Outgoing US ambassador to Lithuania: I wonder how you did it in crisis

Outgoing US Ambassador to Lithuania Anne E. Derse says she was surprised at how Lithuania managed to emerge from a deep recession and get back to economic growth. "I wonder how you did it," the ambassador said in an interview with BNS. In her last interview in Lithuania, Derse has also said Lithuania and the United States have become equal partners during her ambassadorial term, strengthened security cooperation and opened up new opportunities for business.

The US diplomat also praised the Lithuanian government for its efforts to properly evaluate the Holocaust in Lithuania, and also warned the country to improve its defense funding.

- When you're back in the United States, how would you describe Lithuania for Americans who know next to nothing about it?

- I would say that this is a small country that is a great friend, partner, and ally of the United States of America. It's a country that we need to know more about. We should know and understand better the great history as well as the sensitive history of Lithuania because you are in a very sensitive part of the world.

We have every reason as Americans to want to continue to build an even stronger relationship with Lithuania because we share values as well as interests. We also have strong historic ties between our people and want to maintain that in the future as Lithuania develops as a key member of the European Union.

- What would you advise to visit in Lithuania?

- When we had friends here, we took them to three places. We went to Kernav? because it is a seat of the Lithuanian nation. I've always thought it a mystical and beautiful place, and now there is a wonderful museum, extremely well-done, and it tells this great history of this site. From Kernav? we went to Trakai and they learned there about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. And then we also went to the KGB museum – as it is known – where we talked about the work that we've done here looking at the WW2 history, the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation. That is also a very important stop for all visitors. That's the itinerary I do for guests who come here on a short weekend.

I can honestly say that everyone who has come here and never been here before has said to me - we just didn't know about this amazingly interesting part of Europe. I had friends here from Spain, the UK, Austria, France as well from the United States and virtually all of them were delighted to discover Lithuania.

- In bilateral ties between Lithuania and the US, where have you seen the biggest progress, and which areas need more improvement and will be the most challenging for your successor?

- I came with a goal of transforming our relationship into one of full equal partners, where we respect each others' national interests, may have differences of view but work them out in a productive and constructive way, deepen our relations and broaden in new areas. I gave a speech on March 2010 about the fact that we were moving to this new stage of relationship. I feel we've achieved that.

We have taken our security relations to a new level in terms of our bilateral military cooperation, where we work through the Pennsylvania National Guard program. In NATO over the past several years from the Lisbon summit to the Chicago summit, there has been enormous progress made on issues of importance to Lithuanian security: the Baltic air policing has been made a permanent mission, the Energy Security Center was welcomed at the NATO summit, there has been an interim missile defense capability declared for NATO.

We had BALTOPS. It was amazing to sit on the beach in Nemirseta and see US marines landing on the beach, and B52 bombers have flew all the way from Louisiana without stopping. It was done intentionally to show both commitment and capability of the United States to contribute to Lithuania's security.

There is a debate here about the defense spending. We come to an area of the security relationship where more perhaps should be done from the US perspective. We talk about 2 percent. The political commitment that all NATO allies have made is to contribute 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. That number was not pulled out of the air. NATO studied this very carefully and determined that in order for any country to maintain it's current level of security preparedness, it's necessary to spend about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. If you want to improve your capabilities to defend your own country and to contribute to NATO's collective defense mission, you need to spend more. And NATO decided to contribute 2 percent at this stage for that reason. Let's not have an arcane debate about 2 percent without thinking what it means. What it means is boots on the ground, roads, equipment, training. It means actual tangible capabilities to defend yourself. Without security, very little else matters.

I've been encouraging Lithuanian colleagues across the political spectrum through all the institutions to the media to look hard at this question. Only Lithuania can decide how to address it, especially given that many people are still suffering the effects of the crisis. I understand why that would be a difficult question. But it seems like the political leadership here in the recent discussions are moving in the direction taking an important step to increase defense spending.

In Lithuania we have worked closely with the government and NGOs to promote and protect human rights in a variety of fields, like violence against women. I was so happy that just before the visit of Secretary Clinton for the Community of Democracies the law was finally passed.

As you know, we worked very hard on the issue of the Holocaust. From our point of view, that's an issue of our broader focus on human rights and development of tolerance and protection for minority rights as a crucial element of a strong democracy. It's also a question of historical justice and there are many in the United States who are very interested in this issue. It isn't just the Jewish community, it's a broad issue for us, one of human rights and tolerance. We've seen a really remarkable progress and I sincerely hope that will continue.

We've got a good start on helping Lithuania to get on the radar screens of many many more American companies. Lithuania has great potential advantages as an economic and commercial partner for American companies. American companies can find partners here who know how to do business in the East, who speak the languages, who understand the markets but also they can reach into the EU because Lithuania is an EU member. An American company working here benefits from a very high quality doing-business environment, that's getting better. The current government has been very committed to improving the investment environment further, and the trade environment. I hope that that will continue because I think that Lithuania is beginning to get serious attraction in the minds of American business people. We did the first ever US Department of Commerce's certified trade mission last year, there is another reverse trade mission that's going this month to America and hopefully in the next year or so there will be an additional mission here to Lithuania. The Lithuanian embassy is going to have a new commercial attaché. That's a very positive step. Someone who will focus only on business. We also are going to have a new officer at our embassy who is going to be working strictly on commercial matters. So we'll have some new resources to really take the economic commercial cooperation to the next level.

In the past three years, the whole energy picture has really advanced in Lithuania. The US has been very happy to see that, because for many years we've been working with Europe generally encouraging Europe to develop and unify energy markets and to increase energy independence and diversify sources and routes of supply and increase energy security. It's crucial for every country. Energy independence is one of the key elements of national security. Lithuania has a particular situation stemming from it's history it is trying to address with a variety of projects. The Secretary of State and other US government officials have spoken out to express our strong support for what Lithuania is trying to do. How you decide to do is up to you but we think it's very important that Lithuania is moving in this direction. So we've offered our technical assistance as well as our political support for the major projects, Visaginas nuclear power plant, we believe that nuclear power is a crucial element of a sustainable clean energy future and we in the US are working on building additional new nuclear power plants. We've offered technical assistance to do a feasibility study for the LNG terminal. We had a great conference here on shale gas. Lithuania has great potential on that area. We know in the US that it can be developed sustainable, environmentally soundly.

- There is a concern among some diplomats and politicians in Lithuania and elsewhere in the region that the United States is shifting its focus from Europe to Asia. What would you say to those people?

- President Obama and Secretary Clinton said that relationship with Europe is the cornerstone of stability and prosperity and security in the world for the United States, that Europe is our partner of choice and that NATO is the most successful defensive alliance in the world. The US and Europe share similar values, we have 65 years of history of extraordinary development of security cooperation in NATO. This will not change. We are committed to that relationship. We see our relationship with Europe as really crucial to both Europe's and America's ability to address important global challenges.

At the same time, the United States is a global power and we do have global interests, and we do play an important role. If you look what's going on these days in Asia, it is very important that the United States remains engaged with all the powers in Asia and that we work hard to keep the sea lanes open so that everyone can take benefit from trade with Asia – your prime minister is in China right now. Even in the world with limited resources, it is not a zero sum game.

- The "open-mic" story about a talk between Presidents Obama and Medvedev has added to speculations that the presidential elections can change America's foreign policy. Can there be significant changes after the elections?

- The only thing I am going say about the elections is that they will be free and fair and democratic, just like your elections in Lithuania. About the American foreign policy, we have a phrase in the United States that says "bipartisanship stops at the waters edge". The fundamental lines of our foreign policy I don't think will change at all no matter what happens in our elections with respect to this part of the world, with respect to Lithuania. I am very confident because we have the same basic crucial interests here. That won't change.

- You came to Lithuania in 2009, a year when Lithuania witnessed one of the deepest recessions in the world as the economy contracted by almost 15 percent. What's your impression about the way the crisis has been handled over the last three years?

- There is really just one word to describe it – it was amazing and exceptional. Because the crisis hit Lithuania so hard – with 15-percent GDP drop in 2009. Already in 2010 you were back to growth of 1 percent. Last year, it was six percent. And prospects for this year looked rather good, but it depends a lot on what’s going on in other markets, and the Lithuanian people - I know - bore the brunt of the austerity measures that were taken to correct the economic situation, but they did it with such courage.

In some countries, I think, it might be vastly more difficult for the population to be able to respond in that way.

I know, because as I traveled in the regions where there are still economic issues and problems and people are still suffering effects of the crisis. But from the macro point of view, for Lithuania to have been able to on its own basically turn around the economy in one year – from 15 percent drop of GDP back to growth – that’s amazing.

And I travelled in the United States with the prime minister, during the period when this was happening, and our senior economic officials commented to him that they had great respect for Lithuania for being able to do that. And I wonder how you did it.

- What do you think about the situation in the Lithuanian media? Is there freedom, independence, quality?

- In the US we believe that the media is almost like the fourth branch of the government. Our founding philosophy is that without a free media people can't be free. And Thomas Jefferson said "if I had to choose between the government without a free media or a free media without a government, I would choose the latter."

The media doesn't just reflect to the public things, the media can and should in a strong democracy lead the public opinion by focusing people's thoughts on crucial issues of national importance and providing a forum for debate and discussion and analysis and offering ideas.

I've worked closely with the media in the three years here. It was one of my goals to have many more contacts with thoughtful commentators, analysts, and writers here. The good news is that the Lithuanian media is so free, all international measures make that clear. I believe that in terms of playing that crucial role of leading national discussion and debate the media here is evolving as a key institution of Lithuania's relatively young democracy.

But I would love to see the media here focusing even more on international issues because Lithuania is an international player, and playing a key role in pushing forward important national interests. Here is one example: in the past year or so I've seen a number of really thoughtful, objective pieces on sensitive issues relating to the Holocaust. That to me was really interesting and I really want to applaud those journalists who are beginning to take a look at what is a difficult issue for the Lithuanian society.

The media plays a crucial role in fighting things like intolerance and anti-Semitism. You can play into those feelings to sell newspapers, or not. Violence against women – it's remarkable what happened after that law was passed, the attention of the media put on it, it was so helpful because it helps the public understand why this is an important law, understand the challenges associated with implementing the law.

- What are your future plans and when Lithuania can expect a new US ambassador?

- In an election year we are never quite sure when things will pop out of the White House. But I believe that there is at least a chance we might see an announcement from the White House soon. My personal plans are going back to Washington DC. Three of my four children live in the United States. My husband is now working as the executive director for a new US-Pilipino society. And I will be deciding what I want to do next.