An Interview with Mark Pekala, U.S. Ambassador to Latvia

Latvia Mark PekalaA career Foreign Service officer, Mark Pekala was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia on March 29, 2012. Prior to his current position, Pekala served as Director of the Entry-Level Division of the State Department’s Human Resources Bureau and as Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy in Paris. From 2005 to 2007, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Pekala previously served as Director for Russian Affairs on the National Security Council staff at the White House. He has also worked as a Dean and Virginia Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University and as First Secretary at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Belgium. Pekala has received nine State Department Superior Honor Awards (six for individual achievements and three for group accomplishments), two Meritorious Honor Awards, the W. Averell Harriman Award, and the Matilda W. Sinclaire Language Award. An alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia University, Pekala speaks Estonian, French, Polish, and Russian, and is currently learning Latvian.

The Politic: What caused you to join the Foreign Service?

Everyone has a lot of considerations when they join the Foreign Service. One of my major considerations was that I spent my undergraduate and graduate career studying international politics (as many of us do), so I wanted to pursue a career in that. Like probably almost all other Foreign Service officers, I did want to serve my country and pay it back for what it has given my family and me. A third related consideration we all have is we like to learn languages, to travel, to meet new people, and to engage with the world on those international issues we find interesting. These were my main considerations, and I think those are very common reasons for Foreign Service officers.

The Politic: How would you compare your experiences as Ambassador to Latvia to other roles you have played in the Foreign Service?

As Ambassador, you are keenly aware of a couple of things. Wherever I go and whatever I do, I am representing the United States, and often that means formal events with the Latvian government and informal interactions with the Latvian people and people from other countries who find themselves in Latvia. Also, as Ambassador, people recognize you and you’re always in a public role, whether you’re at the grocery store or the zoo with your kids. People are aware that you represent the United States, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Another consideration is that like the captain of a navy ship or the CEO of a corporation, you are leading the organization and trying to give everyone the best possible professional experience and development while they are working here. But it is also with the knowledge that they will move on to additional assignments. So the Ambassador is the leader of a team, no matter how big or small, and we have real responsibilities to the professionals, the Americans and the Latvians who work with us.

The Politic: Going back in your timeline, can you talk about your experience with the U.S. mission to NATO?

I was at NATO from 1995 to 1998, so when I came in September 1995, N.A.T.O. was deeply involved in a real war in the Balkans, and N.A.T.O. was known for extremely long work hours and very intense work. When I left in 1998, it was Kosovo and a similar situation in terms of operations of NATO. When I was there, I did a few things I was proud of that I think have benefited my country and others.

We spent, in my three years there, a lot of time thinking about enlarging NATO. At the time, it was the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999, and we laid the groundwork for the Baltic States joining N.A.T.O. later, but much of that work was done in the time I was there. And in 1997, we finalized an agreement between NATO and Russia — the NATO Russia Founding Act — which was the beginning of a formal relationship between NATO and Russia that over the years has paid off tremendously and has a lot of potential which hasn’t quite been tapped. So at that time I was working on NATO’s relationships with Central Europe, the Baltics, and Russia, and although it was a long time, I think its established some of the good relationships we have now and some of the areas we can begin to work on with Russia.

The Politic: What experiences, or which people, have most influenced your views on policies in the region?

I have had a couple of really great bosses in my career, and I have learned a lot from a whole series of really excellent supervisors. One is Dan Fried who is still at the State Department has been Ambassador to Poland. He worked at the N.S.C. as the President’s Advisor on Europe, he was at the State Department as the Assistant Secretary for Europe, and he was the Special Envoy for Guantanamo until recently. Now, he is the Special Envoy for Sanctions. Dan is a brilliant guy who influenced me enormously about policy and how to work with people.

Stephen Sestanovich who is at the Council of Foreign Relations now is an equally kind and brilliant person. And other bosses have helped me learn not just about the substance of the work Foreign Officers do, but also the nature of diplomacy and about how to take care of your people and how to support the people who work around you. Many people at the State Department deserve mention, but Steve and Dan stand out as people who have changed my thinking and changed the way I do business.

The Politic: Has there been any particular challenge you have faced in the Foreign Service, or any testing experiences?

I think in the policy world there are lots of challenges, but it is our job to address those challenges and to make progress. Everywhere I have been, the governments and people we have worked with have wanted to come to a solution even when we have great differences. These substantive challenges are inherent in what we do, and people like to have a big challenge to work on. All Officers have seen plenty of substantive challenges.

There are other challenges in terms of life. Most Foreign Service Officers have been to tough places where security, sickness, and personal safety are all issues. In that respect, the most dangerous place I was, was in Baku in 1992, when Azerbaijanis and Armenians were conducting a very hot war. I still have the shell casings and the bullets that hit the window, and the shrapnel. It was a dangerous time, but I was young and single.

A third category of challenges in the Foreign Service are those that affect you and your family’s personal life: constant challenges of uprooting yourself every two or three years to face entirely new situations, new bosses, new languages, new culture. With a family or a partner, one of the very real challenges is that while the Officer has work and a support network and speaks in their native language with intelligent co-workers for most of the day, the spouse or partner may or may not find a professional-level job. I recognize that I have put my family in a situation where my wife had to resign from her job and my kids are in their fourth school in seven years. These are real issues for all of us in the Foreign Service that I hope others recognize. Our families have made real sacrifices; there are more than 1,000 jobs in the Foreign Service where the officer is not allowed to bring a partner or a family. These so-called ‘unaccompanied posts’ usually last one year — that is a real sacrifice as well. So these difficulties relating to family lives shouldn’t be ignored or underestimated.

The Politic: About how much do Foreign Officers do move around? You are fluent in quite a few languages, but how hard do you find it to adjust when you are immediately thrown into these new places and situations?

I am learning Latvian, but in other countries, there are of course real adjustments that you have to make when you arrive. The difficulty of the transition really depends on the destination. What those who haven’t had these experiences might not recognize is that when you arrive, you are in a state of near euphoria. That is part of why we wanted to be Foreign Service Officers, to learn new things and meet new people. But the more mundane aspects, like ensuring the voltage in your electronics matches the local voltage, are a little challenge. I have blown up computers, scanners, more. The major elements of what we do are exciting and fun for us, and the work we do is worthwhile and very stimulating, but it is those elements of your life that are sometimes difficult. From clean water, the right medicine, a good place for your kids, and friends for your spouse or partner — those are often much more challenging than the substance of your work.

The Politic: How do you think Latvia’s membership in the E.U. and N.A.T.O. (and now it’s slated to join the euro) have affected the country and American relations with the country?

I think in both cases it is a clear sign — Latvia joined those organizations in 2004 — that Latvia was making progress in its path towards strengthened security, strengthened prosperity, and strengthened democracy. So those were not only affirmations that Latvia was moving in the right direction, but it prompted them to move even further. In NATO, Latvia is a very strong ally. They have contributed troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Latvia was with us in Iraq, and they are contributing in ways that are focused and high-tech. Latvia is a very strong ally with a lot of capabilities, and when the U.S. looks for friends and allies, it always finds Latvia ready and willing to help. Their membership in NATO is a real contribution to overall security.

As to the EU, I would say similar things, that Latvia’s membership is good for both Latvia and other EU states. Latvia contributes a clear perspective, and over the past couple of years, Latvia has been a leader in terms of economic performance. With growth rates of five to six percent, it has consistently been at the top. So they represent, inside the EU and along with some other Baltic and Nordic countries, fiscal discipline and intelligence, and they’re a real model for many EU countries.

In terms of how this affects Latvia, I think it is been simply very positive. The world is a far more integrated place than it was in the last decade or the decades before that. The world is flatter and more interconnected and everything we do, we do together with other countries. So all the challenges we face — whether it is security or economic issues or climate change or health or human rights, all these challenges we face — we face together with other countries. As Latvia joins these organizations — it just received an invitation to join the OECD, to start those talks — it’s more and more a part of the solution. On all of these issues, Latvia is capable and willing to contribute to the solution. Latvia really does contribute, it is a real example of a country punching above its weight and addressing global challenges with its partners.

The Politic: Looking at a particular instance in which Latvia has been helpful, [consider] the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which transfers goods to ISAF forces in Afghanistan. How do you feel that this network and other activities pursued by NATO in the region are affecting relations with Russia?

Latvia ambassador discussionThe NDN is, as you say, a major effort by NATO and other countries to move goods from all around the world into Afghanistan. Just last week here in Riga, we commemorated the one hundred thousandth container has moved through the NDN into Afghanistan. It was two million tons of goods that have moved through this network, to move food, water, and other supplies to our troops in Afghanistan. NDN is a very good example of pragmatic cooperation between the Russians and us, and between the Latvians and the Russians. We have had lots of generals and admirals come through here, including the commander of the U.S. Military command post that runs the NDN and the commanding officer of the U.S. Army in Europe. They all see that it is working extremely well, efficiently, and transparently.

One of the reasons it works so well is the Latvians and the Russians have coordinated well on the transit itself; on the fees and the customs duties. Yesterday [June 20, 2013], I was at the border between Latvia and Russia, at one of the biggest railway crossings between the two countries, and it is working extremely well. In a world where there is all kind of complexity in our relationships, this is one area where we have seen great cooperation, and we look forward to more cooperation as NDN transforms into a commercial hub and a commercial shipping network from the Baltic States into Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and also further into China. It is a major effort that also includes Belarus, Ukraine, and the Caucuses, which is working extremely well.

The Politic: How have relations between Russia and Latvia developed since Latvia’s inclusion in these organizations (NATO and EU), and does this affect U.S. policy in the region?

Latvia and Russia have what Latvians describe to me as a pragmatic relationship. In the U.S.-Russian relationship, there are many, many elements where we cooperate with Russia: on the reduction of the number of nuclear weapons, protection of nuclear material, on anti-terrorism, on counter-proliferation. We certainly cooperate on economics and trade. We have a very long list of areas where we cooperate with Russia, and at the same time we have some differences of principle with Russia about the process of democracy and the protection of human rights and other issues. We are very clear with the Russians privately and publicly about those differences, and we differ on other international issues like Syria, and we try to come to mutual agreement. In our relationship with Russia, there are two major elements: We seek cooperation wherever we can find it, and we are very clear about those important differences we do have.

I cannot really talk about Latvia’s relationship with Russia, but almost any country has these two elements of their relationship. When I talk to Latvians about their relationship with Russia — when they take into account joining NATO and the EU in 2004 and now the OECD and moving towards joining the euro next year — with all of these major institutional developments taking place, Latvians say the feel more secure than ever, and a big part of that is their membership in these organizations.

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

America is represented abroad by many different facets of our politics and our culture. When it comes to representation in embassies abroad, we have an outstanding group of people working very hard to engage with the governments, make progress on shared challenges, and represent our country. We have a very fine group of people; not just the State Department but every agency of the U.S. government is represented abroad. Certainly, the men and women in the military are represented in large numbers. We have lots of government representation abroad and I think that is quite good.

We also have commercial representation all over the world, and some of the finest elements of what the United States does is represented in those commercial networks, in those individual businesspeople. I think that represents a lot about what is good about the United States. Then, there is the huge influence by American culture of all kinds. Not just movies and music, but through the web, an increasingly connected world can more easily access and engage with our culture. I think the finest elements of American culture are represented abroad, and everything else is available too — it is a big worldwide marketplace of ideas and a worldwide marketplace of goods and services.

I think that for as long as I have been alive, the U.S. has represented itself extremely well overseas and has offered the opportunities that come from American politics, business, and culture. I think the people around the world are intelligent enough to look at what we offer and to look at what others represent, and America remains a beacon of a lot of extremely important principles for people all over the world. Those principles are freedom and democracy and free enterprise and the ability to achieve and diversity and equality.

It can be surprising — when I do interviews here with all kinds of people, from big press outlets to private individuals — I get asked a lot about whether the American dream still exists, and I am very happy to tell people it does. We have an extremely rich immigrant culture and a great educational system. People have the ability to rise in the American system in a way that isn’t really true in many other countries in the world. And people see us that way, and I am glad they do, because I believe that is true.

We sometimes want to be critical of ourselves and of our representatives, but some of those criticisms are not very well founded, if you think about what is happening in the rest of the world. In the actual world we still represent an awful lot that is good about people and about the world, so it is exciting to be a part of a team that does represent the United States.


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