Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, served as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and as First Vice President of the European Commission from 2009 to 2014. She is author of And Then What: Inside Stories of 21st Century Diplomacy.
Cathy Saunders, Head of Corporate Sustainability and Public Policy at Putnam Investments, recently interviewed Baroness Ashton at a Women of Putnam event in Boston.
CS: You were “in the room” for negotiations on many critical events — the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and responses to a number of natural disasters. But when I consider your title, I always think of the Baroness in my favorite film — The Sound of Music. There has to be a story here!
BA: Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed me to the House of Lords. My then seven-year-old daughter mentioned this to her teacher, who asked what it meant to be a “Baroness.” My daughter wisely responded, “halfway between a politician and a princess.”
CS: Your book is a combination of a policy briefing and a James Bond movie. Tell us about your role in global diplomacy.
BA: Well, the European Union, which has 27 member countries, was created as an economic and trade bloc — the biggest in the world. This concept then evolved as a vehicle for supporting foreign policy objectives — to provide opportunity and safety to European citizens and to support countries struggling to embrace human rights and democracy. They conceived of a new diplomatic role, bringing together all the institutions of the European Union and the member states. And they gave it an awfully long title: the European Union High Representative, Foreign and Security Policy, First Vice President of the European Commission — HRVP for short.
CS: In your book, you describe what you did every day as the “art of diplomacy” — finding the highest common denominator of agreements connecting the European Union to more than 100 countries amid one of the most turbulent times in modern history.
BA: The most important attribute for a diplomat is the ability to listen. By definition, you don’t often find yourself negotiating with “friends.” You negotiate with people who are trying to resolve a problem, so listen to what they have to say. But at the same time, you’re listening for the opportunities that they might be revealing to you by what they say. We all negotiate to some degree. If you’ve got kids, you spend your whole life negotiating.
CS: Tell us about some anecdotes — with both friends and adversaries.
BA: Barack Obama is seriously cool. But somebody with enormous impact. When he talks to you, you feel obliged to provide good answers. He would always listen intently, never interrupting, and remembering everything you said. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were two secretaries of state with whom I worked. Hillary was always supportive of women. I traveled with her to Afghanistan to meet with women there. I worked closely with John on the Middle East and on the Iran negotiations. He was a man of enormous energy, and he wouldn’t let people out of the room until they found an answer. I’m glad I was on his side!
Negotiating with Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was much more challenging. The origins of the crisis go back 10 years, when the then President of Ukraine was being drawn into the orbit of Putin through a combination of pressure and money. In trying to resolve that situation, we always had the impression that Putin was only interested in negotiating with the European Union insofar as it advantaged him — not in pursuit of conflict resolution.
CS: In your book, you talk a lot about the many “firsts” in your life. First British woman to be European Commissioner. First woman in your family to go to college. First female chancellor of Warwick University. And you say that the main challenge for anyone who is a “first” is to make sure that there is a “second.”
BA: A lot of women in our generation were firsts. But we don’t want to be the aberration or the experiment — the woman that “ticks the box.” We need to push the ladder down behind us. Reach down our hand to help another climb up. Make sure there is a second.
In the British government, we’ve had three women prime ministers — Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and Liz Truss. Liz Truss was a “third.” But she only lasted seven weeks. It’s important that we see women in these posts — successful and not successful — not as aberrations, but as normal.
CS: Some have noticed a bit of “tarnish” on the historical beacon that has been the United States of America. How do we remove some of that tarnish?
BA: What happened in the United States on January 6 made the world’s democracies shudder a bit. As I said in my book, democracy is about more than an election. It also means a police force that works for you, a judiciary that makes independent decisions, and a civil society that is interwoven. For Europeans today, we have to think a bit more about being self-reliant — making sure that our values still get projected in the right way.
And we should remember that successful public policy also includes a private sector that is prosperous and healthy and collaborating with the public sector. Certainly, climate change will be resolved only through a wide-ranging collaboration of stakeholders. This combination can be very effective, to ensure that the next generation gets the best opportunities to sustainably thrive.
CS: Tell us a bit about your favorite places in the world — and about the next book.
BA: Jordan, for its beautiful desert and historic riches. My favorite restaurant is the Ivy Club in London, where you can have pleasant, wide-ranging discussions in an informal atmosphere. For the next book, I’m thinking of adapting a lecture series that I do around 10 things that I’ve learned about negotiation. Not so much policy, but more about human anecdotes.
CS: Thank you, Baroness Cathy Ashton.