An Interview with William Eacho, U.S. Ambassador to Austria
William C. Eacho is the U.S. Ambassador to Austria. Before that, he was a successful business manager and entrepreneur with a history of active civic engagement. Eacho received a Master’s degree in Business Administration with Distinction from Harvard Business School in 1979. Prior to attending Harvard, he was a Financial Analyst in the Corporate Finance department of Hornblower & Weeks, Hemphill-Noyes, Inc., in New York. He graduated magna cum laude from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he majored in law and the economy. Most recently, Eacho managed a diverse portfolio of public equity, private equity, and real estate investments as CEO of Carlton Capital Group, LLC in Bethesda, MD. Eacho also serves as a member of the Webster University Vienna Advisory Board. Following a long-standing tradition established by previous U.S. ambassadors, he is also an ex officio member on the Board of Directors of the Salzburg Global Seminar. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Eacho helped raise funds for Barack Obama’s campaign.
The Politic: What exactly is your job and what sort of issues do you address daily as ambassador to Austria?
It is funny you ask the “What is your job?” question, because I probably get that more than anything. People have no idea what an American ambassador does. I would describe the job as twofold — the way the job is described to me, frankly. My job description says that I am the CEO, or Chief Executive Officer, for the United States of America in Austria. I have been a CEO for most of my life, and this job is very much similar to being CEO of any enterprise — be it a non-for-profit or for-profit — because you are the leader. You are Mr. Outside; you do the public speaking on behalf of the enterprise. And frankly, just as in the private sector, when you need to bring in the big guns to make the big sale, you bring in the Ambassador, like you would bring in the CEO for a big client.
We have to deliver a diplomatic message to the host government. At a high level, you send in the Ambassador to deliver the message, and then people know that it’s something the United States considers important, as opposed to many of the day-to-day messaging that takes place at a political office. In our case, we have 12 agencies of the United States government that are housed in my embassy. Each one of those agencies report dotted-line back to their cabinet counterparts back in Washington, but their straight-line reporting is back to the Ambassador. I oversee and spend a lot of time with each of them. Running an enterprise that has multiple missions is like wearing many hats, because each of the agencies has its own mission. And in our case, some of them are regional offices.
For example, we have Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. They are investigative agents, investigating cases involving smuggling and taking anything illegally across our border. They will handle cases for all the countries east of us, all the way from Moscow to Cyprus, the former Soviet Block countries, former Yugoslavian countries, and the Balkans. In that case, there are offices in some of those other countries as well that report up to my office. It is like the regional headquarters for a large company, and, as Ambassador, I am the CEO. I am responsible for making sure they have the resources to accomplish their mission.
The Politic: What would you say are the challenges of the Foreign Service?
I think the Foreign Service is a wonderful place for anyone to spend their career if they like learning about foreign cultures, learning foreign languages, and living overseas. I can’t imagine anything more fascinating or interesting than the work that our Foreign Service people do. It is not easy. You have to be willing to work in places that are dangerous, that in some cases would be an unaccompanied post. In certain countries we don’t permit you to take your spouse with you, or your family. Typically those are one-year assignments, but other than that, your typical accompanied assignment is usually a three-year rotation.
Part of the challenge is that you are always moving so it is difficult to put down roots. Yet, at the same time, if you are the kind of person that likes meeting people, learning a new culture and experiencing it fully, and moving on to a new one, then it’s a great life. Some people are inherently adventurous and like that idea, and I can’t imagine a better way to do it because the government pays for your housing wherever you go. The government pays you a salary that’s suggestive to the cost of living wherever you are and pays to educate your kids. There is typically an American-International school almost everywhere, and your kids can go to school there, and if not, the government will pay to put your kids in a comparable school, or send your kids to boarding school if that is your decision.
If you think about it, the biggest cost in America today is providing for your family or raising a family. Often people think first, “Well, we have to put a house over our heads, and then I have got to make sure my kids have access to a good public school, or send them to private school.” If you are working for the Foreign Service, the government has basically provided for educating your kids and a roof over your head. And you get to experience all these different cultures. But it is a bit of a challenge, because you’re not putting down roots and developing relationships that will last. These days, of course, with the internet and Facebook you keep these relationships forever, but still, you do move on. It can be hard on the kids, but of course they develop the ability to adapt easily to other cultures that a lot of people who spend their time in the United States never have.
I look at my son, who came with us at the age of fourteen to Austria. He didn’t speak a word of German before he came, but after two years here he was quite capable of conducting languages in German. He went back to the States to finish high school, but he took German with him and has friends here and understands the culture. He has an ability to adapt, which in today’s global economy is invaluable. Businesses need people who can go to a new culture and adapt and learn the language. Foreign Service kids grow up with that ability, so there is a lot to be said for it.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
I would say that one of the bigger challenges that we have had to deal with has been the different way that Austrians and Europeans in general view the issues surrounding data privacy and personal privacy, particularly with these recent revelations. Since my tenure here we have negotiated agreements with Austria to share information about serious criminals and that sort of thing. The toughest challenge in doing so was to overcome this underlying hesitancy that exists here about privacy issues, because they once lived under a totalitarian regime and have learned that you cannot always trust your government. Therefore, there is this underlying concern of the government having files on anyone, whether they’re criminals or not, that exists here that does not exist in the United States.
The United States tends to have an attitude that says, “We expect our government to protect us and be responsive to us, and to work and live under our rules that we set through our democratic representatives.” We have always had the benefit of living in a democracy and have not experienced what it is like when the government turns on its own people and starts spying on them, so to speak, and looking at their every move. Even now, when you look at the press reports about these recent NSA things, the perspective in the US seems to be, “Well, it is monitored by Congress. Policymakers know what they’re doing. The government’s job is to protect us.” And yet, in Europe, people are like, “Oh my god! The government would have access to who called whom, or what phone number called what phone number?” That reminds them of the Stasi. There is just a very different perspective here. Therefore, even though we do have a very good cooperative relationship on sharing data about serious criminals, it is hard to overcome some of that when you are negotiating these agreements. That’s been a challenge from the beginning, and that’s true throughout Europe.
The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel the average Austrian citizen has toward America/Americans and vice-versa?
Gosh, the perceptions that Austrians have of Americans! They probably think that we all carry guns, and that it’s really dangerous to walk down the street — you might get shot. There is this perspective about the US — “Isn’t it dangerous there? Does everybody really carry guns?” — like we are cowboys, or something. They read about our fights over gun control and they just don’t understand it. They’re baffled by our inability to address issues like gun control and health care, which they take as a given.
In Austria, if you own a gun, it is registered and licensed, and they make sure that you have safety training and that you know how to handle a gun. If people want to go hunting, they can go hunting here just like in the States, but everything is very strictly regulated. Vienna is an incredibly safe city. The last time there was a murder in downtown Vienna, I think, was in the 1600s. It’s just a very safe place. There’s pretty crime, but serious crime? No, it does not happen.
Austria is one of these European countries with, yes, a higher percent of its GDP devoted to taxes, but the perspective in Europe is so different. It is, “We like what the government does for us. We have great public transportation, we have health care provided, etc. etc.” I get a lot of questions asking, “Why do you still have capital punishment? Isn’t that uncivilized?”
In reverse, I would say that the average American frankly knows very little about Austria. The average American knows what they have seen in Sound of Music, so they think the national anthem is Edelweiss. That is not a movie that the typical Austrian would think of as very accurate. But those are things that you overcome with visits, and fortunately tourism has been up to Austria and from Austria to the U.S. The more people that travel back and forth and go on exchange programs, the more we overcome some of these perspectives. In general though, Austrians love Americans. They’re very appreciative of the Marshall Plan, especially the older generations. They love Obama.
The Politic: Which aspects of the United Nations cause you the most concern? Which areas of the UN are working or need more support?
When you look at the UN, you have to break it down into its components. On the UN Security Council, I would say that my biggest cause of concern is that one country can basically keep us from making progress. The situation we have in Syria — all it takes is one country to block any form of support to the rebels or any serious action against Assad’s regime. Russia is aligned with Assad, and they are going to back him. That is disappointing because you’re seeing an entire international body where there’s a large consensus, but one country can block that consensus. It makes it really difficult for the UN to be effective at what it does.
At the same time, there are organizations within the UN that are quite effective. The UN Human Rights Council has been rejuvenated under President Obama. It used to be very ineffective. Austria has also been a member and a good partner in that venue, and it has done a much better job over the last few years of really calling out human rights abusers around the world. My other concern is that we don’t have a good enough understanding in the United States and in our Congress of what some of these UN organizations do for us and for our partners around the world.
For example, Congress has cut off funding to UNESCO and we’re not paying our dues, so we are probably going to be thrown out in the next year or so. And it is a shame, because it was a lot of work to get the U.S. back into UNESCO. UNESCO does a lot of good work around the world, but all of these organizations do better work if the United States is involved. It’s a shame to see Congress, because of a political issue, turn around and say, “Well, gee, if you’re going to seat a Palestinian representative then we’re going to cut off funding.” It is just silly. Even Israel disagrees with it.
To see that kind of politics get entered into the situation is disappointing, and I would hope that Congress would wise up one of these days. So those are the pros and the cons with respect to the UN. The UN does a lot of good work. Here in Vienna, our ambassador to the UN deals mostly with the Iranian nuclear issue. The International Atomic Energy Agency is responsible for inspections, and when the Iranians will not allow them to inspect, we called them out for it. Using the pressure of a multilateral forum is effective. People like to pretend that they’re behaving themselves, and when they’re not, you’ve got to call them out on it somehow.
The Politic: How do you promote American economic, political and cultural interests/values in your country?
We have economic officers, political officers, and cultural officers in our embassy. The cultural side is, of course, handled by our public affairs group. We try to do our best to expose Austrians to American cultures, and that has actually worked pretty well over the years. Austrians love music, and America is known for having invented jazz. When we were commemorating 175 years of diplomatic relations with Austria, President of Austria Fischer came to our kick-off gala event and talked about his time in the United States and his love for jazz. You build ties this way. The same thing goes with our political focus. We try to engage with the political parties to make sure that they have an understanding of us, and we have an understanding of them. Economic issues, same thing. We engage with the banks and try to stay tuned with what’s happening in the Eurozone countries. What are their opinions? What are their thoughts? We offer our own thoughts. We engage in each of these areas pretty consistently.
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 think we are represented quite well abroad. I am a political appointee, and I took this job knowing that I was working for a president whose perspective on political affairs is one that I agree with, and therefore I wouldn’t have trouble representing him. It would be a real challenge to represent a government with whom I disagreed. But I have had the good fortune of working for a president who really understands foreign affairs and has a good feel for it, and has done a great job enhancing our reputation around the world. That has made my job a lot easier and, to be honest, there are a couple of areas where I might disagree, but I would never do so publicly as long as I have this job. You can ask after I have left public service, but I wouldn’t disagree while I have the job because that would not be appropriate. In general, I will say, I do agree with 90 percent of the cases. I am very proud to represent this government and this administration.
Embassy of the United States to Austria: http://austria.usembassy.gov/