Interview with Richard Norland, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia
Richard Norland was confirmed as the Ambassador to Georgia in 2012. Norland previously served as the Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and worked in various other capacities on behalf of the U.S. government in Latvia, Afghanistan, Ireland, and the Soviet Union, among others. The son of an American diplomat, Norland speaks Russian, French, and Norwegian. He is married to Mary Hartnett and has two children.
The Politic: I first want to talk about your experience in the Foreign Service and then a little bit about policy. Why did you join the Foreign Service?
My dad was in the Foreign Service. I was born in Morocco and grew up in the Foreign Service lifestyle, in Africa, in Europe, as well as the States. I did work for three years in Iowa in the state legislature, but there is that lure of the international experience — traveling and moving to different countries, and I was interested in pursuing that. And of course when I joined it was about 1980, and the Cold War was still in full swing and there was a part of me that was interested in contributing in some way to getting over this threat to all of us. So like a lot of people, I studied Russian. I have to say, one of my big influences was George Kennan’s memoirs, Volume I especially — it just fit in with everything I already knew about the Foreign Service, and the idea of getting involved in Russian affairs just had a lot of appeal.
The Politic: What are the challenges of the Foreign Service?
Moving every couple of years takes its toll, on you individually and on your family. Of course it is a great opportunity and it’s exciting places, but it is also tough to pull up stakes and say goodbye to people that you work with, and it is sometimes hard to be long-distance from family. Although, you know, it is changed alot since I was a kid; if you got home once every two years you were lucky because oftentimes we still traveled by ships. Now it is pretty easy to get on a plane, with cheaper fares and stuff, to go and see family.
Another challenge with the Foreign Service is dealing with bureaucracy. It is a bureaucracy and you have to accept that you’re a part of a larger project, but the advantages are, it is the U.S. Government, which is generally a pretty effective and successful project. But the thing is, sometimes you might find that your own views don’t really accord with U.S. policy, and then you have to make a decision — are you going to leave the Foreign Service because you just don’t feel that you can carry out the policy? Or are you going to stay with it? I remember having some real concerns when I was on the South Africa desk during the period of apartheid. For a while our policy was called, “Constructive Engagement” and it was an effort to try to work a little more closely with South African government with the hopes that we could sort of persuade them to voluntarily advance away from apartheid. It was not a very popular policy, especially with South African blacks and many people in the United States. So I had many qualms about being involved in that policy, but in the end I did engage and in the end our policy did fit in with the events that happened in South Africa.
The Politic: What do you feel was the source of that conflict? Was it because you had more on-the-ground experience, as opposed to those higher up with didn’t understand?
Well I had been in southern Africa, visited South Africa, my dad was Ambassador in Botswana during the Soweto Riots when people fled after Steve Biko was killed, and so I have seen firsthand how apartheid is just a horrible thing. And the frustration, of course, is that you cannot just wish it away. There was a legitimate line of argument that said we needed to engage with the government to get them to abandon this policy voluntarily, but the cost in terms of public opinion both in South Africa and the U.S. was huge. And ultimately the thing was a failed policy, because Congress took the policy out of government’s hands. It passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and that act imposed the very sanctions which the administration, up until that point, had opposed. So essentially Congress took power out of the hands of the Executive Branch, and then ultimately those sanctions did contribute to the pressure on South Africa that ultimately brought down apartheid. But there was resistance within the bureaucracy to changing our policy. The author of the policy was willing to meet with us and talk with us and hear our points of view, but he believed that this was the right policy. Again, the choice for me was, do I stay with this, at a fairly low level, as an assistant desk officer or do I abandon ship? I guess that when Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, it made it a lot easier for me to be doing my job.
The Politic: What exactly is your job? How does this play out on a day-to-day basis?
Essentially it is about engaging with people — officials, of course, from the government here, but also with people outside of governments, NGOs, religious groups, you name it, because it is about trying to know what is going on in this country, to see how it fits in with U.S. interests, to develop partnerships that advance our common interests. The first rule of diplomacy is you need to know who your interlocutor is, because just because the government is here today, does not mean it is going to be here tomorrow. That is something we’ve learned the hard way, like in some places like Iran in the 1970s. People thought the Shah was going to be there forever, and they really did not pay enough attention to the opposition and then got caught by surprise. So, as a diplomat, you never want to end up being surprised by a change of government and find yourself in a position not able to speak to their government. So that is a very important part of this, but especially day-in and day-out it is trying to engage with people from the host country on issues of common interest to understand how we can work together. And then there are internal meetings where you try to work together with the Embassy team to try to make decisions about how you are going to proceed on various issues.
The Politic: Do you have any advice for students who wish to pursue a career in the Foreign Service?
My feeling has always been: if you can read The Economist from cover-to-cover and understand what it is all about then you are going to be in great shape to take the Foreign Service exam. I think it is important to have studied a foreign language. You do not need to speak one to come in, but you need to learn one not long after you come in if you are going to stay in. I think studying history [is also important] because you’re stepping into the narrative of various countries’ histories. And if you do not have a sense of where you are stepping in, it is harder for you to understand what is going on.
The Politic: You briefly worked as a legislative analyst in the Iowa House of Representatives in the late 1970s. Did that experience give you any insight into how to reconcile the interests of members of the Foreign Service with the interests of members of the legislative branch?
I was really glad to have had the experience of working in the legislature because there are some people in the Executive Branch who think that the Executive Branch is the beginning and the end, and those “meddlers” and “nitpickers” in the Legislative Branch are just causing trouble. Working in the Iowa Legislature taught me that we really need to respect the legislative process — the way the Constitution is set up with the balance of powers is unique. Certainly, it has worked well for us and it is a model for many countries. If you do not respect the legislative process, you do not respect Congress, you are going to get yourself into a lot of trouble, and you are not going to end up with as good a result, because the legislature is more directly attuned to the will of the people. And if you don’t have popular support behind what you’re doing, then you are likely to lose support in the long run. Vietnam was an example of that, and the South Africa case was an example of that. Congress actually respecting the will of the American people came up with a better policy for South Africa than the Executive Branch was able to.
The Politic: Is that something you find difficult, keeping in touch with what the American public wants?
Well you definitely don’t want to be out of touch with the American people or the American Congress, that’s for sure. I mean, it is a two way street. Hopefully, Congress listens to people in the field, who have ideas about what we should be doing, and how to advance our interests in common, but my experience has been that we can meet with the Congressional staff or with members and they do listen to what we have to say.
The Politic: Which aspects of the United Nations cause you the most concern? Which areas of the UN are working or need more support?
I think the big thing with the UN [is that] you have a UN Security Council that still represents an immediate post-World War II order. It has not been expanded to reflect the fact that other countries now should probably be permanent members. I think Security Council reform is probably the most important thing if the UN is going to be a really effective force for generating really effective coordinated action on the international security challenges of the day. The other part of the question about what part of the UN is working, the UN has got some remarkable technical agencies — UNICEF, UNHCR, development programs that really do some remarkable work in some very dangerous areas. I worked closely with them in Afghanistan, and they are really very capable organizations. When there is an earthquake somewhere, or famine, the UN is normally the first agency that you turn to.
The Politic: You’ve worked in the middle of many of the last few decade’s most important conflicts — Moscow in 1988-1990, Georgia during the 1993 Civil War, Chechnya in 1995, Northern Ireland during the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Afghanistan in 2002-2003 and 2008-2010 — as well as some not-so-famous places, like 250 miles North of the Arctic Circle in Norway. What do you consider your most important accomplishment? What do you still hope to accomplish?
Well again, as a diplomat you are part of a larger apparatus, a larger team. Working on the Good Friday Agreement in Dublin and then at the National Security Council was very satisfying because I think it’s probably one of the few peace processes of the 1990s that has really held together and been successful. To be a part of that was really eye opening and gratifying. As for the other things, I came to Georgia twenty years ago when things were pretty ugly and a lot of progress has happened since then in the last twenties years. The country is in a lot better shape, but the disputed territories that I was here to work on twenty years ago are even further removed now from Georgia’s central control, so that is unfortunate. I think the international community didn’t rise to the task back in 1992, 1993, and we’re paying the price for it now. Afghanistan, of course is still festering, but I think we’ve done a lot of good there, in terms of helping people get control of their lives again and getting women into clinics for childbirth and girls into school. I hope the Taliban are not going to come back and take [all that] away, but that is still an ongoing conflict, so it remains to be seen whether my presence there contributed to lasting peace.
The Politic: You served as a peacekeeping monitor in Georgia during the 1993 Civil War. How has the country changed since then?
Back then, the basic infrastructure was either crumbling Soviet era infrastructure or was destroyed in fighting. There were a lot of places with no electricity; roads were torn up. It is in much better shape now. The infrastructure has largely been restored. Also, it was kind of the law of the gun, and that is really becoming a thing of the past here. I think that after so many decades of tension and some violence Georgians are trying to say, “We want to put that behind us.” I think that is the most important thing. You have now had the first peaceful transfer of power in Georgia’s history from the previous government of President [Mikheil] Saakashvili to a new Prime Minister, [Bidzina] Ivanishvili. Saakashvili is still President until October, so there is “cohabitation” underway, and that is not without its tensions, but there has been no sign that serious political violence would occur, and I think Georgia has made movement towards becoming a real democracy. You look at the basic fundamentals here: government with a strong electoral mandate, an articulate and experienced opposition, an increasingly independent judiciary, a vibrant media and civil society. I think the fundamentals are good, and you could not have said that twenty years ago.
The Politic: The United States officially recognized Georgia’s independence in 1991. What are the challenges you have working with a relatively new country. Is there opportunity there as well?
It is very exciting. I think partly by virtue of the support that we provide and partly that people in the international community are so welcomed here in general, we have remarkable access to all levels of government. We have a real feeling that we are helping this country get on its feet and find its own way. The Georgians are very hospitable and they appreciate what we are doing. The challenge is that building democracy is not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You have got to deal with the legacy of how people have gone about their business for many years — the Soviet Period and the post-Soviet period. The political culture of any country can vary, and in this case, there’s still a tendency to put a lot of stock in a strong leader. The challenge is to try to build institutions that outlast any individual [and] a culture of professional journalism so that leaders are debated seriously and not just sort of tossed out. These are some of the challenges, but I think Georgia has made remarkable strides.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Going back to the point I made about access, our engagement with Georgia’s top leadership has been an extremely important factor. I am immensely gratified to be in the position where I can meet with the President of the country, President Saakashvili, and also with Prime Minister Ivanishvili pretty much when it’s necessary to. They will take my phone calls and arrange a meeting with me within a relatively short period of time. These are very influential people in terms of what course Georgia will take, and to have the ability to interact with them and watch them try to steer events in this country is very interesting and impressive.
The Politic: Do you feel like America is meeting its obligations to Georgia?
“Obligations” is an interesting word. I don’t know that anybody owes anybody anything, but we share a common vision with Georgia, which is that countries that used to be part of an authoritarian dictatorship and are now independent should get to choose their own way in the world, including what security relationships they should have. I think we are doing a lot to try to support in that respect. Financially, after the 2008 war we committed a billion dollars of assistance to Georgia.
The Politic: What kinds of programs do the most good in Georgia?
The rule of law is important here. Georgia has judges [and] it has lawyers, but getting everyone to operate independently rather than making decisions based on instructions from the political leadership has been a challenge here over the years, and I think our rule of law programs do a great deal to try to instill the notion of judicial independence and the rule of law and due process. That is a really important area. Right now the former Prime Minister of the country has been put in jail and is accused of some serious crimes when he was Prime Minister. It is very important that this trial proceed in a way that meets the high standards of due process because it will be a reflection on the quality of Georgia’s democracy. I think that is one of the best programs that we carry out here.
The Politic: It’s my understanding that countries like Georgia have high levels of corruption, just during day-to-day interactions. Is that a problem that United States has a much lower level of tolerance for that? How do you deal with American standards of corruption versus Georgian standards of corruption?
One of the impressive stories of Georgia has been that they have dealt with corruption probably better than any country in the former Soviet space. One thing the government did a few years ago was basically fire the old traffic police because they were taking bribes from everybody they stopped. There was also a high level of [petty] corruption in government institutions. Now people will tell you corruption is pretty rare, and that is a wonderful thing. There are still concerns about high-level corruption and there is interest in making sure that that doesn’t continue. Corruption is certainly something we keep an eye on, but I would say in Georgia it’s the exception rather than the rule, unlike many other countries.
The Politic: In 2010, diplomatic cables from when you were Ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2007 and 2010 were released to the public by WikiLeaks. How did this affect your relationship with Uzbek leadership? Does this experience affect they way you see other “whistleblowing” attempts?
Whistleblowing is certainly an appropriate thing when you see something criminal going on, or if the leadership of an organization is doing something illegal, or violating human rights in some severe way, but from my perspective as a diplomat, the WikiLeaks approach was highly irresponsible. In the nature of the diplomatic profession there is an understanding that the people you speak with are speaking in confidence, so they can share their views about what’s going on in their country. If that material is put out into the public domain, they are not going to do that anymore. Plus, in some of the world’s tougher places, people who talk to American Embassy officials could end up in jail, or tortured, or shot. I really think it is highly irresponsible to leak that kind of material. Even though the motivation might be noble, the effect is not. I don’t think it is any different than a doctor-patient relationship or a confessional relationship. The only upside was that as the public and other interested people read through the reporting, they concluded that State Department officers were actually reporting things honestly, and with integrity, and accurately, and nobody seemed to see any efforts to spin things or distort reality. I think it actually heightened confidence in State Department political reporting.
The Politic: Do you think Georgians see Americans correctly, and Americans see Georgians correctly, and is there anything you wish the other side knew about each other?
It is a tricky thing because the American news media has really cut back its international news coverage. Most mainstream American newspapers do not adequately cover a place like Georgia. It is just too far removed, so they are dependent on secondary sources, and often it is just not a full and accurate portrayal of what’s going on here. I would say Georgians generally have a better idea of what is going on in the United States than Americans do of what is going on in Georgia, because the Georgians can access all kinds of media that cover the U.S., and they are really interested. Of course Americans have a lot of countries to be interested in, and a lot of distractions — the budget crisis and so on and so forth. I think when there is an information gap like that, the role of lobbyists becomes very important. That means that people who are on the receiving end of lobbyists need to be careful to bear in mind that what they are hearing is a specific message and it might not be the whole picture. Again, that is hard to do if there is not a lot in the U.S. media about it. On the Internet there are different sites that are talking about the Caucasus and about Georgia, but a lot of these have their own agendas too. One of the biggest challenges in this part of the world is trying to get good, accurate information. I think the rule of thumb is to not believe at first everything you hear and make an extra effort to check the facts.
The Politic: Obviously it is a complicated situation, and ideally you would want Americans to understand a whole range of issues relating to Georgia, but if there were one thing that you would want Americans to know about this country, what would it be?
There was an editorial in the Washington Post recently titled, “Georgian Democracy in peril.” Maybe there is something going on in Atlanta, GA that I am not aware of, but Georgian democracy here is not in peril. It is going through some challenges, but it is actually moving in a hopeful direction.
The Politic: Lastly, 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 do think that we are well represented abroad. We have a capable diplomatic service; the Foreign Service colleagues that I work with I respect greatly. Our policy by and large is moving in the right direction. We are dealing with a situation in which the United States is being joined by other powers that have a lot of influence in the world, and we need to be smart and agile in figuring out how to get what we want and influence people. It is not like right after World War II where we could kind of dictate the terms. I think we are pretty well equipped to deal with those challenges. If there were one thing I would change, it might be to increase the percentage of career Foreign Service Officers who fill ambassadorial posts.
Embassy of the United States to Georgia: http://georgia.usembassy.gov/
 Ambassador Donald R. Norland (1924-2007): Ambassador to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Chad.
 George F. Kennan: Memoirs 1925-1950. The “father of containment” and key figure in the emergence of the Cold War. He later criticized the same policies he earlier championed.
 Youth protests in South Africa in 1976 against the introduction of Afrikaans as the primarily language of instruction in local schools.
 Stephen Bantu Biko (1946-1977): Anti-apartheid activist beaten to death while in police captivity