An Interview with John A. Heffern, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia

Armenia Ambassador HeffernJohn A. Heffern assumed his post as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia in October 2011. A career member of the Foreign Service since 1982, Heffern has previously been posted in Indonesia; Japan; Malaysia; Ivory Coast; and China. He worked in Washington, D.C. as Executive Assistant to Under Secretary for Political Affairs and as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) at US NATO, in Brussels, Belgium. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Heffern earned his Bachelor of Arts from Michigan State University.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

It is what I wanted to do since about age 12. My mother is from India. She had British [family], since the colonial times. My father went to India in World War II from Saint Louis, our hometown. They got married in India. Then, they went to China together (still in World War II). Then, they came back to St. Louis, and I was raised on stories about their time in China and India. So I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. By age 12, I wanted to be the first U.S. Ambassador to China. At the time, of course, we didn’t have diplomatic relations with China. Basically, my family history is what got me interested.

The Politic: You yourself are a father — you have five children. What are the upsides and downsides of trying to raise so many kids while moving around constantly and living abroad?

Well, there are indeed downsides and upsides, but by far, from our family’s experience, the upsides outweigh the downsides. Our five children are now all adults and all of them in one way or another have continued a bit of an international focus even when they were free to make their own decisions. That means to my wife Libby and me that we didn’t ruin their lives by dragging them around the world. We did indeed spend a lot of time overseas. We had five or six assignment in East Asia, one in assignment in Africa, and a couple now here in Europe. The fact that they continued — through Peace Corps, or National Geographic, or other ways — [to have] this kind of international focus in their careers convinced us that they have benefited from the overseas experience.

The movement is hard, of course. They are constantly changing friends, losing friends, moving from places they like. They liked everywhere we lived, so that part has been good. I think it is good having the kids close together. They are all about 18 months apart — good Catholic family planning. They had each other, so as soon as we got to a place, they would have somebody more or less their own age to be on the school bus with and to sit at the lunch table with when they arrived in a new spot. So they never felt totally alone, the way that can happen in some families with a single child or with a big age difference between the kids.

There was a lot of disruption. There was the pain of packing and unpacking (and goodness knows that is a pain) and the government has all these rules and restrictions, which were difficult. So there is a lot of personal difficulty, but the fact is they enjoyed it, my wife has enjoyed it, and they continued international [focuses] one way or the other afterwards, and that is a good thing.

The Politic: Is there one experience, event or person in your host country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

What we are trying to do in Armenia — it is a country in transition, with all sorts of challenges but all sorts of opportunities as well — is to focus on partnerships with people who share our values and are trying to push Armenia in the right direction and make this a better country for everybody. There are many people here who fit that category, many who get me excited to come to work every day, because I know that – with a little bit of attention from the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government, and me personally and my wife, and with occasionally some resources — we can really help push this country in the right direction. [I deal] with NGOs here, and the press.

Armenia politicsA gentleman I just spent time with on a recent trip — he was the head of the Archaeological Institute, named Boris — has been very inspirational for us. He has shown us that Armenia has a three, four, five, six thousand year history. Through archaeology, he has shown us that the country has real potential and really unique circumstances that will help put it on the map certainly in archaeological terms. That will have positive economic spinoff in terms of tourism.

There is a gentleman named Ruben, who runs the Organization for the Preservation of Wildlife. He is working with the zoo and with nature reserves. I am a birder — I like birding, so I like nature and appreciate it when somebody tries to protect wetlands.

There are people like that here — in civil society, and some in government as well — who share our values and are trying to make this country a better place. Those are the people that inspire me to do my job better, and to push the Embassy and push everybody here to partner with these folks so that we the United States can be on the side of those that are trying to make this a better country. Those people affect our policy because what we do everyday is to build partnerships and try to identify those partners who share our values and are pushing Armenia in the right direction.

The Politic: This past May, the U.S. Embassy in Armenia collaborated on a photo exhibition depicting the U.S.-led humanitarian relief effort for children orphaned after the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. What was the Embassy’s motivation for sponsoring this project, and how did the project fit into the Embassy’s broader goals?

It was a wonderful project, and the photos are still being shown in a couple of places. It started with a joint project we did on Clara Barton, who started the American Red Cross. You may not have known that at the age of 74, in 1896, she hopped on a boat and came to Istanbul to help rescue Armenians during difficult times in that earlier part of the Ottoman Empire as well. We did a joint project with the Genocide Museum and Memorial here on her contribution to helping the Armenians during this difficult time. That actually was the first part of it.

As we got to thinking, the Near East Relief did this work on a more massive scale, from 1915 to 1923 or so, and basically saved a whole generation of Armenians who were under threat at the time. We see this as a really compelling U.S.-Armenia story, not bashing anybody. There were some government-funded [Americans], but what I love is that this is a story about private organizations and private Americans who very early on, before humanitarian operations and human rights were even foreign policy goals of the United States, [launched the first] international humanitarian operation by the United States on global human rights issues of this period.

What I like about it is that it is a people-to-people story. It is a story about how the American people came together when they saw a people in need and did something about it. That is why it is a compelling story. Obviously, there are horrors attached to it, and politics can be brought into it, but we co-sponsored it with Near East Relief and Naregatsi Institute because it is such a compelling people-to-people story.

The Politic: According to a letter shared by the Armenian Reporter, during the presidential election in 2008, Barack Obama had promised to recognize the 1915 killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a “genocide.” To date, he has not officially adopted this word. Why is there so much controversy surrounding the terminology? What are your thoughts on whether you expect the U.S.’s rhetoric to change during the Obama administration?

I work for President Obama as President, not as a candidate, so I will not speak to his views as a candidate; I will speak to his views as President. As a public servant, I enforce and implement his [policies]. The U.S. policy on this question comes out every April 24, which is Armenian Remembrance Day, the day that Armenians commemorate when the atrocities began in 1915. And the President’s statement on April 24 — he has made about four or five — is a very strong statement. It does not deny any of the facts. It clearly states that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or were marshaled to death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. It refers to these actions as one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. It acknowledges the facts, and in our view, there is no dispute over the facts.

The policy decision about how the U.S. government characterizes this period is a policy decision, and it takes into account a number of legal and political factors, one of which is reconciliation. Our U.S. policy is to find ways to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and, through that reconciliation, to improve the lives of people in both countries. Certainly, Armenia needs that Turkish border open, needs diplomatic relations with its neighbor. It is in a semi-isolated state [that] is very detrimental to the state and to the economy. So U.S. policy is reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. The President and Secretary of State — Secretaries Clinton and now Kerry — select and use words that they believe will promote that reconciliation, and that is why they have chosen the words they used.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change? 

Every embassy in the world is represented by patriotic and committed Americans from many different agencies. It is not just the State Department of course. The Defense Department, U.S.A.I.D., Agriculture — all sorts of folks are represented in U.S. embassies. I believe my experience in thirty years in the Foreign Service is that we collectively do a good job representing American interests, American values, and American people overseas. We do our best in sometimes very difficult circumstances to promote U.S. interests in term trade and investment, but also U.S. values in partnership, to help these other countries to succeed. We want countries to succeed; we don’t want countries to fail. That is why we are constantly pushing for partnerships, pushing for trade and investment, to help develop mutually-beneficial economic relationships and political and diplomatic relationships with every country in the world.

Every country has got differences, but certainly in every country where I have worked, our focus has been to find ways to deepen the relationship and help those countries to succeed, which helps us to succeed. I think we have done a good job of it. Obviously, there are horror stories. All over the place, things haven’t gone right. Bad things happen, and certainly mistakes have been made all over the world in every administration. I’m not suggesting that the State Department is perfect, but what I can say is in my thirty years in the Foreign Service, I have uniformly found my colleagues to be patriotic and dedicated and committed Americans trying to do what’s best for the United States. Usually, what that means is helping the country succeed where we work.

The Politic: Thank you for your answers, sir, and for taking the time.

I have got one last thing [to say], if I could just stay on for another minute or two. I can’t resist the opportunity of talking to a fine U.S. institution with presumably a lot of young people eager to learn about the Foreign Service. If I could, let me just state a little bit more about my experience in the Foreign Service and encourage your readers to consider it as well. It is a career that I have always wanted, since age 12. I have been doing it for thirty years and would not want to do anything else. I have found that, for men and women both, the career is hugely satisfying for a couple of reasons.

One, a lot of people have the ‘international itch’ — you want to do something international — but there are a lot of ways you can scratch your international itch. What I like about the Foreign Service is that it is a service-oriented organization. The Foreign Service tries to help and serve causes that are bigger than [itself], and I find that satisfying. I find my colleagues find that satisfying as well.

Personally, I like the fact that I am able to do my international business and pursue my international career with my family overseas with me. It is not like many business kinds of positions in which you do a lot of travel and your family stays in St. Louis, or New York, or wherever, and you go travel by yourself. The beauty of the Foreign Service is that, when you travel in most posts, your family is traveling with you. You get the benefit of both the stability and the love of family along with the excitement and the challenges of an international career.

My final point is that, on a personal level, I have a short attention span, and I like the fact that I change jobs every two or three years. I like the fact that I have a new boss, and a new country, and a new language, and a new environment, and new challenges. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I was doing more or less the same thing for my whole career. So for a lot of reasons, I have found this a hugely satisfying career.

The State Department has made a very conscious effort over the years to diversify not only racially and ethnically and gender-wise, but also geographically. We are recruiting Americans from all over the country, and we are recruiting Americans from all different specialties — even science and technology. We desperately need scientists and technicians in the Foreign Service, not just political science people like myself. I would urge any of your readers who are thinking about a Foreign Service career: go ahead and take the test. Who knows? You might pass, you might fail, but take the test. Explore a little bit to check it out. I think a lot of your readers will find that it is a good career.


Embassy of the United States to Armenia:

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