November-December 2022 Articles


Can a Post-War Promise Become a 21st Century Capability?

H.E. Audra Plepytė
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Lithuania to the United States of America and to the United Mexican States

Lithuania has almost a ringside seat for the Russian invasion of Ukraine,and from that seat Lithuanian officials can see not only that Russia is the aggressor but that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been badly ill-informed by his advisors resulting in a cascade of miscalculations. Not only was Putin wrongly led to expect that Ukrainians would meet his troops as liberators, precisely the opposite was true. He bet that the Western reaction to his aggression would be short-lived at best. Instead NATO, the European Union and the United States have continued to toughen their stance and funnel ever more weapons and defense systems into Ukraine. Both Finland and Sweden have initiated their applications to join NATO. Putin bet that his conscription scheme would be docilely accepted by the Russian people, turning the balance of forces in his favor. Instead, thousands of Russian men sought to flee the country.

To be sure, Putin has found allies in the Iranian Mullahs and their drone aircraft; in North Korea's hermit regime led by Kim Jong-un where, reportedly, the Russians buy artillery and rockets; in Assad's Syria where hundreds of Russian-trained fighters have been recruited from the Syrian Army and from the private group the Wagner Front and from whence Putin has named his new commanding officer for the war in Ukraine. And, of course, Saudi Arabia has refused to honor a request made by the United States to cap oil prices with winter at hand and has chosen instead to reduce the amount of oil it pumps by two million barrels a day.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, describes teaching these lessons to the NATO allies as “West-splaining.” For the Baltic states, he points out, it all boils down to the misperception that Russia can be appeased. Russia, he insists, cannot and will not be appeased. Putin's vision of imperial Russia means that there will always be another demand, and another, and another. Unless they are forcibly stopped, Russia's demands are insatiable. The West, Landsbergis insists, must provide more and more sophisticated weapons to Zelensky and Ukraine.

Into this maelstrom has stepped Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Audra Plepyte, a career diplomat with 25 years of experience, immense powers of quiet persuasion, and now a focus on the United States government – whether it be the White House and the President, the State and Defense departments, the Capitol building and its network of House and Senate offices, or the other NATO and EU governments scattered around Washington, DC. She comes with negotiation and listening skills sharply honed during four years as Lithuania's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Ms. Plepyte graduated from Vilnius University with a bachelor's and a master's degree in philosophy and international relations from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at that same school. Immediately afterward, she studied for two years at Oxford University, where she received a degree in diplomatic studies.

Joining the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry in 1994 as Second, Third Secretary at the Multilateral Relations Division, Plepyte's career development was little short of a meteoric and steady rise. From the beginning she moved up the ranks of foreign service positions - among them as Head of the Human Rights and NGOs Division, Head of the International Missions and Prevention of Conflict Division, and Director of Personnel. In between these assignments, she served as Counselor in the Lithuanian Embassy to the United States, as Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York (1999-2002), and as Counselor and Deputy Representative to the Political and Security Committee in the Lithuanian Permanent Representation to the European Union (2004-2008).

Ms. Plepyte was named Ambassador to Spain and the World Tourism Organization, housed in Madrid in (2010-2014). She returned to Vilnius to serve as Director of the European Union Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2014-2017) before being named the Permanent Representative of Lithuania at the United Nations in New York (2017-2021). In early 2021, she was also elected as President of the Bureau of the UNICEF Executive Board. It was from her position as Permanent Representative of Lithuania at the United Nations that she was selected to become Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador Plepyte, now entering her second year as Ambassador to the United States, was kind enough to allow us time for an interview with her.

Diplomatic Connections: This year celebrates 100 years of diplomatic relations between Lithuania and the United States. Beyond the historic importance of establishing and sustaining that relationship following World War I and sustaining relations even through the Cold War when Lithuania was under Soviet occupation, what is the present day importance of this long-standing relationship between Lithuania and the United States?

Ambassador Plepyté: The 100 years of our diplomatic relations, which continued uninterrupted through the years of Soviet dominance, gave us hope and strength to continue believing that one day we would once again be free.
The United States has stood by Lithuania during the most difficult times. In turn, that made our country a strong and unwavering ally of the United States in defense of freedom and democracy – the same values that Lithuania, the United States, NATO and the European Union are defending in the face of the aggression by Putin's Russia today. I have to add that our stance must be universal. We have to resist authoritarianism and defend human rights in any part of the world.

Diplomatic Connections: Your initial university education spanned the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Lithuania's efforts to reclaim its independence, an action that Gorbachev resisted. All of your previous education was under the direction of the Soviet authorities. What was a Russian education like for you?

Ambassador Plepyté: Let me make some corrections to what you have described. I went to Lithuanian schools, so it was a Soviet education – yes. But, the language of instruction was Lithuanian. I graduated from school in 1989, but 1988 was already different from the previous years. We had lessons in Lithuanian history, especially what happened during and after World War II as well as the history of Soviet domination. So, from that time on, it was not a Soviet education but a Lithuanian education, one that recognized Lithuania's unique identity and cultural accomplishments as well as recalled and valued Lithuania's interwar independence.
During the years of Soviet occupation there was a phenomenon of a “double life” or “double education.” There was awareness that certain things needed to be said publicly, but there was another life – family and home – that was freer. There one could identify as a Lithuanian and share historical memory across generations. We listened to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe trying to hear the truth, grasp the realities of what was happening in the world and also in Lithuania as it sought independence from the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic Connections: What was your personal experience of Lithuania's efforts to declare independence?

Ambassador Plepyté: Truthfully, my education was like being an eyewitness to history and my country's struggle to regain its freedom. That was the best classroom of all.
At university, I was able to benefit from all of these curricular changes. The study of philosophy actually bridged the changing world in which I lived. No longer was philosophy the study of Marxism-Leninism as the underpinnings of the Soviet ideology. Instead, we were free to explore the world of ideas and range of political philosophies that various peoples had explored and with which they had experimented. It was both a commitment to freedom and a fascination with the variety of the world that led me toward a career in diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: The depth and the speed of your education are remarkable. You moved through multiple degrees quite quickly. You were simultaneously pursuing degrees in philosophy and in diplomacy and international relations. How do those two fields -- philosophy and international relations -- fit together for you?

Ambassador Plepyté: Very naturally. Philosophy included a great deal of history and political science. Actually, my bachelor's degree allowed me to pursue both fields simultaneously, and I had very understanding professors. I was very lucky. I was born at the right moment.

Diplomatic Connections: What events and persons led you to an interest in international relations and a career in diplomacy?

Ambassador Plepyté: Unquestionably, it was the people and events surrounding Lithuania's quest for independence. I had an education in the classroom as well as in the streets as I joined the public demonstrations and the leaders who emerged during our struggle to separate from the Soviet Union and to achieve, or rather reclaim, our independence. I wanted to be a part of the restoration of our country, its freedom, and its place in the region and in the world.

Diplomatic Connections: You have moved back and forth in your career stream between three areas of diplomacy – multilateral relations, bilateral relations between Lithuania and individual countries, and the United Nations institutions and special agencies. How do you compare those three experiences? Is diplomacy different in each of these fields?

Ambassador Plepyté: Yes and no. There are commonalities in any diplomacy – meeting and understanding people, the procedures of protocol and diplomatic communication, the need for careful listening skills, and the need to present your country's positions and concerns without injecting personal opinion. This is a pleasure for me, but there are also times when presenting your country's concerns can be difficult and uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary. These things are true of diplomacy at any level.
In bilateral diplomacy the work is directly with other individual countries and their representatives. But, your main counterpart is always one – the host country. This concerns politicians, parliamentarians, diplomats, business people, and contacts in the area of culture. In multilateral diplomacy, it is essential to work with the representatives of many different countries simultaneously. The field is often narrower and the issues more precisely focused, but the range of diplomatic contacts becomes broader and the viewpoints more diverse. Accomplishment of the tasks requires building support groups, working together to define and enact common goals. Countries often have not only competing interests but also very different styles of diplomacy and communication.

Diplomatic Connections: And at the United Nations?

Ambassador Plepyté: The United Nations community is a different experience because its aim is to be as inclusive as possible. That inclusiveness means that there is a commitment to process and procedure, and that commitment can often result in cumbersome channels of communication. The United Nations encompasses diversity and differences of opinion and combines it with an openness of communication that initially amplifies differences of opinion by assuring that every country has a voice, regardless of differences in size and power. That is a learning experience, a source of initial conflict, and an opportunity for finding common ground. But, that process requires patience as well as an enormous investment of time and energy.

Diplomatic Connections: You undertook your role as Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States a little over a year ago, May 2021. What did you see as the most important issues in Lithuania's relationship with the United States when you assumed the ambassador's role? How has that agenda changed over your 17 months in this post, months that have been heavily impacted by the global health crisis of Covid-19 and by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Ambassador Plepyté: The world changes and the priorities change. The United States was, is and always will be our strategic partner, our most important partner for many areas. Prior to assuming my current role, I served as Lithuania's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York for almost four years. That meant that becoming Ambassador to the United States required a great deal of quick study on my part to refresh myself on my country's foreign policy relationship with the United States and the specific issues that were of concern to its national interest. I had to shift gears, so to speak. And, I had to work at building a whole new set of relationships with the political leaders of the United States. These were the immediate requirements of the job and the nature of diplomacy.
One of the critical issues for Lithuania is our relationship with China, which had instituted economic measures against Lithuania because of our pursuit of a more active relationship with Taiwan. China saw that as violating the principle of “one China” that they had agreed upon in the Shanghai Communique and that has become the model for China's relations with most other countries. Lithuania upholds the “one China” principle, however we seek a broader business and cultural relationship with Taiwan. The support of the United States is very important to us in the face of Beijing's coercive economic behavior.
At the top of our list of priorities remains the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the violation of that country's territorial integrity and the destruction, crimes and murder committed there. Lithuania understands well that Russia will not stop with Ukraine. It will go farther if allowed. Concerns for our own national security meant that we needed to develop even closer relations with the United States and with the NATO alliance.

Diplomatic Connections: Lithuania is in a fascinating and challenging geo-strategic position bordered by the Baltic Sea, Latvia, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Poland and Belarus – itself a former Soviet Republic. How does Lithuania's geo-strategic location influence or shape its world view and foreign policy?

Ambassador Plepyté: Geography determines our foreign policy. Lithuania has been in this position for many centuries, and we learned what we need to do to survive amid these realities. As Russia's war in Ukraine continues colleagues tell me that they have a new appreciation of how Lithuania sees things and understand better the position in which Lithuania finds itself. In that light, it can be said that Lithuania has helped many countries to understand Russia better and more fully.

Diplomatic Connections: Lithuania currently hosts a NATO “Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group” led by Germany, which recently enlarged its presence there and is rotating units through Lithuania for advanced training.  This NATO forward presence is intended as a “trip wire” to assure NATO's involvement in any attack on Lithuania.  Is such a “trip wire” presence trustworthy and sufficient to Lithuania's defense?

Ambassador Plepyté: NATO's “Enhanced Forward Presence” or EFP, as well as the other NATO and allied forces in Lithuania, is very important part of the overall Lithuanian defense posture. The goal of Lithuanian defense policy as outlined by the Ministry of the National Defense is to ensure deterrence against any armed attack on Lithuania, and in case of armed aggression to protect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lithuania. This goal is pursued through the joint efforts of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, NATO allies, all state institutions and society.
Lithuania also contributes to international stability and peace in order to form an international security environment favorable to Lithuania and its allies. The recently adopted NATO Strategic Concept envisages new defense initiatives and priorities for the Alliance. These will benefit all allies. For example, NATO will increase the strength of its rapid reaction force nearly eightfold to 300,000 troops as part of its response to new realities.
Being a part of the strongest military alliance in the world is reassuring, but Lithuania is constantly working to enhance its security and at the same time the strength of the Alliance. Recently the leaders of political parties in Lithuania have signed a new national defense agreement, pledging to keep military spending above 2.5 percent GDP and increase the number of conscripts. In addition, Lithuanian society, all civilian authorities contribute to the defense of the country by providing support to the armed forces and ensuring the performance of vital state functions.

Diplomatic Connections: International relations is full of acronyms and initials. One such group that is of importance to Lithuania is the so-called Nordic-Baltic 8. What is this grouping? How does it function, and what is its role?

Ambassador Plepyté: It is less formal than a regional organization and lacks the institutions that a regional organization would typically have. The official terminology is an “informal regional cooperation format,” but It may be more useful to think of the Nordic-Baltic 8 as a “club” intended to facilitate contact and collaboration between the Baltic three – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – and the Nordic five – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland
Northern Europe, the Baltic nations and the United States together seek a safe, secure, and supportive environment for advancing an agenda of interests that we share in the region. For that reason, we have a joint US and NB-8 forum for cooperation called the Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (E-PINE) that encompasses three major areas for interactions: Cooperative Security; Healthy Societies; Vibrant Economies.
In the face of the renewed Russian threat, Sweden and Finland have begun the process of accession to the North Atlantic treaty. With Sweden's and Finland's NATO membership all the NB-8 states would be part of the Alliance.

Diplomatic Connections: There have also been efforts to establish a New Hanseatic League, recalling the trading bloc history of the medieval Hanseatic League confederation between the merchant guilds and market towns of North and Central Europe. What would be the role of this New Hanseatic League confederation, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit?

Ambassador Plepyté: The so-called New Hanseatic League idea is to pick-up on the traditions of the historic Hanseatic League in a modern way, exploring new ways to expand the regional economies through trade, further development of the single European market, and intermodal transportation links that promote trade and the growth of distribution networks. In essence, this is a group of like-minded countries that seek the same objectives and understand that their individual economic and technological growth depends on working together as an integrated economic region.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a danger that such “clubbing” risks driving a wedge between the northern and southern tiers of the European Union?

Ambassador Plepyté: No, I don't think it's a danger. Instead it is one of a series of efforts to recognize that economic nationalism is virtually impossible to achieve in the 21st century, costly to the country that attempts it, and a potential source of conflict between countries that can spill over from the marketplace to undermine international cooperation and destabilize security.
The European Union is like a big family. Sometimes there are differences of views, but there is an over-arching commitment to cooperation.

Diplomatic Connections: You actually wear two hats. Not only are you Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States but also your country's Ambassador to the United Mexican States. How do you fulfill those dual responsibilities? How do you juggle Lithuania's representation between neighboring countries when Washington and Mexico City vacillate between a close relationship and persistent frictions that often and repeatedly strain relations between these two “American” capitals?

Ambassador Plepyté: To date, one role – the relationship with the United States – is much more developed than the other – the relationship with Mexico. Because I am based in Washington and given the course of events in Europe as much as 90% of my time and effort has been directed to the United States. I would love to spend more time in Mexico. It is a big and very important country that is inevitably a vital link between the politics and diplomacy of North and South America. It deserves more attention than I have been able to give it to date.
I was Lithuania's Ambassador to Spain as well as to the World Tourism Organization based in Madrid earlier in my career (2010-2014), and Spanish is one of the languages in which I have some fluency. During that time I had many interactions with Mexico's Ambassador and with the Mexican embassy staff. We have active and capable honorary consuls in Mexico and they keep me well informed regarding the issues facing the Mexican government and situation in the country. When I was at our mission to the United Nations in New York I had very good relations with Mexican diplomats. I also have plans to visit Mexico in the near future in order to reiterate, reinvigorate and strengthen relations between our countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you tell us a bit about your United Nations experience and particularly your involvement with one of the specialized agencies – UNICEF – dedicated to promoting the welfare of children around the world?

Ambassador Plepyté: My role with UNICEF allowed me to see the effects of the global pandemic on children and families in very concrete terms. It is not only a matter of public health. The pandemic has affected every aspect of people's lives – employment, children's education, food availability and distribution, life expectancy, refugee flows, and overall living conditions. That is true everywhere but especially in Africa, parts of South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America. The spillover effects of Covid, exacerbated by destabilizing regional security concerns around the world and Great Power tensions, have weakened the hoped for joint efforts to assure peace and pursue sustainable development. I remain hopeful that we can overcome these obstacles and continue our work to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and for the benefit all humankind.

Diplomatic Connections: The UN is so deeply confronted with the rebirth of nationalism where more and more countries are not focused on the international community so much as they are focused on their own national interest exclusively. How can the United Nations respond to this resurgent nationalism?

Ambassador Plepyté: Working at the United Nations, first as a counselor and as my country's Deputy Permanent Representative (1999-2002) and then again as Permanent Representative (2017-2021), was very special for me. That said, I saw a real difference between the UN I knew during my first posting in New York and the United Nations I encountered during this most recent posting. That earlier United Nations was deeply devoted to multilateralism and had a strong focus on identifying, understanding, and responding to critical global issues. Now nationalism has weakened those earlier commitments and undermined the focus on vital global issues like human rights, climate change, hunger and food security, refugees and displaced persons, and the rule of law.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you feel that women professionals approach diplomacy in a different manner than men do – procedurally or behaviorally? Is there such a thing as a feminist diplomacy?

Ambassador Plepyté: Every person has a different approach to diplomacy. What I believe after my 25-year diplomatic career is that diplomacy has changed a great deal from the time when it was a profession only for men. When I began my career there were very few women diplomats, and now the majority of or diplomats are women. That is acknowledgement that there is nothing gender specific about the practice of diplomacy or the distribution of talents.
If you look across the world there are still lots of men in the higher diplomatic positions. However, women have been encouraged to pursue diplomatic careers, and the situation is changing. Now the career stream is in a much better position for women. There are not as many roadblocks as there once were, and women are widely accepted and advanced in the field. My career is evidence of that.
Women have a lot to learn from men, and men have a lot to learn from women. The important thing is that the contribution every individual makes is quite apart from gender. If women hadn't dared to question men's role, the progress we see would not have been made. My hope is that this progress continues.

Diplomatic Connections: Imagine that, based on your 25-years of diplomatic experience, you are asked to address the new, entering class of fledgling Lithuanian diplomats as they begin their training. What insights might you offer them? What have you learned over the years that you wish you'd understood earlier in your career?

Ambassador Plepyté: Be curious. Try to learn as much as possible about your specific responsibilities and about what others do in their specific positions, always without impinging on boundaries. Learn from others, observe role models and seek mentors. Get to know your counterparts in other embassies. Always remember that today's junior officers will in time become leaders in the foreign ministry and often enough ambassadors in their own right. Learn how to be persuasive, but also learn to listen and absorb other points of view even when, perhaps especially when, you do not agree with them.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Plepyte, thank you for your insights, your candor and your willingness to share your experiences.

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