ENVOY NURTURES MILESTONES … CORNERSTONES
The diplomatic world is no longer male-dominated and is also very much a woman’s world. Although the glass ceiling is not yet fully broken, the gender balance in the international relations sector is being addressed. Ambassador Alina L. Romanowski, Ambassador of the United States of America to Kuwait, a career member of the Senior Executive Service, is one such trailblazer who, for four decades of her illustrious career, served her nation in senior intelligence and security roles and policy-shaping activities. In her years in the US public service, Ambassador Romanowski, an expert on Middle East Affairs, focused mainly on Near East and South Asia.
Early in her career, Ambassador Romanowski served in the Central Intelligence Agency as an intelligence analyst for ten years. She also served as the Director of the NESA Office. Before she was appointed Ambassador, she was the Department of State’s Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2016-2020). Throughout her career, Ambassador Romanowski has launched several important initiatives and organizations, including the Near East South Asia (NESA) Centre for Strategic Studies and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a robust organization that funds significant projects all over the Middle East. A firm supporter of gender equality and women’s empowerment, Ambassador Romanowski has actively mentored women in the national security apparatus of her country. Over the years, Ambassador Alina Romanowski has received several awards, including Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for Senior Executive Service; two Presidential Meritorious Rank Awards for Senior Executive Service; several Department of State Superior Rank Awards; two Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Awards; and a CIA Exceptional Performance Award. Here, with the Arab Times, Ambassador Romanowski talks about her career, the close ties between Kuwait and the US, women’s empowerment and her experience in Kuwait.
Arab Times: You have an illustrious career — stretching through 40 years of service across various US government agencies. As a first generation American, your career bears testimony to the American dream. Would you agree?
Ambassador Alina Romanowski: That’s an interesting way to put it. I would say that my career came about because of my interest in international relations. And the fact that my parents came from different parts of the world, we have relatives around the world, so I was very used to thinking in geopolitical and geographic terms. My interest in international relations and different cultures was something I carried throughout my life. So when I went to University, I was drawn to a career in international relations. It just turned out that at the time, when I was looking for work, the most exciting jobs were in the federal government in Washington — being a part of the national security or foreign policy, and that’s where I ended up. So part of it was deliberate planning, and some of it was just good luck, hard work and good education. My parents emphasized the importance of education and worked as analysts. The work I was doing was significant in supporting decision-makers and leaders in the United States and everywhere. Countries need fact-based analysis and assessments of what’s going on around the world, and that requires research, knowledge of a region, and deep knowledge of the issue. For me, it was an exciting intellectual project. It’s as if you’re doing a research paper, but you’re doing it every day, and in many cases, your work goes to the highest levels of your government. So it was an exciting time for me. We had many women who were graduating from universities with the kind of knowledge, skills, understanding and analytical talent required to succeed in that environment.
AT: You served in the DOD from 1990-2003 in several senior positions — You were also the Department of State’s Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism. Were you breaking the glass ceiling as you climbed up?
AR: I would say throughout my career, I represented the fact that there was an emerging generation of women national security professionals. The Defence Department already had women on active duty and in the military. But we needed to cultivate, encourage, promote and hire women who understood defence issues, understood security issues and could address national security issues. So while I was at the Defence Department, I worked closely with our managers and several women to look at ways to get more women in those positions so that years later, they could be promoted into the very senior ranks of the national security apparatus.
AT: So you must have been involved in the mentoring of these women. How important is it to mentor women at the workplace?
AR: It is one thing to hire more women in the workplace, but you need to have a structure that mentors them both informally and formally. We started a more formal mentoring system. It is essential for women who are in senior leadership positions to be able to pass on their experience and also to help train women. We need to give them formal training and leadership training and give them proper feedback.
I think it’s crucial to be a mentor. I still stay a mentor. I have several mentees who connect to ask for my advice. It’s wonderful to see their progress as they navigate their careers in the federal government or even when they want to go into the private sector.
AT: You founded the Middle East Partnership Initiative Office and served as its first Director in 2003. Today it’s a robust organization, with its funding of significant projects all over the Middle East. You must be very proud of your role in kickstarting this organization?
AR: I am very proud of that organization that I helped launch back in 2003. One of the things I have enjoyed most in my career is launching and kickstarting initiatives. In addition to that, I launched, later in my career, the Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies. Also, I helped to establish the Yes High School Student Exchange programme. In fact, I recently had a virtual ghabga with the Yes alumni and those who may head to the States in the fall.
AT: What is the Yes High School Student Exchange initiative?
AR: The Yes High School initiative is a programme across this region that is modelled very much on a high school exchange programme we did with the countries of the former Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall came down many years ago, it was called the Flex Programme. The Yes programme is an effort to bring high school students as exchange students to the United States. These students live with host families to experience life in the United States for a year. Not only does it help these students understand the United States better, but it also helps Americans understand different cultures in different regions.
AT: Kuwait is your first posting as an ambassador. You arrived at a very challenging time. The pandemic was just about spreading. Were the initial days difficult?
AR: I arrived at the end of January and had the honour of presenting my credentials to the late Amir Sheikh Sabah in early February. So I had a couple of weeks to get into the groove of what I would call a normal Kuwaiti life, including attending a few diwaniyas that are so unique to Kuwait.
AT: How do you like the concept of the diwaniya?
AR: I love the concept of the diwaniya. It is a wonderful way to inspire open and interesting dialogue or simply get together with family and friends. I was looking forward to participating in more diwaniyas. I know that during Ramadan, it’s very active. Unfortunately, everything is suspended due to COVID. I hope that diwaniyas will reopen when the situation in Kuwait gets better with respect to COVID. But going back to your question, yes, you are right. I arrived at a time that was very challenging. But we found interesting ways to stay connected with our Kuwaiti friends and get our message out about what is important in the US-Kuwaiti relationship. Part of that is interviews like these. I am also on social media to both share and hear what Kuwaitis are passionate about. We do a lot of virtual meetings and discussions. We have found that technology has equally helped the diplomatic community as it has businesses, and so I think we are in pretty good shape. But as you know, diplomacy is a face to face business, and so we are really looking forward to getting back to that.
AT: The US-Kuwaiti diplomatic relationship goes back six decades. How has the relationship between the two countries evolved over the years?
AR: This special relationship first began with the hospital. And I think that the first Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, our response and the international response solidified the relationship and broadened it. I would say that since 1990, this relationship has steadily expanded into many other areas than just defence and security. We work in economic and commercial fields. Kuwait has some of the most active American franchises for food products. We also work very seriously on regional issues, ensuring that we are close partners on advancing stability and prosperity in Kuwait. Over the years, we have been working on building stronger ties in healthcare. I think COVID has presented an opportunity for us to deepen that, including how we respond to pandemics on a bilateral, regional and global basis. We have also been a close partner with Kuwait on humanitarian efforts globally and in the region. Culturally, we do a lot of cultural exchanges. I just referred to the Yes Programme and other humanitarian and human rights issues and education. Kuwait is the thirdlargest country that sends its students to the United States from this region. It’s the 19th globally when you look at the top 20. Kuwaitis go to first-rate universities in the United States. We have also very consciously worked together to broaden work on specific issues related to intellectual property rights and women’s empowerment. There is the formal US-Kuwait strategic dialogue that takes place annually, at the ministerial level, between the Foreign Minister and the Secretary of State of the United States. That’s where we have some intense working-level discussions and a strategic consultation process. It is an excellent framework to continue looking for as many opportunities as possible to deepen this relationship. Frankly, the first Gulf War solidified our relationship. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War, where we recognized the depth of the relationship by looking at the Defense and Security history we have built together and broadened it to the cultural exchanges.
AT: Is there any specific area in this bilateral relation you would like to focus on?
AR: As an ambassador, my responsibility is to focus on everything. We have a robust security relationship. We have a solid commercial and economic relationship. We want to expand the health collaboration, as I mentioned. The pandemic is an example of how there are many dimensions to managing a pandemic — from research, exchanging knowledge and understanding vaccines and the pandemic itself. We need to exchange best practices on how to manage restrictions, lockdowns and curfews. There is a lot of information we can exchange bilaterally. The cultural exchange world is also critical where we continue to work and deepen the understanding. Kuwait was a signifi- cant mediator in the recent Gulf rift. It has very valuable insights into Iran and Iraq. Those are areas where we jointly have crucial conversations. I need to support all aspects of our relationship and deepen it.
AT: Some issues like media freedom have festered for some time. Do you intend to take up these issues during your tenure?
AR: Human rights and freedom of the press are very important to us in our foreign policy. Frankly, freedom of the press is guaranteed in both the US and the Kuwaiti Constitution, which is again very important. There is indeed some frustration among journalists about aspects of freedom of the press here in Kuwait. There is an international ranking system that is developed independently of governments that shows Kuwait has declined. But I have conversations with the government all the time about how we can work together to improve its ranking. We do share the same belief in the freedom of the press, and we work on that together.
AT: You mentioned women and women’s rights, and I have seen that you’re very active on the various women’s forums. How vital is women’s issues to the embassy? How do you intend to support Kuwait’s support towards gender equality and towards advancing women’s rights? The last election was not very productive for women, and there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
AR: Women’s empowerment, education of women and girls, women’s equality and equity is a cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time. We support these themes globally. With respect to the embassy, it’s exciting that there are more women in senior leadership positions who can help share their experience. Our political counsellor is a woman. A lot of people in our management team are women. We hire a lot of women in our workforce. We want to encourage and share our experience over the long history of our journey to promote women. Regarding elections, we have for many years, including under the Middle East Partnership Initiative, programmes that help train and support women interested in the political democratic process in their country. This training helps them develop their message, understand what it’s like to be in the political arena, and strengthens speaking skills. There are many ways in which we want to support women’s aspirations. We have a comprehensive programme. We have an extensive International Visitor Leadership Programme that recruits women in specific fields to go to the United States to build their network and understand how we do certain things in certain areas. We also provide support for legal training and help with the justice sector. We can do a lot of work to help bring our expertise and our best practices to Kuwait’s journey as they navigate the issue of women’s empowerment.
AT: Kuwait and the US are celebrating a milestone in their diplomatic relationship this year. Are you planning something special to commemorate this event?
AR: You are referring to the 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. We do have some cultural events and some engagements that we are planning. Again, so much of it depends on the situation. But definitely, we want to continue to celebrate the 60 years. Our Fifth Strategic Dialogue is scheduled for sometime in the fall. That will be another opportunity for us to recognize the work we have been doing for 60 years and chart the future of more cooperation and collaboration, and strategic vision together.
AT: You arrived in Kuwait when the pandemic was about to tighten its grip. How do you think Kuwait has handled the pandemic so far?
AR: I think Kuwait has done a good job of handling the pandemic. True, there are a lot of people who don’t like the restrictions. Lockdowns are tough, but testing, acquiring the vaccine, setting up the Mishref vaccine site — all of that has been very consistent with some of the better practices across the globe. Again, we are still in the process, and I think there are more decisions governments and countries will make to address the spikes in some countries. Everyone will have a different experience but the ability to talk about it and share our work is going to be important.
By Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times