An Interview with Patrick S. Moon, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herz ambassadorOriginally from Oklahoma City, Patrick S. Moon was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina on September 10, 2010.  After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1972, Moon earned an M.A. degree in International Relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A career member of the Foreign Service, Moon previously served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; as the Coordinator and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan.  Other domestic assignments include Office Director for Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, and Office Director for Afghanistan in the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs.  His overseas postings include Vice Consul in Beirut; Administrative Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Lubumbashi, Zaire; Executive Secretary of the U.S. Negotiating Group for Strategic Nuclear Arms Negotiations (START) in Geneva; U.S. Delegation to the negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in Vienna; U.S. Mission to NATO and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Zagreb, Croatia.

The Politic: Ambassador Moon, thank you so much for speaking with the Politic today. To begin with, why did you choose to join the Foreign Service? 

First and foremost, I would say public service. I had spent about six and a half years in the U.S. Air Force and during that time, I was looking for a career that would give me a chance to live and work overseas, as well as to continue my career in public service; the Foreign Service was the perfect way to do that. So I applied, was accepted, and it’s been a wonderful career. It has been tremendously rewarding — working on important issues, living in interesting places, and meeting wonderful people. It’s been a very satisfying experience for me.

The Politic: What would you say are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of being a career member of the Foreign Service?

The challenging aspects are often related to the rewarding. It depends on whether you’re working in Washington or overseas. In Washington, the job usually consists of developing policy positions and working with the State Department and other departments in the foreign affairs area — such as the National Security Council. It can be very tense sometimes and can take a lot of time from your schedule. It is sometimes kind of frustrating if you are not able to push through to find solutions, but more often than not, it is quite rewarding to work on issues which you know are important for the foreign policy objectives of the United States.

If you are overseas, it is a similar idea; we are working with foreign government officials to advance and help define U.S. policies. But, there are concrete differences. You meet a lot of people, have a chance to travel around your country, and meet not just with politicians but ordinary citizens, NGOs, and people on the business side. It is tremendously rewarding in the sense that you get a great picture of the country where you are living, and you work very hard to advance U.S. interests along with those of the country where you are working.

The Politic: Going off of that, a main aspect of your job over your past three-year tenure as Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been to promote American economic, political, and cultural interests in the country. Could you talk a little bit about what advancing those interests looks like in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina? 

The United States is very well liked in Bosnia and Herzegovina because the United States, through Ambassador Holbrooke’s effort, ended the war here in 1995 and helped broker the Dayton Agreement, which also provided a foundation thereafter for peace and democracy-building. In addition, the U.S. has provided, over the last seventeen years or so, $1.6 billion worth of assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina, initially heavily focused on infrastructure building and rebuilding after the war and now focused to a great degree on helping to build the civil society here by training judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel. We are also working to increase the engagement of youth and women in society, because we believe they are needed for the full integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina into Europe — which essentially consists of membership into NATO and the EU. We put not only our assistance money but also our entire staff towards working on these issues.

On the cultural side, public diplomacy promotes our exchange programs. We send about 20 to 40 high school students to the U.S., mostly for five-week exchanges, but also on year-long exchanges. These are extremely valuable because we select young people from the three main ethnic groups and send them together, with the hope that they come back changed, ready to work in society to improve conditions in their community and hopefully in a broader context too. They often meet with mayors and community councils and get a very real sense of what people who are working in NGOs or in civil society and local communities are doing to improve them. We also bring young people from different ethnic groups together at camps, where they mix and are able to find more commonalities than differences. And we think that these programs have had an impact. In addition to that, we work with women to help them find the right tools to move into politics and business. We think there would be much less corruption and much better governance in the country if there were more women involved in all areas of society. We are engaged across a full spectrum of issues.

On the economic side, it is a little different because there is very little U.S. investment in Bosnia. It is a small country, and there are, in fact, many obstacles to foreign investment, which is one of the issues we are working on here. We do have a few American companies, such as in the software area, that are active here, and we do help to promote their business efforts.

The Politic: What misconceptions do you feel that the average Bosnian citizen has towards America, and vice-versa?

Well, we often tell Bosnians that the United States can serve as an example for them because we gain strength from our diversity; we say we gain strength from the immigration of people from all over the world to join our society. But there are, of course, challenges. There are issues that people face in our country, from the lowest levels of the community all the way up to the President, and these issues are ones that we address through democratic procedures. What we want, though, is for the students in the exchange programs I mentioned to come back here with the realization that they can do something, that they can have an effect here, and that it is citizens that come together that really make democracy stronger. It sets a good example to lower levels of society here and hopefully the upper levels will take the message as well over time.

As I said, the United States is viewed favorably here, for what we did after the war and what we are working to do here to make this a better country and help move things forward. Currently, the European Union as well is very important in this role because what we want is for Bosnia to move toward the EU, because that will bring many reforms, both economic and in governance, which will improve the citizens’ services and help build economic prosperity.

The Politic: Going off of that, what do you believe are the major obstacles standing in the way of Bosnia’s integration into the EU and NATO, and what do you believe the role of the United States should be in facilitating that process? 

The major obstacle right now is the failure of the political leaders from the three ethnic groups to come together to find solutions. Compromise is not something that they have been good at so far. They separately come up with their own solutions and then tend to sort of yell at each other through the press and media rather than sitting down together. What they need to do, which I keep telling them, is to sit down, talk, and find out where the common ground is in order to move the country forward in the right direction — and that’s toward the European Union.

They have had three years to address two different projects — for the EU and NATO — and have failed for the last three years to find solutions. They came close a few times but still haven’t been able to find that common ground that will take them to the next step with each organization. But it does mean that we work very closely with the European Union delegation. We want to make sure that the EU and the US have exactly the same approach, exactly the same views, and are working toward exactly the same goals, because that is what is going to be important for all of the people of this country. The citizen support for EU membership is very high, but the political leaders unfortunately don’t seem to be looking at that.

The Politic: How do Bosnians today remember the war of 1992 to 1995, and how deeply do you think the historical memory of the war informs the current political deadlock and ethnic strife today?

The war was a terrible experience for everyone, and its legacy still has an effect on what happens in the political sphere today. Over a hundred thousand people were killed, with horrible atrocities on all sides, and no one escaped blame in this regard. There is still an issue of finding justice for those who were responsible for war crimes. While some people have been tried, there’s a large backlog of cases here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a sore issue for everyone. And there are many issues related to the war still that should be addressed for all citizens to truly be able to find justice and relieve themselves of these war legacy issues. We work in many ways to try to help that process. Frankly, many people just want to forget the war, it was so horrible. They lost so much in terms of family members and friends, and also just in terms of plain time that was lost from their lives. They would like to get on with things, but in some ways it’s necessary to find reconciliation so that people can truly move forward.

The Politic: How would you assess the UN’s treatment of Bosnian affairs, whether through the UN war crimes court or other issues over the past decade? More generally, which aspects of the UN cause you the most concern, and which areas of the UN do you feel are working well?

I would separate the war crimes tribunal and the Hague from the rest of the UN operations, because the ICTY is really a distinct and even unique operation that is designed to bring justice to the most senior of those who are seen to be guilty of war crimes. And that has been, I would say, certainly a successful process. Many of them have been convicted, but many have also been found not guilty, which indicates that justice is being served just as it would be in any court in any democratic country around the world. This has caused some bad feelings and frustration among many of the victims’ family members, who would like to see the war crimes cases tried much more quickly. The ICTY has taken quite some time to run through the cases that were on its agenda, and it is only now looking at finishing the last several cases. So there are still issues that need to be addressed.

In terms of the rest of the UN, it has been very involved here ever since the war. The UNHCR is still involved in promoting the returns process for refugees who may have fled Bosnia for Croatia or Serbia, by trying to ensure that there is adequate housing available for them. The United States and other agencies are also working hard to try to move internally-displaced Bosnians back to where they were living before, though jobs and economic opportunities tend to be the largest obstacles. Using EU money, the UN will also be implementing a program aimed at destroying the large quantities of weapons and ammunitions that are still stored around this country under the protection of the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It poses a security threat — a proliferation threat — and everyone, the U.S. included, wants to help reduce the amount of this weaponry and ammunition.

The Politic: How has your embassy reacted to the recent baby-ID protests that have been happening, and how do you believe they are significant? Do you believe that the somewhat multiethnic nature of these protests could potentially usher in political change, as young people of varying backgrounds demand a politically effective government?

Bosnia Sarajevo after the siege lifted in 1995
Sarajevo after the siege lifted in 1995

I think you touched on all the important issues of exactly why these demonstrations are important. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been generally very reluctant to engage with the people they voted for, their elected leaders. But especially in Sarajevo and Mostar, you have ordinary citizens, largely students but also some from unions or other organizations in civil society, involved in the demonstrations. I and the embassy have long publically encouraged them to write letters, sponsor events, and convene town hall meetings — to get the politicians to feel that they are, indeed, responsible for listening to citizens in terms of what they want. USAID even developed a program of virtual parliament, where citizens can contact their elected representatives, pose their issues, and see responses.

The real issue is one of parliamentarians and government officials doing their job — finding solutions. This is democracy. This is not where one party or one group tries to impose ultimatums on the others. Everyone has to work together, and that is the lubricant of democracy and the main reason we feel that these demonstrations are a positive thing. On this ID-number issue, politicians have failed yet again to find a compromise solution, opting to extend the law for another sixty days. But the citizens are stepping up this time and saying, “That is not good enough. We want a solution, a final solution, to ensure that all the young people, all the babies being born now, have an ID-number and can get a passport should they need one.” I expect that many of the demonstrations will perhaps fade away during the summer period, with people on vacation and Ramadan coming up as well, but I certainly hope that this has indicated that a barrier has been broken and that citizens will now be much more ready to get this country moving in the right direction by demonstrating peacefully when they have issues that they want their parliamentarians to address.

The Politic: How can Bosnia benefit from constitutional and/or political reform, given the institutionalized nature of the ethnic divides within the political system? Do you think such are politically feasible in the short-term or perhaps in the long-term?

I would address two issues in particular: the Dayton Constitution, and then the Constitution of the Federation, which is largely Bosniak and Croat parties. Every country that has joined the EU in the past twenty five years has amended its constitution, and Bosnia’s going to have to do the same thing as it moves toward the European Union. And this will take reforms to the Dayton Constitution: to make it more democratic, to make it more functional, and to ensure that human rights of all citizens — not just Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks — are protected in this country. This is going to be a long-term, step-by-step process.

In the federation, however, you have a very complex government structure. The federation is divided into ten governing units known as cantons, and all government functions are replicated in each canton. This makes for a very unwieldy and very expensive structure for governance. What the United States embassy has done over the last six months is sponsor a process whereby a number of recommendations were developed by Bosnian experts — people really smart on legal issues and constitutional issues — and citizens, mayors, civil society NGOs, and judges were consulted, to find out what it is people really want. What do people think needs to be done?

They did an excellent job, and came up with 188 recommendations for reforming the federation constitution, to provide efficient and cost-effective governance. We now have the federation parliament; the leadership of the parliament is working very closely to promote these recommendations in the parliament. There will be a public opinion period in the fall, and we hope that they will be able to move by the end of the year to amend the constitution. This would be a relatively short-term process, one which we do not think could be replicated by political leaders themselves or the political parties. We have been very pleased with the public response to this effort — from the media and from the politicians, which have been non-partisan and have addressed issues citizens really care about. This is a truly historic and unique opportunity for the federation to grasp its chance for real positive change.

The Politic: During your time as Ambassador, has there been any one experience, person, or event in Bosnia that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies, and if so, how?

I travel throughout the country fairly frequently, meeting with mayors, politicians, business leaders, and, importantly, with students and members of NGO communities. I must say I have been generally very impressed with the commitment of people in NGOs, who are basically striving to improve governance wherever they are in their community. In their entity, they are very dedicated people who work with very little compensation but are convinced that they can make a difference. And many of the youth that I meet with, are similarly motivated. I think one of the big differences is that many of them were either born after the war or were very young during the war and consequently did not experience all of the horrible events of that period.

They consequently have a different attitude — they certainly do not seem to see the same obstacles or barriers to cooperation among all ethnic groups here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are much more interested in seeing the groups cooperate and seeing the country move forward, economically and politically, for full integration into Europe. And that is really gratifying, because I tell you: the politics here can be very frustrating and discouraging when the politicians cannot reach agreements. But these youth, you go talk to them, and they are ready to get out and do things. We hope that we will be able to help increase their role in society and also the volume of what civil society is saying so that politicians will have to take note and be responsive.

The Politic: As a final question, how do you feel that America in general is being represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

Throughout my career — and I will say that my career has been focused mostly on politico-military issues — I have been very proud of the United States in how it promotes human rights issues around the world. And certainly, human rights issues vary tremendously around the world in different countries. But whether it was working with the CSCE organization during the Cold War, or working with local NGOs as we do so often around the world, or globally promoting LGBT rights, the United States is at the forefront of doing what is right in terms of human rights and helping people to ensure that citizens have a say in governance and the future of their country for their children. This is very important to me, and I am so proud of what the United States has stood for and what we have done around the world to promote democracy and market economies.

Obviously, the work is not done, and in some cases, the challenges are huge. But the United States is out there, working hard and having successes in what we’re doing. The State Department has been eager to inform American citizens about what we are doing, why we’re doing it, and the successes we have had. We are doing a much better job of that than when I first joined the Foreign Service, but I think we can do more. Frankly, I believe citizens would be more supportive of the State Department and the people who work in dangerous places, serving their interests and protecting U.S. rights and U.S. citizens overseas.


Embassy of the United States to Bosnia:

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