Seriously–Two Hours in Line for Car License Plates?

I am still processing the reality that I am now home for good after three plus decades of constant packing and unpacking and bouncing between home and abroad.  First of all:  It is great to be back!  I have spent a diplomatic career extolling the dynamism, leadership and just sheer true grit of our society, and I am amazed to see how tough, resilient and still optimistic we Americans are after more than a decade of personal and national setbacks, and for too many,  real tragedies.  A lesser people would have crumbled under the pressure.  We have not.

In a few weeks we will chose our next President and other government leaders.  With the end of a long election season, the work on America’s recovery will not only continue, but intensify.  We will have to overcome political differences over the how and who and move forward — fast.  There is so much work to do!  Growing the economy and keeping our country safe are the overriding goals, but we will have to get specific on details.  As we look at other countries outperforming us in education and manufacturing or trade, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us.  We are so used to being ahead of the rest of the world that it is hard for us to have to talk about “catching up.”  So let’s not.  Let’s vault ahead, rather than just catch up to others.

Among the many macro challenges we will have to overcome,  here is a small sampling of seemingly small things that would have a big signal effect if we showed the world and ourselves a better way.  See what you think.

E-Governance:  Obtaining government services at any level in our country is much harder and old-fashioned than it should be in the 21st century.  We need state-of-the-art, fast, simple, service oriented access to our government, from obtaining vehicle license plates to passports; from mining permits to export licenses.  I just returned from tiny 21st century Estonia to vast and sometimes turn-of-the century America.  Estonians have a comfortable, even trusting relationship with their government, not because they spend a lot of time dealing with their bureaucracy, but because they spend very little.  Government services are delivered mostly electronically and fast, without long waiting lines, limited service hours, or complicated paperwork.  Most services can be obtained sitting in a comfortable easy chair at home with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, while enjoying a favorite beverage.

Wireless Communications:  I finally have my new iPhone 5, my home internet connection, and I can find he nearest Starbuck’s with free WiFi.  All good, and many around the world envy us for the technology we have invented and put in place.  But in fact our internet access is slower and/or more expensive than in other proudly “wired” — or better — “wireless” countries.  Too often during my once again daily commute from the Washington suburbs into the capital of the United States, I am faced with the “can you hear me now?” problem as my — hands free — phone connection suddenly drops put.  Outside the Beltway it is even worse.  In Estonia, broadband wireless access throughout the country — at little or no cost — is a given.  The internet is a utility, as universally available and affordable as water, electricity and indoor plumbing.  We still grit our teeth paying a hefty charge for slow internet access in top hotels in the country that invented the internet!

Cyber Security/Privacy Protection:  I spent a solid amount of my time as Ambassador on national and international cyber security issues.  It is a hot topic in diplomatic, military and international law enforcement circles.  Our leaders warn of potential “Cyber Attack Pearl Harbors.”  Serious stuff and deserving of its high national security priority.

On an individual level, protecting ourselves from identity theft and other forms of cyber crime is of similar importance.  In that latter area, the question is not whether we shield ourselves, but how.  We do what we can with computer virus detection software, encryption packages, and dozens of passwords with every internet entity from on-line stores to our banks and our digital media subscriptions.  We live on the internet, and we live with a confusing array of what we hope are adequate security and privacy protections.  Dozens or even hundreds of interloctutors in cyberspace have large chunks of our personal data and all promise “iron clad protection.”  Really?

Estonians too are fully vested in the internet age.  They embrace the reality that we work, live, shop, interact and play in cyberspace.  But  they have decided to entrust the security of these interactions, including access to government and commercial services, to a national identity access card — a most difficult subject to raise here in the U.S.   We start to shiver when we hear “national ID card” and “government central database.”  I readily share our wariness of “big brother.”   But I have concluded that big brother already exists in multiple databases that all too readily share  information to make big brother larger and more unpredictable than any single, user monitored and legally secured personal identity system would.  My friends in Estonia repeatedly demonstrated to me the utility of their ID cards as well as the electronic fingerprints they were able to monitor of those who had accessed their data, including even the police.

So I did spend two and a half hours at my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to get my car license plates  — something I should have been able to do by inserting my ID card into a license plate vending machine similar to an ATM in about 2 minutes.   Of course my gripe is not simply about waiting in line for a government service or even slow or expensive internet access.  It is my concern that  what should be America’s leadership as a modern, agile, and innovative society is in a bit of a rut.  I am among those who believe in American exceptionalism — not arrogantly placing us above other nations, but accepting and exercising the unique role or country’s founders placed on our shoulders as visionaries and innovators.  The citizens of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” should not be waiting hours at the DMV and the people of Madeline Albright’s “Indispensable Nation” should not have to shout into their smart phones “can you hear me now?”

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A Diplomat’s New Life

I am back.  On July 22 this year I departed Estonia for the last time as U.S. Ambassador and launched the transition from 35 years in my country’s Diplomatic Service into my new life as a private sector diplomat.  On October 1, I joined the new McCain Institute for International Leadership as Senior Director.  Located in Washington, D.C. and supported initially by a $9 million gift from the McCain Institute Foundation, we are part of Arizona State University (ASU), America’s largest public university.  Our mission is to advance leadership based on security, economic opportunity, freedom, and human dignity, in the United States and around the world.

I will be directing a unique new global leadership fellows program that will bring emerging leaders from around the world to the U.S. to engage in a year-long deepening of their “character-driven” leadership skills, along with professional development in their respective fields.  As an ASU Professor, I will also be passing on 35 years of diplomatic and international leadership experience to the next  generation of U.S. and international foreign affairs leaders.

And of course the issues and subjects that have been important to me in the past continue to excite me in my new capacity:  cyber security, e-governance, U.S. global leadership, the trans-Atlantic relationship, American values, and technology and policy, to name just a few.  Thank you for your patience with my temporary absence from the blogosphere and stay tuned — you will hear from me on these and many other issues again from now on.  Follow me and the McCain Institute also on Twitter and Facebook.

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An American Diplomat’s Message in Support of Europe

As I prepare to depart my mission as U.S. Ambassador to Estonia in a few days, the future of European unity — economic, political, and perhaps most importantly, emotional, remains hotly debated by our friends in Estonia and the rest of the continent.  Governments, parliaments, and supreme courts are passing judgments.  Their sovereigns — the people of Europe — are expressing their views forcefully.  In a determined effort to emerge from the current economic crisis, European leaders are seeking to put systems in place to heal current ills and prevent future disease.

With its decision last week, the Estonian Supreme Court supported Estonian Government’s participation in the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), designed to create a rescue fund for ailing economies.  Despite the burdens such participation places on his country’s finances, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip is quoted as saying:”I have always believed that our interests are protected through cooperation.  In the last 20 years, Estionia’s primary foreign policy goal has been integration with ….European institutions.” 

The firm and politically courageous (and risky) statement by this European statesman again demonstrates the model role Estonia continues to play in European affairs today.  One of the smaller members of the Union, Estonia is also one of its most courageous and most committed.  Courage and commitment in support of European cohesion — and correction — are exactly what is needed right now, along with further swift action.  The U.S. position is clear:  we support a strong and united Europe and any and all actions in support of this unity and common success.

Clearly failure is not an option.  Errors of the past matter only in so far as they inform future success.  Stakes are too high for both sides of the Atlantic, as are the opportunities for greater prosperity of our 800 million people in the U.S. and Europe.  It is at times like this that as an American diplomat I am reminded of our first, and infinitely more emminent  American diplomat, who in a wholly opposite context spoke words that nevertheless have some meaning in Europe today:

“We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

– Benjamin Franklin, in the Continental Congress just before signing
the American Declaration of Independence, 1776.

 

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Free Press = Free Society

Information is power. Few people can make a living, hold their governments accountable, and educate their children without a healthy supply of free- flowing information. Citizens need accurate, timely, independent news they can trust. So do businesses and markets. And so do governments. Media freedom keeps societies and economies vibrant, energetic, and healthy. When the free flow of news and information is cut off, individuals suffer. Societies suffer. Economies suffer.

But even as we observe World Press Freedom Day this year, threats against journalists are rising. As of last December, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted 179 reporters in jail around the world. And journalists continue to be threatened, attacked, disappeared, or murdered for trying to report the news.

In the past year, the world witnessed both the promise of, and the peril to, a free press. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and pundits chronicled the protests sweeping across the region, while some citizens armed with nothing but cell phones risked their lives to upload the truth – by text, tweet, and pixel. In doing so, they were exercising a fundamental freedom enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Yet too many governments attempt to censor the media, directly or indirectly. Too many investigative journalists are being silenced, many for exposing corruption – at local, state, or national government levels. Too many attacks and murders of journalists go unpunished.  In some cases, it is not just governments attacking, intimidating, and threatening journalists. It’s also criminals – drug cartels – terrorists or political factions. When journalists are threatened, attacked, jailed, or disappeared, other journalists self-censor. They stop reporting stories. They tone down stories. They omit details. Sources stop helping them. Their editors hesitate to print stories. Fear replaces truth. All of our societies suffer.

Like Estonia, the United States looks to all governments to take the steps necessary to create the same space we Americans and Estonians have enshrined in our societies for independent journalists to do their work without fear of violence or persecution. We pay special tribute to those courageous journalists, bloggers, and citizens who have sacrificed their lives, health, or freedom so that others could know the truth. And we honor the role of free and independent media in creating sustainable democracies and open, healthy societies.

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Fifteen Years AmCham Estonia: A Booming Business

A few days ago, together with my friends, Estonian Foreign Minister Paet and Ambassador Kaljurand, Estonia’s Ambassador to the U.S., I congratulated the American Chamber of Commerce  in Estonia on its 15th birthday.  Almost as old as renewed independence for Estonia itself!

Estonia’s journey from Soviet occupation to a vibrant and innovative economic leader is an example for others to study and follow.  Of  course, for neither Estonia or the Chamber was the path always easy or without its challenges.  But similar to Estonia’s transformation as a nation, the rejuvenation of AmCham I have witnessed over the past several years is tangible and deserves enthusiastic recognition.   AmCham’s mission and desire to grow into an ever stronger and more prominent voice for U.S. business in Estonia is being realized.  I am proud of my Embassy’s strong and creative partnership with AmCham in that role.  Our cooperation runs the gamut of issues and events. From drawing attention to issues such as intellectual property rights, to American community events like our joint Fourth of July celebrations, to creating the Estonian American Innovation Award, we indeed have much to be proud of.

Looking ahead, we see new challenges and opportunities that will require even stronger engagement to help create more jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.  Through expanded business ties and putting our respective innovative economies in high gear.

Many pundits have spoken recently about the United States turning its attention away from Europe and towards Asia.  This has stoked fears that U.S.-European economic and security relationships will suffer. They will not.  The U.S. and Europe, politically, economically, socially and emotionally represent two sides of the same coin.  As to our relations with the Asia/Pacific region, Americans, Estonians and other Europeans can and will walk and chew gum at the same time.

Let’s recall the facts:  Transatlantic trade accounts for 40 percent of the global economy.  Americans and Europeans are not only preferred, but also natural partners.  We recognize that concerted action by the United States and our allies in Europe is required if we want to tackle the global challenges and opportunities of our time.  This is true for building a vibrant and free 21st century global economy, mitigating climate change, engaging emerging economies, and recovering from the global financial crisis.  And it is true for combating terrorism or cyber threats, and completing our mission in Afghanistan.

On the business front, the U.S. and EU are working through one of my favorite cross-ocean institutions — the Transatlantic Economic Council.  We seek to avoid unnecessary divergence in regulations and standards that impede trade; develop fully compatible approaches to emerging technologies; and coordinate our activities to level the playing field for our companies in third countries, particularly in emerging economies.  All of this is under the overarching goal of creating a truly open transatlantic marketplace and improving the prosperity of our 800 million people.

Estonia, and AmCham Estonia, have important roles to play in the U.S.-European economic partnership. In this, Estonia’s compact size is both a plus and a minus.  A small and advanced rule-of-law country can quickly take advantage of new entrepreneurial opportunities.  It can offer stability and low risk that many much larger economies can only hope for.  But a small domestic market also means that the 800 million people have to become Estonia’s target  market.  And a small population means having to tackle the limits of in-country human capital – in terms of education and training as well as immigration policy.

Estonia, and more importantly, “E-stonia, is already an established leader in a number of 21st century economic priority areas.  These include processing rare earths; developing alternative as well as new forms of traditional energy; information technology; and of course the myriad of e-services that Estonians already treat as routine and that make the rest of us jealous.  The world has come to learn about innovative Estonia.  Expanding and delivering on that reputation will be the task of Estonian entrepreneurs and this AmCham together with American innovators.  My Embassy will continue to be part of this exciting and promising future. 

With that in mind, once again, Happy 15th Birthday AmCham Estonia!

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Honoring Women in an Age of Participation

Secretary of State Clinton has noted that “What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish.” These words have particular relevance as we celebrate International Women’s Day around the world and as we continue to make strides for women’s progress.

On December 10th, 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three extraordinary women who have led the fight for human rights and democracy in their home countries – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Their achievement signifies recognition on the world stage of the essential role that women must play in the hard work of building peace and sustainable communities in the 21st century.

In December, President Obama released the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, charting a roadmap for how the United States will accelerate and institutionalize efforts across the government to advance women’s participation in preventing conflict and keeping peace. This initiative represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. will approach its diplomatic, military, and development-based support to women in areas of conflict, by ensuring that their perspectives and considerations of gender are woven into the fabric of how the United States approaches peace processes, conflict prevention, the protection of civilians, and humanitarian assistance.

This International Women’s Day, Secretary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama will host the 6th annual International Women of Courage Awards, honoring 10 remarkable women from around the world. These women have shown exceptional bravery and leadership in advocating for women’s rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk. Their stories represent just a few of the emerging leaders found in every corner of the world.

Yet, as we rightfully honor achievements, we must also be reminded that International Women’s Day is an opportunity to renew the call for action, investment, and commitment to women’s equality. We are at a moment of historic opportunity. Secretary Clinton has referred to this era as “the Participation Age”. This is a time where every individual, regardless of gender or other characteristics, is poised to be a contributing and valued member of their society.

Around the world, we are witnessing examples of the Participation Age.  I have been privileged to meet a large number of Estonia’s remarkable women, women who led Estonia into freedom and women who spearhead this country’s political, diplomatic, business and artistic communities today.  Estonian women are no less than the very foundation of a society that has suffered much throughout history and has persevered and emerged victorious.  Estonian women rock!

Women are also a cornerstone of America’s foreign policy because the simple fact is that no country can hope to move ahead if it is leaving half of its people behind. Women and girls drive our economies. They build peace and prosperity.  Investing in them means investing in global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for everyone – the world over.  As we honor them today, let us renew our resolve to work for the cause of equality each and every day of the year.

 

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Smart Defense For The 21st Century

At the beginning of this year, the President of the United States and Secretary of Defense Panetta outlined our nation’s Defense Guidance and Priorities for the 21st Century.  This new policy direction by our leadership sets new parameters for the U.S. military posture around the world while at the same time confirming long-standing principles of America’s security.  When the world’s strongest military power, also a member of the world’s most successful military alliance, announces a new strategic focus, both our allies and our potential adversaries listen closely.  Our allies, of course, not only listen, but are active partners in working with us on a strategy that protects the United States, our friends and allies, and world peace.  Sounds good, so no problem, right?

Not so fast.  With the Cold War long over, we approach 21st century security at the beginning of 2012 just as we  emerge successfully from two deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a strict budgetary mandate to reduce U.S. Government expenditures.  So things are going to change and change is hard.  Part of our new military security paradigm involves adjustments to a defensive posture that has served us exceedingly well since the end of WW II.  Here in Europe, some analysts are concerned that a U.S. military focus on Asia and the Middle East leaves Europe vulnerable to security threats that still exist on this continent. Some also argue that along with military re-focussing, our diplomatic, economic, and even emotional attention will shift away from the transatlantic relationship.  The final verdict by several observers seems to be that America’s Atlantic Century is over and Pacific America has begun.  Part of Europe would bemoan this if it were true, but some would gladly wave us good-bye.  “The U.S. is broke,” they say.  “It has to scale back its military might and we should think about other potential partners.”  

In the end, other than providing interesting academic fodder for discussion and publication, this is a lot of Sturm und Drang over very little Sturm.  Our national and military leadership have taken a close look at the security threats to America and its allies and we have decided to adjust ourselves to those challenges; not to the exclusion of any one geographic region, but to the inclusion of all in relevant proportion.  As a diplomat, I have always held my military colleagues in highest regard, both for their bravery in defense of our country, and also for their unequalled competence and success rate.  I have also been a bit envious of their sense of purpose and strategic clarity.  Their mission was always so clear.  Their objective so obvious.

And so it is for 21st century U.S. Defense Priorities and Choices.  Where should our military be?  Where there is trouble or where trouble is most likely to strike.  And how should we respond to trouble and with what kind of force?  Again, modern experience and current budgetary reality teaches us that efficient, agile, technologically superior, and infinitely adaptable is the recipe for military success.  That is what we are planning for, developing and maintaining, and deploying around the world.  “Around the world” is most relevant for our European allies.  We are of course not leaving Europe.  We will maintain sizeable and most capable ground, air, and naval forces here.  We are adding new capabilities such as missile defense.  And we are sustaining our full nuclear triad of weapons as the ultimate deterrent to potential aggressors against us or our allies.

The U.S. has always been both an Atlantic and a Pacific power.  We have always maintained deep interests in both east and west.  We come, as Americans, from Europe and Asia and from the Middle East and from Africa and, and….Our best days as a nation are still ahead of us —  as a most powerful ally in Europe and to our friends in any other part of the world, and as a champion of universal values of freedom and human progress.

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