An Interview with Joseph A. Mussomeli, U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia

Slovenia ambassadorBorn in New York in 1952, Joseph A. Mussomeli moved to New Jersey during his youth and started his college education at Rutgers University. After dropping out of school to become an upholsterer and hitchhike through Europe, Mussomeli eventually completed his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at Trenton College (now the College of New Jersey). He also earned a Juris Doctor from Rutgers School of Law, Camden. After working in New Jersey as a law clerk and as a Deputy Attorney General, he entered the Foreign Service in 1980. Mussomeli has conducted work on behalf of the U.S. government in its relations with Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bahrain, Morocco, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Egypt, and the Philippines. 

The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service?

It is a mix of very noble and very immature reasons. The immature reasons (or the more practical ones) are that in 1973, I hitchhiked through Europe when I was about 20 years old, after I had dropped out of college. I found that I loved traveling, and I thought: “Well, if I am going to keep traveling, why not let the U.S. government pay for it?” This way, for all my life, I get to travel everywhere in the world, and the government takes care of it.

The other easy reason is that it is the perfect job for those of us who have ADD. I am terribly distracted very easily, and after a year or two, I get restless no matter what I am doing. This is great because, even though I have been in the same job for over 30 years, it really is a new job every two or three years, whenever I move to a different place or have a different portfolio. It keeps me from getting too bored or too set in my ways.

The third reason — the more mature, noble one — is simply that I wanted to do something useful. Since I do not have any real talent, I thought, “Why not be a diplomat?” Diplomacy facilitates communication between people and it theoretically leads to fewer arguments, war, and misunderstandings. So it seemed like the ideal sort of job to have.

The Politic: What are the most notable ways in which the Foreign Service has changed, or remained the same, since you joined in 1980? 

The ways it has changed are mostly, in my view, bad. Although technology is a wonderful thing, it also locks us in. It restrains us in the sense that, in the ‘olden days,’ even in 1980, communication was inadequate enough so that embassies and ambassadors and even lower-ranking diplomats had a lot more autonomy and ability to just operate because there was no one looking over their shoulders every minute. Now, because of the Internet and cheap, easy phone communication, it is very hard to be completely independent. Washington is always there, just a step away, second-guessing or trying to figure out what you are doing. There is a good side to this also because sometimes you do want guidance and Washington input to what you are doing. In that sense, you are not lost. You always have someone to communicate with, if you want to. It’s just that, sometimes you don’t want to, and they’re still there.

Other than that, things have changed because it’s not quite as glamorous as it used to be. We used to have more benefits, in the sense that you could fly on long voyages across the Pacific. You could always be upgraded to business class. It is extraordinarily hard to make those long, 18- or 20-hour journeys in cattle class. There are those minor problems.

The third way is because the world has changed. I remember when I first arrived in Egypt in 1981. Nobody was there to meet me at the airport, and I just got in a car with some young Egyptians and went zooming all around the city. Today, because of security concerns, and because the threats of terrorism and anti-Americanism are so much greater now than in 1980, people are much more concerned or even restricted in how they function.

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

Of all the people I have met whom I think have been influential and inspirational, it would be Cory Aquino, back in the Philippines during the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986. Her courage and her ability to not be vindictive and to just keep trying to make the situation better — I like to think it has been a great influence.

The Politic: You wrote an article entitled “Of Desk Dancers and Finger Waggers” after the Boston marathon bombing, in which you mentioned that some Slovenians blamed America for breeding its own violence. Could you explain your motivation for writing the article — was there a specific incident or statement that influenced you to take action?

I have my Facebook page, and all of it is devoted to communicating with the Slovene public, since I cannot be in the newspapers and on television every day. And there are certain trends in Slovene media where, no matter what the United States does, it is always wrong. It’s a recurring theme that needs recurring commentary. I often say that the Slovene media is the Fox News for the left-wing, in the sense that it’s very biased on the left as Fox News would be on the right.

For example, when we did not go into Libya, it was because we did not care for the Libyan people, and we were friends with Gaddafi. And the next day, when we did go into Libya, it was because we are warmongers and imperialists. It is sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ No matter what happens, America is to blame. While I certainly have lots of complaints about our country, and I can see lots of ways that we have failed or could do things better, it drives me crazy how the default setting in Slovene media is always to find wrong in whatever the United States does.

The Politic: Besides writing articles, what does the U.S. Embassy do to combat that hostility?

When I first got here, I thought my top priority would be just business — opening doors for American business, for investment and trade. But I quickly realized the real problem was that I was in a country where there is a good number of people who are very pro-American, but for a former communist country, a large segment that is also very suspicious. So public relations in general is our primary objective in this particular country. Even though it is a NATO ally, even though it is a member of the EU, it has such a deep reservoir of distrust and misunderstanding of America that that is where we focus.

We do that in many ways. First off, I am very public with the media. I give interviews (these days) virtually every week to one newspaper or one television station or another. I give speeches to university students and to rotary clubs and to various think tanks. I visit virtually every main town and city in the country on official visits, and I visit the particular sites that are controversial, whether it’s the mass graves from post-World War II or where the Partisans hid out in their fight and struggle against the Nazis.

Beyond that, the entire Embassy has been brought into public relations. Every American in this Embassy, even if they are just a secretary or communicator or a Marine guard, must do some public outreach. For example, this year, we have gone to over 150 Slovene high schools. Each American in the Embassy will go to at least one or two or three schools and talk about America and our policies — and we will even talk about what is wrong with America — to give the next generation of Slovenes a much better idea of what America really is, a more nuanced appreciation rather than thinking everything about America is good or bad.

The Politic: In 2012, you met with Slovenian political leaders to discuss the formation of a new coalition to lead the Slovenian government. When both active and retired members of the Slovenian government asserted that you were interfering in the country’s internal affairs, you replied that the incident was a misunderstanding. Has this event in any way affected the U.S. Embassy’s operations in Slovenia in the present day, or is it a closed matter?

The Government and Presidential Palace in Ljubljana, the capital
The Government and Presidential Palace in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital

I think it is mostly a closed matter. There are certainly people who still feel that we ‘interfered’ or ‘meddled,’ as they like to put it. The president of the country (the former president now) had publicly criticized it, and he retracted his statement a few days later and admitted he had been mistaken. There is always a problem in any country, but especially in small countries, that they’re afraid people are telling them what to do or are taking over. That is perfectly understandable. But as diplomats, we have a job to get information. And so we have to meet with people; we have to meet with everybody: the government, the opposition, church groups, business groups. That is what we do, and that is what I have continued to do. Frankly, there has been no impediment since that situation.

The Politic: How has the U.S. Embassy reacted to the economic reforms in Slovenia, like the privatization of companies and the consolidation of bad loans in the Company for Management of Bank Claims (DUTB) [the ‘bad bank’ established by the Slovenian government to take in non-performing loans]?

Our view is that it is a very good first step, but it is not enough. First off, privatizing state-owned companies has been announced by every government for the last ten years, at least. But when it actually takes place, we will be much more impressed. These things are a long process. If it happens, if they really accelerate the process, it will be very good for Slovenia.

In Slovenia — a very modern, open, democratic society — it is shocking how much of the economy is still controlled by the state. It is as if the communist regime as far as the economy goes is still very much in place; at least the bureaucracy is still very much in place. While on the political side it has become much more liberal and open, economically they are very statist in their attitudes. This is not all of them, but in general, that is the approach. The new government — the last two governments at least — have been trying to make efforts to modernize the economy and get the state out of the economy.

The Politic: How do you think Slovenia might be affected by a free trade agreement, like the one President Obama plans to pursue during his administration?

The free trade agreement — if it actually takes place — will be a terrific thing for all of Europe, and for the United States. How will it affect Slovenia? Slovenia is not one of the main economies, of course, but even so, the Slovenes are an extraordinarily educated and innovative people when they are allowed to be. I think a free trade agreement will enable them to compete better. And their goods will be much more marketable. They have lots of little, high-tech niche companies that are doing well but could do even better in a more open market.

The Politic: Generally speaking, what ways would the U.S. Embassy like to see Slovenia develop in the coming years, whether with regard to its economy or any other sector, like its culture or politics?

For their sake, we would like three or four things. To be very honest, Slovenia is not going to have a severe impact on the United States one way or the other, but it is a part of the European Union. Because of that, we want it to be a stable and prosperous country.

In order to do that, first, on the political side, it needs to reconcile. It still has very deep animosities dating back to World War II. It has only two million people, and half of them are very pro-Partisan. They feel they saved if not the world, then at least this part of the world, from the Nazi menace, and they are the legitimate, good people of the country. The other half of the Slovenians are people who either sided with the fascist occupiers, were Catholics, were Christians of other sorts, were anti-communists, or were democrats who were just as concerned about communism as they were about fascism. Thousands of them were massacred right after World War II without trial, and this was something that was never spoken about for over half a century. Now it is become a very divisive issue. It would be like if, after our Civil War, we had executed Robert E. Lee and put others in concentration camps, and no one was able to talk about it until 1920. You can imagine all the festering and resentment that would have occurred if that had been the historical reality.

Slovenia is still coming to grips with its past, because both sides see the other side as completely wrong and themselves as completely right. There needs to be a more open and more candid — but less emotional — discussion and dialogue about the past. Until that division is resolved, the country has trouble making other steps on the economy and elsewhere, because every argument comes back to what happened in 1945. There needs to be true, genuine, mature, respectful reconciliation.

There also needs to be a more diverse media, and I see this happening already. I think the Slovene media is slowly becoming more objective, less biased, but this is going to be a long process. On the economic side, as I have already said, the key is to get the state out of the economy. It would be very dangerous to privatize companies too quickly or in too reckless a way, but it needs to be done. The economy needs to be unshackled by the government. This is going to be very hard. It is hard in our country, where nobody ever wants to touch Social Security. And if it is hard in America, it is much, much harder in a country that had communist rule for half a century.

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

Oh goodness, I could not tell you what policies I want to change! No diplomat ever agrees completely with his or her government’s policies, because most of our policies are compromises or judgment calls. But as a good diplomat, you support all of your government’s policies, unless you find one that is so incredibly stupid or immoral that you cannot. At that point, you just have to resign. Thankfully, I have rarely thought that in my 30 years.

But certainly, as an individual American, if I were not an ambassador, I could complain about two or three policies I think could be better. I think the one policy that has hurt us the most in Europe is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That still reverberates here, even ten years later. It was something most Europeans felt was gratuitous and unjustified. It is something they always hearken back to whenever any other military endeavor is considered. It is always thrown back in our face.

Embassy of the United States to Slovenia:

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