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Ljubljana Life Interview:
U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia, Mr. Johnny Young

by wes eichenwald, january 2002

Although itís a bit too much to view them as objects of pity, it may not be entirely inappropriate to take a moment to empathize with the situation of a new ambassador in a foreign capital, especially if he or she has had no prior connection to the place. On the one hand, almost immediately upon arrival they find themselves subtly patronized by local politicians, diplomats and journalists; on the other, they suffer almost the same treatment by the "old hands" from their own country, who are only too eager to take them aside and explain "the way things really run around here." Even in less tense times, their lives werenít merely an endless round of receptions, banquets and toasts. In this post-September 11 world, even if youíre the new American ambassador of a peaceful, relatively quiet role model of an emerging democracy in Central Europe, the demands on your time and energies are exceptional.

On a typically chilly, gray early December day in Ljubljana, I headed to the U.S. Embassy a bit early for the interview and, after running a thorough (and unsurprising) gamut of security checks in the heavily guarded fortress on Preöernova cesta, spent approximately 25 minutes in the company of the new American ambassador to Slovenia, Johnny Young. For someone only about six weeks into a three-year assignment, the congenial Mr. Young had already gotten around to seeing a good many pieces of the green piece of Europe.

A career Foreign Service officer since 1967, Johnny Young was born in Savannah, Georgia and grew up in Philadelphia. (When assigned to the U.S., he and his wife Angelena live in Kensington, Maryland.) He came to Ljubljana after having been Chief of Mission in Bahrain in the Middle East; before that he was posted in Africa as ambassador to Togo (1994-97) and Chief of Mission to Sierra Leone (1989-92). Slovenia is not, however, his first European posting; from 1985 to 1988 he served as a Counselor of Embassy (staff officer) in the Netherlands.

In the brief time I spent with him, Mr. Young (whose pinstriped suit was adorned with a U.S./Slovene dual-flag friendship pin) came across as every inch the diplomat. Mature and soft-spoken, he is a gentleman who expresses himself in a carefully considered and deliberate fashion; always polite, if guarded (one would hardly expect otherwise). He impressed me as being a highly intelligent man, well-informed, sure of himself and his embassyís mission in Slovenia in todayís troubled world. And even as a new kid on the block, the ambassador seems more than capable of taking care of himself in Ljubljana.

*****

Q: I should start by asking about your initial impressions of the country; have you gotten a chance to see much of it besides Ljubljana?

A: In the short time weíve been here, I donít think weíve done badly. Our goal is to try and visit a city or an area outside of Ljubljana each Saturday, if possible. Weíve been to Bled and to Bohinj, and my wife has been to Maribor, and Iíve been to a place called Ajöevica, which is a place not even most Slovenes know - itís in Nova Gorica, itís where the military language school is located. And weíve been to Portoroě, Piran, Izola, Novo Mesto...Vrhnika, Otočec. So I donít think thatís bad for six weeks, and we will continue to see more; thereís so much to see in this country, every little village and town has something thatís of interest. We havenít been to Lipica, not yet - we do not ride horses, we love to watch them. I donít think youíre going to get me on a horse or ski at this age. Iím afraid of breaking things, things that are not easily repaired...

Q: Fair enough. Was there anything that really surprised you after you came here, because I know you hadnít been to Slovenia before.

A: Well, I had read about it, people had told me about it, and I had seen one or two pictures. But nothing really captures the beauty of the place until youíre here in person and see it for yourself. If anything, itís even better than (itís) portrayed in those various ways.

Q: Wanting to come to Slovenia was basically your idea...

A: Let me put it this way: I expressed interest in coming here. When one is demonstrating interest in a diplomatic posting as ambassador, you canít say ĎI only want to go there and nowhere else.í It doesnít quite work that way. This was one country in which I showed great interest, and I was happy that I was eventually the successful candidate; there were other candidates competing to come here as well.

Q: I suppose I should ask you the same question every American who comes to live in Slovenia gets asked, which is: Why Slovenia?

A: And my counter to that is, why not Slovenia? But I wanted to come here for several reasons. I had read about the countryís history and what they were doing, how successful they were; that there was great beauty here to be seen; and that they were headed in the right direction for the future. And I said, Ďthat sounds like my kind of place.í

Q: What new challenges does Slovenia offer to you?

A: Well, the challenge that any ambassador would have would be to achieve the goals outlined for the U.S. government in the country to which the ambassador is assigned. Our goals here are relatively straightforward: number one, we wish to continue the cooperation that we have with Slovenia in a wide range of international fora and over a wide range of issues. Number two, we want to work with Slovenia in making it the best candidate possible for favorable consideration for entry into NATO. We want to work with the government in whatever way we can in creating the kind of environment here that will be of interest to American business firms, and then we want to work with the different non-governmental institutions here, and even some governmental institutions, I should add, involved in civil society, organizations that deal with specific issues: womenís issues, childrenís issues, education, human rights, things like that.

Q: How does Slovenia fit into American policy in the Balkans and Central Europe, particularly in light of the terrorism crisis?

A: We look at Slovenia as a key partner in what we are trying to do in contributing to peace and stability in this region, and theyíve been a very good partner in that regard. The Balkans remains an area of still unresolved problems, and Slovenia, in its role in KFOR and SFOR, has demonstrated that itís a good partner in working with the international community and with the United States in what is being attempted to bring stability and peace to that region. In addition, the success of this country itself in other areas - how well itís doing economically, how stable itís been politically - serves as an example to the other countries in the region that they too can succeed through good governance, good policies.

Q: What do you think the government of Slovenia wants most from the United States?

A: It wants our support in the achievement of some of its aspirations, such as to join NATO, to join the European Union (to the extent that we can support that) as well, and also its efforts in other international organizations, such as the OECD...and they also want us to provide continued support for their individual efforts that theyíre taking in this region, and we do that as well. For example, the de-mining program is a case in point, where the Slovenes have taken the lead in developing this program to a level of efficiency and effectiveness that makes it the model of this type of de-mining operation not only in this region, but worldwide. And weíre very, very proud to be associated with that, and to continue our support of that organization.

Q: A friend of mine back in the States recently asked me, ĎWhy canít more countries be like Slovenia?í - that is, wanting to live in peace with its neighbors, relatively problem-free and prosperous. I think itís a good question, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that...

A: Well, I think that they can, but I think it depends on the will of the leadership to want the country to succeed and in being prepared to make compromises for success. Now, it is true that Slovenia is a country that is more homogeneous in its population, and that certainly has contributed to some of the stability here. That said, the government has also made accommodation for its minority populations, and this shows wise leadership and the kind of spirit of compromise that is needed in other parts of the Balkans as well.

Q: Have you been able to get a good fix on most Slovenesí attitudes toward Americans?

A: I can say that in the short time that Iíve been here, Iíve found it to be very positive. I havenít found any negatives in that regard. I find that they like Americans and theyíre very proud, also, to tell you that, oh, ĎI have an uncle in Ohioí or ĎI have a cousin in Chicago,í or something like that. So theyíve been very friendly, and have demonstrated very positive thoughts about the United States. I think the expression of sympathy that we received following the terrorist attacks in September was indicative of that - the Slovenes were the first off the mark to express their sympathy and their solidarity with the United States. They have been consistent in terms of their support for the coalition effort. I must say thatís been very much appreciated, and theyíre doing whatever they can; weíre cooperating in certain areas over and above the good cooperation weíve had in the past.

Q: You can see greater political, economic and military cooperation between the U.S. and Slovenia in the future.

A: Oh, yes, absolutely, no question; itís already begun, and I have every reason to believe it will continue in the future.

Q: So you would favor Sloveniaís entry into NATO...

A: I would favor it, but thatís up to NATO to decide. And itís up to us to work with this government to make it the best candidate possible.

Q: As a career diplomat who has represented both Republican and Democratic administrations overseas, do you feel thereís a real difference in the way the Foreign Service carries out its day-to-day business depending on which party is in power?

A: Absolutely not. I was going to take exception to your statement in any case, only to say that it really doesnít matter to us who is in power; we carry out the policy as formulated by the president with the assistance of the secretary of state. And itís our obligation to carry out those policies regardless of who is in office. I will only add that we are unique in terms of the kind of oath of office we take when we embark on assignments as Foreign Service officers and as ambassadors. Whatís unique about it is that we do not swear allegiance to a party; we do not swear allegiance to the president; we swear allegiance to the Constitution. There is no partisan side at all to that pledge.

Q: Part of your embassyís mission is the promotion of democracy?

A: Well, it is, but Iím in a democratic country, so that makes the promotion of democracy here considerably less than it was when I was in my former posts, which were in various stages of democratic development. For example, the posting I just left [Bahrain] was a monarchy moving to a democratic monarchy; the posting that I was in before that was a total dictatorship, and my number one job there was to promote democracy and to promote the kind of development that would come with a more democratic government. Here, the government is democratic; it is a new democracy, so our role is to be as supportive as we can in this kind of democratic regime.

Q: Have you had any talks with your predecessor as ambassador (Nancy Ely-Raphel)?

A: We spoke considerably before I arrived; we had lots of telegraphic and e-mail exchanges, but I didnít have the opportunity to meet with her in Washington. We were in different parts of the country and we just couldnít get together. I hope to see her when I go back (to the U.S.) in January for a conference - I think itís always very helpful to have the perspective of the former occupant of the position, although each ambassador brings his or her own style and mark to the position.

Q: Returning to the terrorism crisis, is there anything specific that American citizens here should be keeping an eye out for?

A: Well, I think that American citizens everywhere need to be vigilant; they need to be very aware of their surroundings and whatís happening. But they donít need to do that to any greater degree because theyíre in Slovenia. I think that the nice thing is that because the security situation is very good in this country and the government here has been extremely helpful in providing good security for our nationals, it doesnít mean we donít have to worry, but we certainly donít worry to the same degree as if we were walking in the streets of certain countries in the Middle East or what have you; itís a big difference.

Q: What are your thoughts about the fact that two American presidents have already visited Slovenia?

A: That speaks for itself. I mean, how many countries much larger than this one can look to that kind of recognition? I donít think many.

Q: Have you made any headway with the difficult Slovene language?

A: No, I havenít. Only a few little things, Ďthank youí and what have you. In fact, the most difficult challenge is trying to master the names; they are very difficult, but the Slovenes Iíve met have been very patient and understanding with us as we try to get through the names, and little by little itís coming, and Iím sure in time itíll be fine.

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