Former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch shared insider perspectives on diplomacy and the current war in Ukraine at the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium’s 2022 series “The Road Ahead” on Nov. 9. Over her 33-year career in foreign service, Yovanovitch served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, the Republic of Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic.
In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Shreya Sriramineni, co-programming chair for MSE, explained that the organization invited her to speak in light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We always want to invite speakers that are relevant to a hot topic in the news to get people to show up,” she said. “The conflict in Ukraine is a pretty big topic, so we invited the former Ambassador to Ukraine to talk about that issue, along with her own experiences in the Trump administration.”
Yovanovitch emphasized the significance of the war in Ukraine on global politics, arguing that supporting Ukraine is not only the right thing to do but also in the best interest of the U.S. She fears that Russia winning the current war would set an example for autocratic leaders around the world and bolster Russia to invade additional countries.
Yovanovitch painted an ominous picture of what a victory for Putin could mean for national security.
“If Putin succeeds, we will be living in a Hobbesian world where might makes right,” she said. “Ukrainians are fighting to save their own country, but frankly, they're also fighting to save us from that kind of a world.”
When asked how to move forward after the war in Ukraine eventually ends, Yovanovitch offered a pragmatic take.
“The thing about negotiating is you don't get to negotiate with your best friends. Often in foreign policy you are negotiating with your enemies, people you don't trust,” she said. “One of the things I think we need to think about is how do we reach out to Russian society.”
The former ambassador discussed efforts to fight corruption in Ukraine, noting that President Volodymyr Zelensky had some early success before war efforts halted new transparency initiatives. She added that the current ambassador is confident that U.S. aid and resources sent to Ukraine are not being misused.
Yovanovitch did not shy away from discussing her politically-motivated removal as Ambassador to Ukraine by the Trump administration. She described 2019 as the worst year of her life — after abruptly leaving Kyiv in May, she testified before Congress in former President Trump’s first impeachment trial despite the State Department instructing her not to.
The decision of whether to testify was not easy for Yovanovitch.
“In the end, it just felt like I had to testify because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “And if I didn't do the right thing, I couldn't look myself in the mirror the next day.”
In March, Yovanovitch released her New York Times bestseller memoir, Lessons From The Edge: A Memoir. She described that her book provides an inside look into being a diplomat and honors her parents who fled Ukraine and later Nazi Germany. She pointed to her parents’ history as the reason she pursued a career in the foreign service.
In an interview with The News-Letter, freshman Sonia Weiner explained that the story of Yovanovitch’s family hit close to home, as her own mother immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in the 1990s. While Weiner isn’t particularly into politics, hearing Yovanovitch speak on the logic of U.S. foreign policy gave her a new perspective.
“She made the point that we want to promote democracy because our markets will do better, more democratic countries are more favorable allies,” she said. “We really view diplomacy in terms of personal interests, as opposed to more universal moral good. That kind of changed how I view diplomacy.”
Yovanovitch provided the audience with many insights and lessons from her various tours abroad. She noted that early in her career, there were few women in high-ranking positions.
“At that time in the U.S., women emulated [men] because when I looked up, there were no women to model myself on,” she said.
Yovanovitch developed her leadership and professional style from observing other ambassadors while working at U.S. embassies. In London, she served under three different ambassadors who showed her the importance of authenticity.
“They were really successful, and they were themselves, and that sort of integrity made them effective,” she said. “That was very liberating to me early on, that you can be yourself and, in fact, if you are yourself, you are going to be more effective.”
Another key factor to the success of an ambassador, according to Yovanovitch, is their background or training. While she acknowledged that politically-appointed ambassadors bring unique assets to the role — like valuable connections in high places — for the higher ranks of the State Department, she favors foreign service career professionals.
She highlighted that burnout rates are high for political appointee ambassadors, which she attributed partly to a lack of preparation.
“Everybody thinks that they can be an ambassador,” she said. “I don't know why they think that, because everybody doesn't think that they can be a general.”
Junior and MSE Co-Programming Chair Joshua Deck shared his appreciation in hearing Yovanovitch’s thoughts on the distinctions between these officials in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I was surprised by the discussion of the differences between ambassadors who are political appointees versus career diplomats, and the way she found that both could be successful by applying the skills that come from either a career in foreign service or from the private sector to that,” he said.
Throughout the talk, Yovanovitch returned to the theme of perseverance in diplomacy. She emphasized that while many foreign service professionals are drawn to the career out of a sense of idealism, the work can be discouraging when progress is slow or policy initiatives fail.
Yovanovitch encouraged students interested in the field to remember that solving big challenges takes time.
“We may not see the fruits of our work today, or even at the end of two years, but what you're doing is you're setting up the next team for success,” she said.