where you have the right rank, so you are at the right point in your career to do that job. And as the system has evolved over the years so has the job application process, we call it lobbying for your job. You send in your bid and then you identify whom the people making the decision to assign you the job you’re interested in, and you sell yourself. You have a meeting, you make phone calls, you send emails, and you ask people working around you—your supervisors, your colleagues—to make recommendations.
On the one hand, in a career in the Foreign Service you have a remarkable stability; I have been in the Foreign Service for 32 years. On the other hand, every two to three years you’re applying for a new job, so while we have overall stability as members of the Foreign Service, every two to three years you have to go through this process of lobbying and moving to another country. I have served in my career in Mexico, Paraguay, Bulgaria, El Salvador, Peru and the other half in the United States for offices in the State Department. It’s been incredibly interesting but also sometimes stressful, not knowing the job I’m going to get and not knowing where I’m going to have to move.
The Politic: Did you have to lobby for your job in Peru?
Well, when you get to the level of ambassador, it’s not so much the lobbying as being clear about what you can offer in terms of leadership and finally being chosen. People may tell you ok, we have these positions available and may ask you if you have a strong preference about any of them.
The Politic: Would you say that there has been an experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
Well, clearly the election of President [Ollanta] Humala in 2011. He came to office with his own agenda and vision for Peru, which was an addition to maintaining the amazing growth and openness that had been characteristic of the Peruvian economy he inherited. He felt that they needed to make some adjustments to include more Peruvian people into the economic success of the country, and he calls that social inclusion. On the US side, we have been working in areas that we consider social inclusion in Peru, programs about improving child care, improving education, improving government processes like decentralization, so we have a long history of working on things we consider to be social inclusion. It really was, for us, a question of listening to his priorities and looking at the existing tools that we already had so that our programs would align with what his government was trying to accomplish. Up until now it has been really successful but it’s an ongoing process, it’s constantly changing and adapting.
President Humala was in the United States ten days ago and had a meeting with President Obama, as well as a whole series of engagements with our congress, our secretary of defense, but one of the new areas that we are exploring together is cooperation in science and technology and education: trying to get more Peruvian students [involved] in the areas of science and technology to U.S. universities. Here there’s a whole new area of cooperation. In terms of climate change, Peru is going to host in 2014, the next COP meeting, the Conference of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol, and we consider that to be tremendously important. This will be the meeting before we will have a new agreement in the world of climate change. To have an agreement the year before is a crucial step to shaping that and dictating the terms that will be in that new agreement, and to have Peru serve as chair is a tremendously positive thing. Obviously, President Obama is committed to working on climate change and to have the U.S. be an active partner. So that is just one example of the confluence between U.S. policy objectives and Peruvian policy objectives.
The Politic: What happens when U.S. and Peruvian objectives do not align? How does one promote U.S. interests and companies in instances like that of the Conga Mine, when there when huge backlash from the Peruvian population against a project conducted by a U.S.-based company?
Obviously the art and challenge of diplomacy is getting to that win-win scenario for everybody. We are really fortunate that in the case of Peru, we don’t really have too many conflicting interests. Our agendas are very compatible, we have a successful free trade agreement, and we work very closely together to combat narcotics trafficking. On both sides it’s more a process of identifying key objectives and identifying what each party brings to the table and then finding the points of coincidence and agreement.
In the concrete case of the Conga Mine that Newmont is currently trying to invest in, Newmont has a decades-long history of investment in Peru. For many years, Peru has had an economy based on extractive industry: gold, copper, silver, natural gas with the Camisea Gas Project, also several hydrocarbon projects and that has been a strong part of the Peruvian economy. So, obviously they are themselves interested in attractive investment into this industry, it creates jobs, it creates wealth for Peru. Companies like these pay very high royalties, which enable the Peruvian government to invest in improving health and education for its citizens. It’s not that Peru isn’t interested in the investment that Newmont wants to make in the Conga Project. The issue is that obviously, large mining investments impact the environment.
In the case of the Conga Project, there is a history in the way that the local partner of Newmont is seen in that community. This, combined with a very leftist regional leader—who would be the equivalent of a governor and who got pushed even more to the left by some people, even more so than where he originally was, about no mining ever, about making the community, and even the state, mine free—that is a pretty extreme view to take. It was really more at the local level as opposed to the government level. The national government had approved the project, the national government had approved the Environmental Impact Statement, the national government gave the company permission to go ahead with the project. It’s not that the Peruvian government doesn’t want that investment, it is that there is local resistance. And so, to Newmont’s great credit they said ok, we’ve got a problem in the community and we are obviously not going to pursue this project under threat of force and we have to come to an arrangement with this community.
They have thus stopped the investment in the mining side of the operation and they have invested now 200 million dollars in building water reservoirs for the community because that was one of the concerns that the community had, protecting their water source and their water supply. Newmont has done this as a show of good faith trying to fix the credibility problems they have with that community. They wanted to show with actions, not words, that they are good partners and that they are committed to a healthy community.
So that is where they are now, they have been building the reservoirs. One of them is done, and they are in the process of a second one. By the end of this year they expect to have both of those reservoirs constructed and providing water to the community. And obviously the hope is that that will open space for more dialogue, but there is no guarantee and they know that. Part of our job is to support U.S. companies that are trying to do legitimate business overseas. Caterpillar Inc., for example, sells a million dollars worth of equipment to mostly the mining industry in Peru every year and that is thousands of jobs that come from the US. So, clearly one of the things we do as embassy is guaranteeing the prosperity of the US economy by fostering exports to our host country.
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?
First of all, we are tremendously lucky to have a country that invests in a professional Foreign Service to represent us and invests in training diplomats in languages, in technical skills, so that we can really represent the American people with great professionalism and with great pride. We are going to have our Fourth of July celebration next week and there is nothing that sends a chill up my spine like sharing our national tradition with our friends and partners from around the world. And so, when you’re standing in a foreign country hearing your national anthem play and seeing your flag unfurled by dashing young marines with their crisp uniforms, you can’t help but feel this surge of pride and this feeling of wow, how did I get so lucky to be the face of America for all these people.
I’m incredibly proud to be part of that professional corps of people that represent America overseas. Obviously, diplomacy like everything else keeps changing and evolving and we really do try to take advantage of social media. We try to be present in all the spheres of the world, not just the physical sphere, but also in the online world, in a way that is still consistent with enabling us to be responsible representatives of the government. In our personal lives, we’re all online, on Twitter, on Youtube, looking for things of interest to us personally. But when you represent your government in those spaces, it’s a bit more challenging, and we’re still exploring how to participate in that world, to be authentic, to be genuine but still respectful of the constraints of speaking for the President of the United States and one has to stay on message. It’s a challenge, but we’re working through it, we’ve got tens of thousands of Facebook fans, we use Flickr, we use Twitter and we have a very active social media engagement and that is I think for all of us, looking to the future, we have to think of how best to use those platforms to get the US message out overseas but also increasingly in our own country.
Embassy of the United State to Peru: http://lima.usembassy.gov/index.html