Interview with Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary
Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis was sworn in as Ambassador to Hungary on January 7, 2010. Kounalakis was previously President of AKT Development Corporation, one of California’s largest land development firms. A prominent businesswoman, Kounalakis earned her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2011, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Law from the American College of Greece. Kounalakis has served four times as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and as an at-large member of the California State Central Committee. She also served as a member of the California First Five Commission, as well as the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism. A staunch advocate of interfaith dialogue, Kounalakis has served as a Trustee of the World Council of Religions for Peace, for which she was awarded the medal of St. Paul, the Greek Orthodox Church of America’s highest honor. She was also a Trustee of Robert Redford’s Sundance Preserve and served on the Conservation Fund’s National Forum on Children and Nature. Kounalakis is married with two children.
The Politic: It’s an honor for me to conduct this interview on behalf of The Politic with you, Madam Ambassador.
Thank you very much. I am quite sympathetic to college publications. I was the editorial page editor of The Dartmouth when I was in college.
The Politic: Why did you want to become an ambassador, and did you ever think about working in the Foreign Service before your nomination to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary?
I always felt it was my civic duty to follow affairs of the world, and I considered myself to be engaged as a member of civil society in my community. So even though my principal occupation was as a businesswoman, I sought out opportunities to engage in issues that would concern my local community in Northern California, my state, my nation, and the world. Because of my involvement — whether it was as a member of the California State World Trade Commission or as a trustee of the World Council of Religions for Peace or as a very active member of the Greek American community — I had quite a bit of engagement in my life with diplomats and diplomatic posts around the world. I understood and had involvement with diplomacy during a time when my life was mostly centered around business.
The Politic: How do you think that the role of a political appointee ambassador differs from that of a career Foreign Service officer?
The United States has this unique system where one out of four U.S. ambassadors is not a career diplomat. We are from the private sector, from think tanks and from universities, and I think that it’s just a formula that is working for the U.S. and that has served us well ever since Benjamin Franklin found himself in Paris as our first diplomat. There are a multitude of reasons as to why the formula works. On the one hand, we respect expertise and the experience of businesspeople in the United States. We hold that in very high esteem. I think that there is also something to the argument that we tend to know people in the White House if we were involved in policy from the outside and that helps, as well. And I also will tell you that there is something to be said for having a diversity of experiences within the Foreign Service. In any organization, if you can bring people in from the outside, at all levels, which we do not only do at the highest level — we have political appointees in the State Department as well — when you do that, you can keep the thinking fresh. I think that’s another reason why our system operates the way that it does.
The State Department culture, the responsibilities and authorities that exist within the system stay the same for career diplomats and political appointees. When you walk in the door, there is an expectation, and I feel without question that I would be held to the same standards, have the same responsibilities and have the same authority as an officer.
The Politic: What challenges have you experienced working in the Foreign Service and how did you deal with them?
I really don’t think of it as having been a challenging time. I have felt it more to be the honor and privilege of my life. And certainly in any new environment, learning the ropes is part of it. But the State Department is designed to bring people up to speed very quickly. The first thing that happens is you begin briefings well before you go to your country.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Hungary that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
The three and a half years that I have been in Hungary have been a time of enormous change. The government was elected in a free and fair election with a two-thirds constitutional majority. Since then, they have adopted or modified 650 new laws, amended the constitution twelve times, adopted a new constitution, which was then amended four times. So every institution of government in the country and most of the regulations governing everything from education to business and the tax regime have been modified.
In this time of tremendous change, the United States, which has a long track record of engaging on the issues related to democratic transition and strong democratic institutions, has engaged privately and publicly about our areas of concerns. It has been a very dynamic time in this country and a very interesting time to be here. The United States has had a very robust engagement.
The Politic: The EU and the United States have criticized Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s changes to the constitution. What changes did Prime Minister Orbán’s two-thirds majority in the parliament make to the constitution and why did these changes incur so much criticism?
The United States has not criticized Prime Minister Orbán. There is a democratically elected government and parliament here, which has had the vote to be able to bring forward great reforms in this country. I think it is important to clarify that. What we have done is analyze the laws and the amendments to the laws and the new constitution that has been adopted. Where we have seen areas that could weaken democratic institutions and reduce checks and balances, we have said so. It is neither my role nor the role of the United States to take sides in politics, and we have not questioned that the Hungarian people have elected a government that has had the mechanisms to be able to bring forward reforms. Rather, we have specifically looked at areas where we had concerns, including the judiciary, some changes to the media regulatory environment, the new religion law and other issues related to the independence of the Hungarian central bank.
The Politic: In 2012, the EU commission launched infringement proceedings against Hungary. How did the Hungarian government react? And what is the progress of the procedure?
There is no question that the EU has also had a robust engagement with the Hungarian government over some areas of concern, but I also think it is important to acknowledge that it was the Hungarian government that went to the Venice Commission requesting a review of the new laws and that’s what started the process. So Hungary has, to its credit, engaged in a process with the EU to address some of these concerns — and that process continues. I think it’s no secret that there has been disagreement — but there is engagement, there is a process and we very much encourage that process to continue.
The Politic: Jobbik, The Movement for a Better Hungary, a radical nationalist party, has the third largest number of delegates in the Hungarian National Assembly (roughly 12 percent). Why does Jobbik appeal to such a large portion of Hungarian voters?
In my time here, I’ve never had any direct engagement with Jobbik because we consider them to be a party without a democratic platform. Our view is that they promote values contrary to our values and our democratically held beliefs — particularly in the realm of tolerance. They say the most odious and unacceptable things. As for an analysis of who votes for them and why, I’ll leave that to the Hungarians.
The Politic: In 2012, at a conference celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Fulbright Commission in Hungary you spoke about the importance of the Fulbright Program. What sorts of exchange or community outreach programs do the most good? Is there space for improvement and if yes, where?
We have many different programs. The Fulbright Program is consistent with many of our other programs, whose philosophy is that exchanges and person-to-person engagement is extremely effective. We find that bringing Americans to Hungary and Hungarians to America is really an exceptional way at helping to build mutual understanding. They are quite expensive — not all of them are yearlong programs like Fulbright. But even if they are for shorter periods of time, there is simply no substitute for being able to show people from our country Hungary and people from Hungary our country.
The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel the average citizen of Hungary has toward America and vice-versa?
I don’t think there really are many misconceptions. We live in a world now where there is plentiful information about our culture and Hungarian culture. But what I do think is that Hungary having been behind the Iron Curtain for 45 years, there aren’t as many people in the United States who are familiar with this country as they are maybe with countries in Western Europe. I notice this quite often when I have visitors. Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen in my life and many people feel the same way. They come and they are surprised that such an exquisite jewel of a city is here and people in the United States aren’t so familiar with it. And it is not only Budapest; it’s also throughout the countryside. Hungary and Hungarians have contributed over the centuries to education, to learning, to technology, to innovation and to culture. And when people come to visit they have this window to, what I think, is a hidden jewel of Europe.
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?
The role of a U.S. ambassador is to represent U.S. foreign policy. As far as changing it, that’s something that’s between the White House and the State Department back in Washington, D.C. It is my job to faithfully implement U.S. foreign policy and that is what I try to do. I can also tell you I’m extremely proud to represent this administration and the United States.
For students at colleges in the United States who may not have considered working for the United States abroad: it’s a pretty fabulous option that, honestly, I wish I had known more about when I was in college. And for those who are already considering it, I wish them luck in being able to fulfill that dream.
Embassy of the United States to Hungary: http://hungary.usembassy.gov/index.html