An Interview with Kenneth Merten, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia

Croatia ambassadorKenneth Merten joined the diplomatic corps in 1987 and has served at Department of State facilities in Washington, DC and on international assignments. His international experience includes service in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels, and the U.S. Embassy in Bonn. He also served in Haiti as vice consul and economic counselor between 1988 and 1990 and between 1998 and 2000. In 2009, Merten was appointed ambassador to Haiti and in 2011, was awarded the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy for his leadership in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In 2012, he was appointed the ambassador to Croatia. He has also served as a Deputy Executive Secretary to US Secretary of State Clinton and earlier to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Merten holds degrees from Miami University in Ohio and American University.

The Politic: What was your inspiration for joining the Foreign Service?

On one side of the family, I am a first generation American. My father was an immigrant, so we always had people from overseas coming in through the house. I was always interested in things beyond our borders.  I think frankly, that was the earliest sort of push for that. Like a lot of people, I studied overseas. I took a gap year after college and before graduate school.  I studied in France and in Austria, each for a semester, to work on languages. That is really where it came from. I come from the very middle of the United States. I am originally from St. Louis, which is about as far away as you can get from any place foreign. So it made things overseas seem particularly exotic to me.

The Politic: What sort of challenges do you face when working in the Foreign Service?

In terms of the nuts and bolts work of the Foreign Service, the hardest thing people have to deal with is finding professionally satisfying work for partners and spouses. That’s not unique to the US Foreign Service by any stretch of the imagination but it is an issue.

You know a lot of people have husbands or wives that are attorneys, physicians, or marketing directors and it is difficult for people like that to just sort of pick up, move and leave the United States for two, three, four years, sometimes longer. It interrupts their careers. There are some people who can do it, and that is great, but for many it means either a leave of absence or a career interruption of some sort. That is a problem for us as we move forward because it is difficult to imagine a foreign service made up of single people, people who don’t have partners or spouses. That is the single greatest challenge we have.

Obviously, another big challenge we have in the Foreign Service is how to strike the right balance between making sure diplomats get out and lead people, understand the country they are posted to, and how they get out and advocate U.S. views on things at a time when the world can be a dangerous place. And how to keep those people safe while they do that work. It is a challenge.

The Politic: I noticed that you served as the Ambassador to Haiti and you were there at the time of the 2010 earthquake. Could you describe that experience?

I knew, as everybody did, that Haiti was on a fault line but they had not had a serious earthquake for 200 plus years. Obviously, it wasn’t at the top of my mind that something could happen. I was more worried about hurricanes, which can be very problematic there, or political instability. But an earthquake was something that was much further down on the list of things I was concerned about.

It was a terrible experience. Several hundred thousand people died. We were caught in a situation where many of our embassy employees were on their way home. They didn’t know if their loved ones had survived or were safe or not. Port-au-Prince looked like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it. You had block, after block, after block downtown that was completely leveled with buildings that had fallen in the streets, which made roads impassable except to people on foot or on motorcycles.

We did not know, for the first couple of days, what we were going to do for food because we couldn’t get the airport open. The port was damaged beyond immediate repair and we were very grateful that the U.S. military was able to come get the airport open within 36 hours of the earthquake. We were starting to be able to get shipments in within 48 hours.

But it was terrible. The Haitian people deserve a lot of credit for their comportment in those first days and weeks after the earthquake. The United States in particular, but the international community in general, saved thousands of people’s lives by our quick response. I am very proud of the work the Untied States, in particular, did. I am very proud of our cooperation with the Haitian government, Haitian organizations and other international elements on the ground.

The Politic: How has diplomacy evolved since you first joined the Foreign Service? How do you see it evolving in the next ten years or so?

Since I have been in the Foreign Service, I have gone from a period where things were the way they had been for many, many years.  For at least probably 75 years or a century. When I came in, international phone calls were rare, terrifically expensive and something that was used pretty sparingly. Most of our communication with Washington, and between embassies, was done via telegram.

Ambassador Merten with Secretary of State Clinton in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010
Ambassador Merten with Secretary of State Clinton in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010

We moved into a period of a cumbersome State Department e-mail system and during the 90s we moved into the Internet Age. Our own communications have changed significantly since then, for the better, because at the end of the day we are in the information business. We’re in the information business in terms of getting information about foreign countries and getting it back to the United States and getting information from the United States and informing foreign countries about what our views are and what our hopes for partnership are.

A lot of what we did then has changed. We’re able to use a lot more tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and general Internet websites to get our messages out to publics in countries, which is a good thing and makes it much easier for us to reach larger groups of people. One thing that has not changed though, in all this time, is the personal touch. I think those personal relationships that they send us overseas to make with, not only our counterparts in our host country governments, but people in the countries we are posted to, the friendships we make, these are important things.

That is something I do not ever really foresee changing in diplomacy. I think the human element, establishing trust and building relationships, is something that does require person-to-person, face-to-face contact. While you can maintain those relationships over time with other tools such as Facebook and email forming those relationships on a face-to-face basis is going to remain a key component of what we do.

The Politic: What do you do if you do not entirely agree with the instructions or advice you receive from Washington?

We have a formal system of what they call dissent channel telegrams, which we can send back to Washington. I would not say they are used super frequently, but they are used. On a lot of issues, we’re part of the deliberation in the U.S. Government on given policies especially if they are directly related to the country we are serving in. We can offer advice on how to package things, on what will and will not be acceptable, and how best to tailor our goals to get our host country on board.

At the end of the day, our responsibility is to advocate for US Government policy and to convince foreign governments, whenever possible, to support our views whether that is in the UN, the WTO or various other international fora. We aren’t always going to agree on all issues with our friends and allies and even less so with those countries that don’t necessarily wish us well. But a lot of what we do is try and find as much common ground as possible and make sure that Washington is aware of that and in their policy forming stage they do take that into account. But at the end of the day, we’re here to do the U.S. Government and the American people’s business and we do the best we can to represent U.S. views overseas.

The Politic:  Is there one experience, person, or event that has influenced the way you develop policies and how did it influence you?

That is a great question. American Foreign policy over the past twenty odd years has developed from something that was heavily seeded primarily in the State Department and to an extent in Department of Defense, to something that involves a host of other agencies. The example in Haiti is a pretty good one. Because of our interest in preventing infectious diseases coming to the United States, despite our huge military footprint after the earthquake — that was there for a brief period — we also had increasingly important CDCs (Centers for Disease Control) in Haiti, which remain to this day.

Their role is twofold: to help Haitians help themselves and develop the public health policies and activities that they need to develop to help protect their own people, but also to identify problems that they have and advise them on how to address them. By doing so, they protect the American people from diseases and health problems that could affect American citizens through travel and Americans visiting Haiti and bringing things back to the United States.

We have a lot of other agencies that are deeply involved in foreign policy issues. We have the Commerce Department and USTR, which are deeply involved in American economic statecraft, to use a term that we use in the State Department, which quite simply means making the most out of our relationships overseas to increase our own economic activity in the United States. This means not only regarding exports but also regarding investment and increasing economic growth in the United States. This also means helping to build strong partners who can be good customers for us.

Even the Justice Department, in some cases, helps advise foreign countries when they’re putting together police departments or special investigating units or helps countries combat drug trafficking. These are all agencies that have become increasingly important on the diplomatic playing field that say fifty years ago they were largely absent from.

The Politic: Do you think there will be any changes in US Foreign Policy towards Croatia after it accedes to the European Union?

Flag hoisting ceremony at Ministry of Defence in Zagreb, marking Croatia's joining of NATO in 2009
Flag hoisting ceremony at Ministry of Defence in Zagreb, marking Croatia’s joining of NATO in 2009

I do not really. Our policy with Croatia over the past twenty years has been focused on working with Croatia bilaterally, to do what Croatia needed to reach its stated goal which is its integration in European or Euro-Atlantic institutions such as NATO and the EU. Croatia joined NATO in 2009 and they will be joining the EU in a couple of weeks. In many respects, that can be seen as a success for the Croatian people and the Croatian government, but also a success for American Foreign Policy because we have been partners with Croatia along that road.

As we move forward, this is a period of transition where we now look at Croatia as a country firmly embedded in these Euro-Atlantic institutions and as a partner. We hope to be able to work with them not only here in Southeastern Europe but globally where they can help us and help their neighbors address some other issues. We think that Croatia’s experience as the first country that was involved in the war that took place during the breakup of Yugoslavia can serve as a good model to several other countries in the region. Croatia demonstrates that somebody who has participated in that war can actually get over these hurdles, which are pretty significant, to join the EU, to join NATO, and hopefully get and stay on the road to increased prosperity. We look forward to working further with Croatia. They’re good partners of ours as we work with other countries in Southeastern Europe to train policemen and train prosecutors so we can help stop things like organized crime, terrorism, and drug smuggling.

The Politic:  In recent history, the Balkans has been gripped by ethnic conflict and war. Do you see Croatia and the surrounding nations overcoming this challenge in the next ten to fifteen years?

We certainly hope so. If you look at Europe as a whole, there has been a long history on this continent of wars and conflicts between ethnic groups, not least between the Germans and the French. Say what you will about the EU and the difficulties that some countries in the Eurozone may currently be having, the EU has done a good job of keeping the continent at peace. It could serve the purpose of the Balkans and certain other parts of Europe. That is one of the reasons we see this as the path forward for this region.

The Politic: To what extent do you feel that Croatia has been affected by sovereign debt crises in Europe?

So far, not much. The Croatian banking sector seems to be very well managed and seems to be reasonably strong. As you know, Croatia is not a member of the Eurozone. The export markets and potential inward investment has been affected. I believe Italy is Croatia’s largest trading partner and certainly one of its largest investment partners. Italy, like many countries, is going through a difficult period right now. That has knock-on effects on Croatia.

We have been urging the Croatian government to make some structural reforms that will make this market a more attractive place for potential investors. They have taken a few steps down that road but they need to take more and we continue to urge them to do more. I think Croatia’s friends are unanimous in their desire to see Croatia make the most of its EU membership and the time is now for them to move on some of these reforms. That is a lot of what we are urging them to do here on a more bilateral basis.

The Politic: Given the United States’ involvement in Syria, what sort of role do you think Croatia can play in that conflict?

Croatia has been participating in a lot of the European Union discussions on this issue. I suspect that when they formally join, they will become even more deeply in EU discussions and debates on the subject. I’m not aware, however, that Syria has been a huge priority for them thus far as a bilateral issue. They’re concerned, as other countries are, about regional stability and knock-on effects to other countries in the area, which after all isn’t so far away from here. But over time they are going to be looking to work with their partners in the European Union to find a common approach to Syria.

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

At the risk of patting my colleagues and myself on the back, I think the United States is represented very well abroad. We have a diverse and effective Foreign Service that reflects our country very well for a number of reasons. We have well trained people overseas in our embassies. We do a lot of good things with our partners overseas that they might not be able to otherwise do, due to lack of funds or lack of expertise.

While we’re cognizant of the fact that not everybody is going to agree with every position the United States takes all the time, we do a good job of representing the United States and getting as much support as we can in a world that has a lot of very different and competing interests. The United States for many people is very attractive. Some people don’t understand us well and they have problems with some of the things we stand for, but we do a very good job of showing the good side of the United States and how what we do in the United States works for the benefit of the American people and others.


Embassy of the United States to Croatia:

Click here to return to Diplomatic Discourse

Published by Abdullah Hanif

Abdullah Hanif is a contributor to The Politic from New York, New York. Contact him at

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *