Draugas news met with u.s. ambassador to Lithuania deborah a. Mc- Carthy during her first trip to Chicago in september 2014. deborah McCarthy is the eighth ambassador after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990. she comes to the post having most recently held the position of Principal deputy assistant secretary of state for economic and Business affairs, responsible for global economic engagement and negotiations (2010-2013).
From 2008 to 2010, deborah McCarthy served as deputy Chief of Mission at the u.s. embassy in athens, and from 2006 to 2008, special Coordinator for Venezuelan affairs. Previous appointments have been as senior advisor for Counter terrorism from 2004 to 2006, and as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of international narcotics and Law enforcement from 2002 to 2004.
While in Chicago ambassador McCarthy met with local Lithuanian americans and the board of the Lithuanian Foundation and visited the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture. she also held meetings with business and community leaders and spoke with students at the university of illinois at Chicago. We conversed with ambassador McCarthy on the particulars of being ambassador to Lithuania.
Ambassador McCarthy, what drew you to the foreign service?
I grew up overseas. My father was a diplomat. Therefore, the desire to continue travelling and be involved in policies, started early. After my studies, I worked for an international bank and then decided to join the diplomatic service. It was the broader view of things that appealed to me. I have served as a foreign service officer in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Rome, Paris, Mauritius, Montreal, Athens, Greece and now Lithuania.
How did you prepare to serve as Ambassador to Lithuania?
It is quite an extensive process. In the case of ambassadors, when we are assigned to a country, we have to study it from afar. We cannot go and visit prior to being appointed and confirmed by the Senate. You talk to experts. You talk to people who know the country and prepare as best you can for the hearing in the Senate and then getting ready to go to the country should you get confirmed.
What is the confirmation process like?
It varies by country. If a country is rendered asunder by war the questions will be different than those which are not going through as much turmoil. It also depends on the interests of the Congressmen and Senators. They may have a specific interest in the human rights situation in a country or on trade relations between countries. So, it varies greatly. Sometimes we are alone in front of the committee. Sometimes we’re in groups of ambassadors. It’s a process of exploring and learning about the concerns of the Congress and Senate and considering how we can work to support and address them. Of utmost importance is understanding our U.S. foreign policy priorities. I must note that recently the Baltics had a lot of visitors from Congress. Some of them were members of the Baltic Caucus, some not. I think they have had really good visits. They have discovered a country, or part of the world, that, in some cases, they didn’t know much about. It’s very positive to see what Lithuania has accomplished as a member of the EU and as a member of NATO, so the trips are very good.
Do you need to speak Lithuanian in Lithuania or does everyone speak English now?
I think having the language is essential. Obviously, more people speak English now, but each nation expresses itself best in its own language. So, for example, when I was posted to Haiti, we didn’t learn French. I already had the French. We learned Creole because when people get passionate they switch to Creole to express themselves. Everyone in the embassy gets language training – a full 10 months. We have a good set of teachers at the Foreign Service Institute. They’re proud of their achievements. We think they do a very good job.
When you were appointed to Lithuania, what kind of country did you expect to see?
Did your view of Lithuania change in the year and half that you’ve been there? I was returning to Europe. Lithuania is European, a member of the European Union. In that sense I was returning to familiar territory. What impressed me most during this year and a half has been seeing on a daily basis the absolute determination of the country to further integrate into Europe. To not forget the past, by any means, but to further develop. Lithuania is, for example, seeking to be a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). She is determined to join this institution and be an active contributor. That level of activity and intensity is something that I had not expected going in. It’s quite admirable.
Now, a year and a half later, with all the problems in Ukraine with Putin, has the focus of your work in Lithuania changed?
In August 2013, when the presidents of the three Baltics countries met with President Obama in Washington, the discussion was about Russia, but we also spoke of other issues, such as cyber-security, TransAtlantic trade and investment partnerships. It was a broad discussion. At that time, we began a process, whereby we would partner more on issues and move away from a relationship where the three countries were asking the United States for help: help to join NATO, help for this, help for that. They were already full members of every major institution. In the ensuing year and a half with what’s happened in Ukraine and Russia’s actions, we have moved to an emphasis on security issues, but we’re still trying to work on other issues that will take us into the future. I would say that the Lithuanian government has been consistent in seeking to further integrate into Europe and seeking to make sure it is protected. President Obama made it absolutely categorically clear in his speech delivered in Tallinn before the Wales NATO summit that all members of NATO come under Article 5. If they are ever threatened, they will be defended.
Lithuania has put a great deal of effort into minimizing its dependency on Russia for gas. Recently it leased a floating liquid gas terminal that will provide Lithuania and neighboring countries with energy. Can Lithuania rely on the US being a gas supplier?
Lithuania has made enormous strides to become independent and to not be, what is often said, an energy island. With the leasing of this floating energy terminal from Norway and its arrival this fall, they will have taken a huge step to wean themselves away from Russian sources. They are also seeking other innovative solutions. I recently visited a factory that is processing garbage for energy. So, Lithuania is taking bold steps in the direction of energy independence.
The LNG (liquified natural gas) market is a global market. The US government has given permission for certain companies in the US to build terminals to eventually pump and sell gas overseas but they are several years in the making. It’s a long, complicated process. As President Obama discussed in Tallinn, the permits are there for US companies to eventually get the liquified gas out to market, but it’s up to the global market to decide who gets what.
So, in other words, Lithuania would have to make a bid for a contract with a company to purchase it. It’s not a government to government market.
Is the United States encouraging Lithuania to become totally independent of Russian gas supplies?
As part of our policy interests, yes, but we recognize that across Europe there will always be an energy relationship with Russia, it being a major gas producer. However, energy used as a political tool is something else. So, we have encouraged Europe to diversify. We have fully supported the EU directive that says if you sell, you can’t also own all the transmission. We also have a US-EU Energy Council that’s becoming more active. The G7 has taken on energy issues. So, energy is an important topic in our relationship with Europe. We feel that Europe has a lot to do to diversify and to look to other sources. We are not in charge of that, but it’s an active dialogue.
Paul Goble recently wrote an article claiming that Kaliningrad is becoming more westernized to the point that even the local populace has begun to call it Konigsburg. Many of its citizens have foreign passports. It seems like Putin’s push to federalize Ukraine has given some of the local Russians ideas – some are calling for more federalization, more freedom. There are enclaves in Siberia, for example, that are seeking greater independence.
Does the United States have an interest in these nations or sections of Russia becoming independent or turning towards the West?
I’ll answer the question the following way. We have a vested interest in having a relationship with Russia. We’re seeking a diplomatic solution and working with our European counterparts to that effect. We have Russians who live in the United States. We have vibrant business relationships, cultural exchanges. Similarly, we fully recognize that the Baltic countries, countries in Eastern Europe and other European countries will always have a relationship with Russia. They will trade with Russia, will have exchanges with Russia.
Although the US and Europe have imposed sanctions, we’re not seeking to punish Russia, but to indicate that violating territorial integrity post World War II is not acceptable. It is not the behavior of a country that is a member of the UN Security Council, that is a member of the G20. It is unacceptable behavior in the 21st century.
I wouldn’t want to comment on what’s happening inside of Kaliningrad because that’s not part of the world that I cover. I, however, would note that Russia’s decision to cut off food imports from Europe, also affects Kaliningrad, for they buy the bulk of their food from Poland and some from Lithuania. It would be interesting to see what’s on the store shelves, how are they procuring food … that’s an interesting economics issue to look at.
Is the embassy helping to create a favorable economic environment in Lithuania? Does it attempt to bring in American investors? Is there any success in that?
All our embassies across the world are responsible for supporting US business in every way. It’s not a question of booking deals, but it’s looking at the environment, looking at intellectual property protection, advising the companies, etc. We’re not in negotiations, but we advise them. When they have problems, they come to us and we engage with governments and regulators.
In the case of Lithuania, they did a remarkable job during the financial crisis of 2008. They have, as the result, a high growth rate. They are one of the faster growing countries in Europe. American companies are interested in Lithuania because of the high caliber of its people. They are educated, multi- lingual, hard workers, and talented. But we are not major partners because there is a huge distance, and the market is small for us.
Where I’m seeing a transformation and where we’re trying to assist is on partnerships between companies where a portion of work could be done in Lithuania and a portion of work could be done in the United States. A lot of it done virtually. That’s the new global economic world.
Lithuania has a very good “Invest in Lithuania” program. They make an excellent presentation. I must say, of the American companies that have come and operated in Lithuania, they feel that the environment is very favorable. They feel and we help in this respect, that they have access to the top levels of the government should there be issues. So, we have not been on the receiving end of a lot of complaints about the business environment, the rules, in any shape or form.
We encourage dialogue. We encourage them to look at opportunities. Our role is to help US companies be successful.
Is there anything that’s keeping American companies from investing in Lithuania? Do you see anything that should be corrected?
Lithuania is a small market. So, therefore, it is attractive to niche capabilities but it is not a destination for a large operation. It, however, can be a hub throughout the Baltics and it has cost advantages in that respect.
But, as I said, going forward, they just have to maintain their competitive rankings and be perceived by all the major rating agencies as open and transparent. They are doing very well. That’s the litmus test because people will look to those figures and say Lithuania looks good compared to XYZ country.
I think it’s important I go back to the point of it’s not about attracting bricks and mortar, factories and so forth to Lithuania. There are synergies that are taking place between people in the biosciences in Lithuania here where they meet in conventions and they’re exchanging ideas and maybe something could be manufactured in the States, maybe it’s manufactured in Poland, it doesn’t matter where it’s manufactured. The idea would have come by the synergy and sometimes from an invention that’s been made in Lithuania.
Just as Estonia is known for Skype and all their entrepreneurs in the IT sector, Lithuania has the same, but it is far less known. There’s some extraordinary people having invented all sorts of cool things, who do not know how to market their ideas in the global marketplace. I think we’re talking about something new and different in the future, as opposed to “I can no longer sell my fertilizer here, so I should try to sell it in the United States.” It’s not going to work. There are new and different ways of interacting.
Seems like there are many startups in Lithuania.
They’re blossoming. And this happens all across the world, great ideas, fantastic ideas, but you have to know how to market and you have to know what the competition is. The competition can be in a small town in Vietnam and you have to be aware of that. So, that’s something that we need to think about.
I also wanted to ask you about educational exchanges between Lithuania and America. Are there any exciting initiatives?
We’ve had a lot of initiatives. We have some traditional ones like the Fulbright program. We’ve also contributed to programs targeting high schoolers where Lithuanians come over and spend a year in a US high school. Such a program, callled ExCEL was started by my predecessor. If you do it at the high school level, after a year of study, students return into the fold of their family. We want to make sure that the process doesn’t add to young people leaving the country.
Where can our readers learn about these programs?
We have a very active Facebook site. We do a fair amount of tweeting. We also collaborate with the Lithuanian embassy and the consulates which help spread the word.
What are your plans in Chicago?
I came to Chicago to visit with the Lithuanian American community. Also, to speak about what is happening in the Baltics as a consequence of the new developments of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. How we’re working with and partnering with all three Baltic countries. In addition, look to see where there could be synergies between younger people involved in businesses with the younger people in Lithuania and see where we can catalyze some things because that is part of the future. So far it’s been an excellent trip.
Ambassador, we wish you further success in Chicago and thank you for a most enlightening conversation .