An Interview with Sue K. Brown, U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro
Sue K. Brown was confirmed as the Ambassador to Montenegro in 2011. A Texas native, Brown joined the Foreign Service in 1980. She previously served as Office Director for Southern African Affairs in the Bureau of African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. Brown was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassies in Accra, Ghana and Asmara, Eritrea. She has also served in Indonesia, France, Liberia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire. Brown has five children.
The Politic: Let’s start with the first, most basic question: why did you join the Foreign Service?
For a very long time and from an early age, I realized that I wanted to serve my country. I didn’t really know how that was going to play out — whether it was going to be joining the military or serving in some other way — but that is what I knew when I was younger. When I read about the Foreign Service, I became very interested in its work. I later took the Foreign Service exam, and so there began my career. I have enjoyed representing the United States and the American people abroad. I find each new assignment a great new opportunity and a learning experience. I have been able to not only promote and advance U.S. foreign policy, but to meet some very interesting people and work with some incredible colleagues at our missions around the world. I have learned about different cultures and experienced new languages. It has been a very rewarding experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
The Politic: Do you find anything particularly challenging about serving in the Foreign Service?
There are always challenges when you are working oversees, and particularly in a diplomatic mission. When you look at it from policy standpoint — because we are advancing U.S. Foreign Policy abroad — some of the challenges involve how to engage in a country when you have strained relations. Although the U.S. has a strong partnership with Montenegro, where I am serving as Ambassador, the U.S. does not have good bilateral relations with all the countries where U.S. Embassies are located. How do you find ways in such environments to advance policy, to engage, to meet with civil society and NGOs and regular people? There are challenges when media freedoms and other freedoms are suppressed, where you have travel restrictions and you can’t travel too far outside of the city where your post is. On the personal side for the Foreign Service officers, there are challenges with having school-aged children and ensuring there is quality schooling in your posted country. Is there a work agreement where spouses can work? These are some of the challenges that we face, and also the safety and security. That is an ongoing issue that we will have for many, many years to come.
The Politic: Are those issues that you have personally faced, or just general challenges?
Some of them have been my personal ones; for example, working in a country where the relations are strained, like Eritrea. While our bilateral relationship with the Eritrean government was strained, we could meet with government officials and talk — we definitely had trouble advancing our goals and objectives. We had trouble traveling outside of the city. I think we had a 25-mile travel restriction. We also had trouble engaging with civil society and conducting programs. Those are some of the things I found personally challenging — trying to find ways to get around that and move our agenda forward.
The Politic: Do you feel that you have faced any particular challenges in the Foreign Service, either as a woman or as a mother of five?
I do not think my challenges were any different from any other person. I had my older children before joining the Foreign Service, and then fourteen years later I remarried and had my twin sons, who are the youngest. There was a gap there. The challenges of schooling, of course, were an issue I had to be concerned about. An American curriculum education was not available at many of the posts I served at and for that reason my daughter and my son were in boarding school. Because my older children were in boarding school and I sort of missed their growing up, I decided that as I moved through my career, I wanted to be posted in places where I could keep my twins with me. But again, when I ask my older children about their time in boarding school, they had a wonderful experience. They wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. You just have to learn how to deal and adapt, because as Foreign Service officers, we are committed as much as possible to being available worldwide. You recognize coming into the Foreign Service that you are not going to always have the plum assignments. I do not think there is really any job that you would have that with anyway. But it is a wonderful experience. None of us would trade the experiences, and we are very happy where we are now.
The Politic: What does your day look like, on a day-to-day level?
Oh, I have so much fun every day! There are definitely lots of meetings, and those meetings could range from meeting with other ambassadors, who are accredited here to Montenegro, where we discuss areas of mutual interest. We all have a focus on Montenegro moving forward with its Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership. For many of us, we deal with questions like: “How can we consolidate and complement our activities as opposed to overlapping and duplicating?” We want to work in a smart and effective matter, and we discuss rule of law, organized crime and corruption, training that we’re organizing for journalists, and again how we can maximize the limited resources that we all have. I also meet with government officials, talk about where their priorities are with regards to the progress and reforms they are making on Euro-Atlantic integration. I meet with students, including Montenegrin high school and university students who are going to the United States on exchange programs. As a matter of fact, I just met with a group of high school students last week that is heading off for a year of study in the United States. I also meet with our Fulbrighters that come here for either six-months or a year teaching program. I meet with American businesses and their representatives who are often here doing business in-country — they may have some issues they want the Embassy to help them work with and resolve. Some of the other Americans I meet with are interested in doing business here in Montenegro and want some background information and a sense of the scene on the ground. I meet with the LGBT community, and with individuals that are in the refugee camps. I speak at various conferences. There are a variety of things I am engaged in, as well as my interactions with my outstanding team here within the mission. Again, we do not want to overlap, but work as a very efficient team in carrying out our goals and objectives here.
The Politic: What would you say to someone who was interested in doing business in Montenegro? Do you talk about corruption? Do you talk about the opportunities?
We cover it all. We have a very active and engaged American Chamber of Commerce that represents — over thirty U.S. companies here in Montenegro. We definitely encourage businesses to get in contact with the Chamber to get some really solid examples of the opportunities and challenges. We cover the issue of organized crime and corruption. It is an issue that we take very seriously. The government is committed to working on it and they’re making progress, and we want to encourage them to do more. We think that they are numerous opportunities here in Montenegro. Even though the size is small, I think that Montenegro can be used as a regional base for business opportunities in the region. The country is becoming a very popular destination point for tourists. We also think there are areas for opportunities with regards to entrepreneurship in many different areas, and then also with regards to agriculture. There are many areas that American businesses could look at to see if what they are engaged in would be a good fit. We just try to be a link and give them some background to help them along the way.
The Politic: You mentioned Montenegro’s small size and its relative newness as an official country. I want to know if there are particular challenges with that or just quirks there, and also what opportunity you saw?
Montenegro is a country that has some strong opportunities. Montenegro only regained its independence in 2006. For that short period of time, we really do commend Montenegro on the steps they have taken. We commend them on regaining their independence in a nonviolent manner. We see what violence can do and how wars can go on and on and the devastation it can have upon people and their countries. We definitely know that strengthening democratic institutions is very important for them to move forward with their European integration as well as NATO membership. The government has made this one of its top priorities. Rule of law is very important; that is where we have focused a lot of our resources. A challenge for Montenegro is to ensure it has the capacity to manage all of this, and that the reforms are sustainable. EU membership is going to take much longer than NATO membership. The challenge remains to nurture and strengthen democratic institutions and economic development. The economy here is not that great. There is a high level of unemployment and much of the focus of the economy is on tourism, which is not year-round. These are things that have to be worked on, and the government is committed to doing all that they can. We definitely support them and continue to work with them in that area.
The Politic: Are you optimistic that these membership bids will succeed in the near future?
Yes, we are most definitely optimistic. We see progress. I was talking to one of the colleagues on the opposition party that has not worked as constructively as it could and he noted that there has been progress there. All around we see progress. We see that the citizens of the country are recognizing their role in bringing about a positive change in country. They are becoming more engaged. If you have society that is more engaged, then there is greater momentum, and the checks and balances put in place move the country forward. So we are very optimistic.
The Politic: What have been some of the most successful things you feel like the United States has done here?
There are so many. When we talk about the successes, we can definitely talk about USAID. The program is closing out their operation here because Montenegro has succeeded to a point where USAID assistance is really no longer required. [September 30, 2013 marks the official end to U.S. Agency for International Development assistance to Montenegro, which totaled 243 million dollars over 12 years.] That is success for a country, to get to that point. Some were saying, “Well, you know, we need more help.”
There will probably always going to be requests for more help, but we see that Montenegro has made some progress in that area. But USAID, which has completed 17 major projects since they began here in 2001, has done its job. And there are thousands of smaller programs that have helped to increase micro-economic stability. They have encouraged reform and helped stabilize the banking sector. They have built much needed market infrastructure. I have visited a lot of these projects and programs that USAID has implemented, and they are really amazing. The most important thing that you see is a partnership. It is just not the United States coming in and providing assistance. Our assistance is very targeted. It is a partnership — for example, farmers — where we help them to develop a system and a process for improving their dairy quality, and then getting their products into a market where they can sell more. It is helping them and their families with their everyday lives. We have had lots of good programs with persons with disabilities, with training and helping society accept them and integrate them. There are numerous programs that the United States should be very proud of. It reflects the positive and bilateral relations between the United States and Montenegrins. Our relationship is not just with the government, but also the organizations and the people.
The Politic: What do you consider your most important accomplishments, in any country you have worked in?
There have been accomplishments during each of my postings. There are things I am maybe more pleased with because of the impact that they have had. That could be from serving in Ghana and rescuing young girls from sex trafficking to assisting Indonesia with flooding. In Montenegro, we have done lots of work that I feel is good, with regards to natural distaster relief following flooding and a severe snowstorm. Last year, the U.S. government was able to bring in Blackhawk helicopters, which rescued people in need of medical care and transported them to medical facilities. These examples come to mind, but there have been many others that I am proud to have played a role in.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies and how so?
Let me point out by saying that it is not “my policies.” At the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro we carry out our policies that are not my personal policies but the policies of the United States government. Our work is related primarily to the area of rule of law. But our policy is established and coordinated with the State Department and President of the United States. We carry out the policies of the U.S. Government. My main priority here, as it would be in any other place, is supporting American citizens abroad — making sure that they are safe — promoting media freedom, and working with Montenegro. That is where our focus is within the Embassy.
As I mentioned earlier, Montenegro is working on these reforms, which are necessary to join the EU and NATO, and the United States strongly supports that. With regard to, let’s say, NATO, we have a robust partnership with the Ministry of Defense on a number of activities. As a matter of fact, we’re doing our first program where we have 22 cadets from the United States that are here in Montenegro; they are living, working, and teaching Montenegrin soldiers practical English skills. Of course, the soldiers study English in learning labs, but this program provides in-person practical cultural exchange opportunities and training with native English speakers. This is the first time that we have done this cultural and language program here in Montenegro. I met the cadets when they first came in and they were all very excited. We also work with journalists, with NGOs, women and minorities. We cover a lot of ground. Helping Montenegro move forward on their path to EU and NATO membership is important not only for Montenegro; it’s important for the region, it is important for Europe, and it is important for the United States.
The Politic: Do you feel that Americans understand Montenegro and the people of Montenegro understand Americans? Or do you feel like there are misperceptions on either side?
I feel people are still discovering Montenegro. I cannot say that Montenegro is that well known. It only regained its independence in 2006; some still see it as connected to Serbia. Some may know that it is in the Balkans or part of the former Yugoslavia. The cadets I mentioned before are enjoying the experience. I think any student, whether she is an American student or a Montenegrin student, values these exchange programs. We would like to see exchange programs continued and expanded.
The Politic: If there was one thing about Montenegro that you would want Americans to know what would that be?
I would want them to know that Montenegro is a beautiful country with very welcoming people and has a great deal of potential with regards to investment and opportunities. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to make a visit. I extend that invitation to you!
The Politic: Thank you!
There are many flights from various parts of Europe, so, should you decide to come, let us know, and we will make sure you get around and see some of the country and meet some of the people. Montenegrins like the United States, which is very good. Many of them think back on their difficult times and how the United States was here to provide assistance to the people. That is very important, because we do not always have that in the country where we serve, and so building on that is very important. I am very pleased and honored to be here as the representative for the United States. I have a wonderful team within the mission. We are all very engaged. And we are one mission, one family, one team. There is nothing that I do that is not the work of the entire team.
The Politic: I want to ask you about the 2010 WikiLeaks case when you had some cables were leaked. Did this change your opinion of whistle-blowing attempts? How did this episode affect your relationship with different governments?
I am not going to comment on WikiLeaks. I will say this: U.S. missions around the world send cables, but our policy is not set through those cables. Policy is set in Washington, D.C. Our policy, whether on drug trafficking in Ghana or on any issue in any other place around the world, has definitely been made clear in our public statements and through the type of support that we provide. We definitely do not support or condone any individual or organization that releases classified or sensitive information. It is regrettable that these instances occurred. We do have a policy regarding whistleblowers, and whistleblowers are protected. They can play a vital role in any society.
The Politic: How do you think America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
I think that it is very important for the United States to have a physical presence abroad — through our diplomatic missions and through other agencies — to advance U.S. foreign policy and to expand our people-to-people contact, whether that is through cultural or educational programs, or just meeting with them. No, there is not anything that I would want to change. I support our foreign policy and that is what we are here to do, to carry out that foreign policy in Montenegro.
The Politic: I am sure some of The Politic staff would be interested to hear if you had any advice for students that wanted to peruse a career in Foreign Service.
I hope that they really will do it. The Foreign Service is a unique career for anyone who is interested in representing the United States abroad and being engaged in foreign policy. I think everyone at Yale is, so I would really encourage them to look at the website that we have, http://careers.state.gov/. I really would not change [my career] for anything in the world. Please also know that we have a diplomat-in-residence program. This is where our senior Foreign Service officers are at various universities around the country to provide onsite information about the Foreign Service. More information can be found at http://careers.state.gov/students/diplomats-in-residence. I would encourage anyone that is thinking even remotely about the Foreign Service to follow through on it.
I just think being able to travel the world, being able to learn about new cultures, meet new people, share the American experience — it just can’t, in my mind, get any better than that. It is so rewarding and I could not envision doing anything else. With each assignment you are learning and growing. Not all jobs allow you to do that. Because we move so often, it is a new experience each time. As you move around and see the issues from one place to another, you recognize that we, as a global society, have much more in common than we have differences. If we can continue to start from those common denominators, start from those common interests, then sometimes, not always, but sometimes, we can move forward on some of the most difficult issues.
Embassy of the United States to Montenegro: http://podgorica.usembassy.gov/index.html