“The only pressure that came to bear was the pressure of moral persuasion” – Interview with Ambassador Colleen Bell in Hungarian weekly HVG

If we speak the language of your original profession, that is, being a producer, how would you summarize the first season of your time as Ambassador for those who will also be following the second season?

Every good television series has exciting and quiet parts, tense and peaceful moments. I’ve had all those in my first year here serving as Ambassador. I have a long and successful career in business, so I felt prepared for the Ambassadorial tasks, and I greatly appreciate the exceptional talents and professionalism of my colleagues at the Embassy.

The Embassy is extremely active on Facebook too. Is this also part of the public diplomacy?

We put together a video on our Facebook page in which we asked people to tell us, where should I go, where should I travel, what should I see. What does Hungary mean to them?  This initiative proved to be a huge success, we had more than 1,000 recommendations.  My colleagues at the Embassy have categorized all of these suggestions.  When we have a program outside of Budapest, or within Budapest, we look and see did anyone recommend that we go visit the monument or the national park?  We will reach out to the people who made the recommendations and invite them to come with me while I go and participate in that program.  I very much enjoy the opportunity to meet people from all over Hungary.

You are a keen surfer but you do not really have the chance to do that in Hungary. What sport have you chosen instead?

I don’t miss surfing as much as I thought I would. What I love so much about my life here in Hungary is that it rains more often here than it did in Los Angeles. I love the smell of the earth after it rains. This sensation takes me back to Chicago and my childhood. Living in California I didn’t realize I had missed that until I arrived here in Hungary. I often go hiking on weekends, and it’s athletic and it’s also meditative for me.

There has also been plenty of work in the past year, let’s just think of the waves of bilateral relations, and a recurring element of your speeches has been raising corruption in Hungary.

The U.S. has been engaged in a global fight against corruption for many years. Corruption undermines national security, economic prosperity and human rights — everything that makes a society stable and whole. When I speak about corruption here in Hungary, I am not singling out Hungary. Combatting corruption is part of U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. Ambassadors all over the world highlight that. My experience is that many in Hungary are concerned about corruption, which can also lead to a decrease in foreign investment. We continue to emphasize the importance of transparency, honesty and predictability. I sometimes hear from people that corruption in this region, particularly post-Communist countries, is embedded in everyday life.  Some people use that as an excuse. It’s going to take some time until people don’t accept this situation as normal.

Your speech delivered at Corvinus University last fall caused eminent attention and on the government side, generated fierce reaction. Your speech sounded as an overview of the state of bilateral relations.

There was indeed a lot of attention after the speech even though I did not say anything I had not spoken of before. Yes, it was an opportunity to summarize our position on various issues, and I mentioned a number of things that are working excellently in our bilateral relations: the military and law enforcement cooperation, the cultural and education exchange programs, for example. Of course, that speech also provided an opportunity for me to express our concerns, and I could reiterate that our policy has not changed. Our relationship is a very dynamic relationship, we can express our concerns and the Hungarian government does the same: it is a two-way street.  This is a relationship based on mutual respect, and sometimes we agree that we disagree. The public must be aware of that, and must understand our objectives and shared interests as well as our efforts. I also believe in the utility of diplomatic dialogue, which works and has brought progress.

There has been a commentary in Népszabadság that suspected just this kind of progress reached as the result of an agreement before your speech at the American Chamber of Commerce, which seemed less critical of corruption, and in return, the [Hungarian] Government has started to support TTIP. Was there really such a background deal?

I had spoken about the importance of TTIP earlier, for example at Corvinus University. The speech at the American Chamber of Commerce was to address the interest in TTIP, and was primarily about economic cooperation and trade issues.  It does not mean that other issues were pushed in the background – corruption concerns were raised as well. Bilateral trade is expanding, and it is also my job to look for opportunities for American investors that will simultaneously benefit the economies of both the U.S. and Hungary. I am aware of the speculations and insinuations in the Népszabadság article, and they are categorically unfounded.  I want to be perfectly clear that no such deal has ever been considered, or would be, and no such deal could ever have been made.

But it is undeniable that the issue of TTIP does come up in bilateral relations?

As U.S. Ambassador, my job is to provide the widest possible range of information about the free trade agreement. If for no other reason than because I believe that Hungarian and American businesses would gain tremendously if TTIP is implemented.  It would break down barriers to our trade and would create excellent opportunity for job growth. These negotiations are complicated to understand, so education is important. I think that that will lay to rest some of the fears that people have.  Unfortunately, it’s easier to play on people’s fears than to explain, for example, that the harmonization of regulations in our system for trade and safety standards in trade negotiations tends to raise the standards on all sides, while allowing for cost savings from predictability and economies of scale.

The Pápa Air Base and the International Law Enforcement Academy, ILEA (the “FBI Academy”) are also mentioned as successful areas of Hungarian- U.S. relations.

ILEA just celebrated its 20-year anniversary last year. The purpose of this institution is to educate law enforcement officers from not only this region but other regions as well on a how to combat terrorism, human trafficking, environmental crime, organized crime, etc. And Pápa is an excellent example of shared defense, as the C-17 heavy airlift wing serves countries that would not be able to afford this capability on their own.

As regards Paks, you have repeatedly conveyed U.S. reservations concerning the unilateral energy dependence on Russia. Has this situation changed, for example after the rumors that General Electric might also be part of building a reactor?

We have expressed our concern because of the lack of transparency and the lack of true competition in this process. Our reservations have not disappeared and our opinion has not changed.

The most recent storm was caused by the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama said that the erection of the Balint Homan statue in Szekesfehervar was prevented by exerting U.S. pressure. It gave a special emphasis to his speech that he was the first U.S. President to speak at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Combating anti-Semitism is a key foreign policy objective of the United States, reflecting American values and also the values of members of the international community. President Obama gave a broad and impassioned speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and in that speech he included a paragraph about Hungary. When we speak of pressure, the only pressure that came to bear during our advocacy was the pressure of moral persuasion. We expressed our concerns about how Hungary would be perceived when, in this day and age, a group here was considering erecting a statue in honor of a man who was directly connected to drafting the legislation that led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews – and their destruction in the death camps. The NGO community, members of Congress in Washington, and the international community also spoke up.  We were very pleased to receive the news that the statue will not be erected.