Change is on its way | Glenna Kathleen Hill

The US Presidential election may radically transform how the US interacts with the rest of the world. But America’s ambassador to Malta, Glenna Kathleen Hill, is confident that America will remain a global leader, regardless of the outcome

America’s ambassador to Malta Glenna Kathleen Hill • Photo: Raphael Farrugia
America’s ambassador to Malta Glenna Kathleen Hill • Photo: Raphael Farrugia

Future historians may well look upon the present phase of world history as a period of unprecedented political upheaval. In recent years, we have witnessed the flames of revolution spreading from one North African and Middle Eastern country to another; civil war still rages in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region. Turkey recently experienced an attempted coup, with repercussions that are still unfolding… and tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface of an uneasy peace in Ukraine.

Even in more overtly peaceful parts of the world, there appears to be a sea change washing over global geo-political institutions. The European Union has just been shaken to its core by Brexit, and is currently bracing itself for another referendum, in Italy. And in the United States, the ongoing Presidential election campaign has exposed deep-seated divisions that may rewrite the entire political script.

It is, in brief, a hugely exciting time to be involved in US politics at any level: even as an ambassador to a relatively docile, uneventful place like Malta.   

But when I meet US ambassador Glenna Kathleen Hill for this interview, I am acutely aware that this is my own perspective of the US election; and I am someone from the outside, looking in from the clean other side of the world.

Do Americans feel this prospect of imminent change as keenly as European observers? Is this viewed as a historically atypical Presidential contest in the United States?

“It is a very atypical campaign, also from the inside looking out,” she begins. “I think we can honestly say that we have not seen a campaign like this before, at least not in my memory. Maybe going back further, if you talk to historians, they might disagree. But it has certainly brought out some new candidates, some very new ideas… both from the Democratic and Republican sides. In the primaries in particular, it was very interesting to see that there are sections of the American public that like the new ideas, and are very attracted to them and supportive of them.”

Indeed it is the rise of populist movements within both parties – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – that has excited the most interest from afar. But there are other examples.

“Another symbol of how much change is going on in this election is that the poll numbers for some of the third and fourth party candidates – which normally are completely ignored, because they get so few votes – have been significantly higher in this election. At one point in time, the numbers for the Libertarian Party were close to 9%... which is really unheard of. That’s very big, for the US. It’s not winnable… they are certainly not going to win… but if the poll numbers are reflected in the actual election result, that would impact the bigger parties. Especially if it’s a close race…”  

Nonetheless, Glenna Kathleen Hill predicts that the real substance of the national debate has yet to emerge.

“One of the things we have to deal with in the US is that our elections are very long: much, much longer than what you would get in a parliamentary system. But now we’re getting into the meat of the campaign; the candidates have been pretty much decided across the board. So hopefully we’ll soon start to get into some serious policy discussions as well. I think that up to this point the campaigning has been done in very broad terms; now, there is going to be more of a demand for specifics. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the discussion.”

Even at this early stage, the campaign has been markedly different from its predecessors. 

“There have certainly been some statements in the campaign that have caused concern across the board. I think everyone needs to recognise that this is a campaign, so the candidates are reaching out to a whole variety of people. Sometimes the campaign gets heated, and that’s not new. That’s normal for every campaign…” 

It would certainly be considered normal by local standards…

“You love your politics, that’s one thing I’ve noticed about Malta since I’ve been here,” she replies with a laugh. “But I think we’re also seeing some trends that are emerging in the US, that we’ve seen in other parts of the world as well. Like immigration, and how to deal with it. This has brought out some strong wording …”

There is however another aspect that has raised interest, at least in Europe, and it concerns the possible outcome of the election. In the (now seemingly unlikely) event of a Donald Trump win, the difference in Presidential style – as suggested by his performance so far – may well be a very different ball-game from the one other countries are used to playing on. There has even been speculation in the international press about whether this would impact on America’s status of a widely-recognised global leader.

Is this concern felt in the States, too? 

“I think that America’s role as a world leader will not change. The presidency is very important as a directional leader, but it is only one of many institutions in the United States. It is only one level of interaction that the US has with the rest of the world. I think one of the strengths of the US’s role in the world is that it is not just interaction at government level. There is interaction at commercial level, at the personal level, and on the level of the arts, humanities and sciences. We’re not interacting only at one level; nor should the world judge our interaction only on one level. They need to look at the whole spectrum. I think the role that we play – our inclusiveness, our desire to reach out to others, to be part of the world as the world progresses… that is not going to change. It is part of the American character.”

Will the politics of the United States change, however? If I may draw attention to a recent cover of Time Magazine, which portrayed Donald Trump in a (literal) state of meltdown: the fact that his nomination was so divisive – and a similar division was felt on the Democrat side too – suggests that the Republican Party as a whole may split, or radically change. Does the US ambassador predict that this election might reconfigure the present realities of US politics?

“I think what you noted is that there are groups on both sides seeking change… and I think we’ve already seen they are having an effect. I noted when the Democrats had their national convention there were certain rules about electing candidates that – because of some of the initiatives of the Sanders campaign – have now been changed. I thought that was very interesting. So I think we are seeing that these voices for change are having an impact. Obviously we are a democracy, so the question now becomes: which of these voices are going to win?”

Kathleen Hill will not, however, be drawn into making predictions. “I think there is one thing that is really important; I hope we will show the world that change can be achieved peacefully through a democratic process. This is our democracy in its full force. So far it’s been with debate, it’s with words. In November, it will be with votes. At that point we’ll see which direction the people of the US have chosen to turn…”

As for the prospect of lasting impact on one or both parties, she suggests that this is to be expected under the circumstances.

“What I would say is that, as you noted, people are demanding change. And if the parties want to keep up with the people, they have to respond to that demand. I think we are already seeing this reflected in the election campaign, and I think we’ll see it more after the election. As people do a ‘lessons learnt’ process, and they look at what was really important as they went through the election, I think we’ll see both parties doing a deep think about what direction they want to go into. And this is not unusual. The two parties have evolved over time; they have taken on different characters as their leaders changed. I do think there are strong, strong tides of change going through the US right now.” 

Meanwhile speculation is rife about what these changes portend for international relations. Russia, for instance, seems to be taking a keen interest in the American election… to the extent that it is suspected of trying to sabotage Clinton’s campaign.

Given the likelihood of a Clinton victory, should the world be bracing itself for a second Cold War?

“It’s hard to say how it is going to have an impact on bilateral relations with different countries. I’ve heard several former presidents say: ‘you come into the Oval Office after an election, having won the election and with an election high – and then you sit down at the Oval Office desk, and you start to look at the issues, and start getting all the information that you weren’t getting before… and your plans change’. Several ex- presidents have noted this.

“It is one thing to go through a campaign; it is quite another to sit down and actually implement policy. So I think that in the end, it’s a case that the president determines the direction of the ship… but there are still a lot of other components to the ship that cannot be ignored. In this regard, I think this keeps us to a certain extent steady. It’s an entire system of checks and balances. Our priorities may change to a certain extent… but I’ve found, at least in my 20+ years of government service, that the top four or five priorities are always the same; they just get into different rank order. There will always be a concern with security; there’s always concern on economy, and with human rights. What we focus on within those broad categories might change with each administration, but the overall focus – because it is based on our values as a country – doesn’t change hugely.” 

On the subject of security – and to briefly move closer to home – the United States is currently involved in a number of military activities, including in Libya. Recently, an agreement was announced whereby the US would use Italian air bases to conduct strikes… which indirectly means that the planes will have to fly across Maltese airspace to reach their targets.

Has there been any agreement or talks with the Maltese government to this effect?

“Not that I know of. Nothing. It has been reported in the press that the US have talked to Italy about the use of their facilities as bases for strikes, as part of the limited activities we are doing in Libya. Nothing with Malta, however…”

At the same time, however, there has in the past been considerable communication between our two countries on the subject of international security. The US embassy cables, for instance, seemed to suggest that Malta was considered a strategic hub for the international illicit arms trade; and our proximity to Libya alone made Malta play a prominent role in the 2010 evacuation. 

Does the US still regard Malta as a strategic location to focus on issues related to counter-terrorism?

“The US will work with all of its partners to combat terrorism… everybody who will work with us… because we see terrorism as a threat around the world. And we’re determined to address the threat; I would like to say we’re determined to eradicate it, but that’s a big job… This is one of the reasons you see us reaching out to all countries: to partner with every country to combat terrorism. We’re working to help countries to monitor their borders more effectively; we’re sharing information with European countries. It’s been a hard road, because we don’t agree on the basic tenets of information sharing. It’s an ongoing negotiation, as with many other things. But we co-operate with everybody. All governments around the world recognise the inherent threat of terrorism: the chaos and the randomness of it. What you’re seeing is a push, not just with Malta, to help upgrade security systems so that we can all face up to the challenge of terrorism…”

This raises another issue which is of relevance to the ongoing election campaign. Earlier, the US ambassador cited human rights as a top priority. But as the experience with immigration and terrorism – in America as in Europe – illustrates, the need to bolster security often clashes with respect for human rights. We see this in the treatment of asylum seekers, in the surveillance implicit in counter-terrorism activities. Are we witnessing the erosion of this human rights priority on the basis of security?

“This question is being debated worldwide. It’s a difficult question, because it goes at core values for so many countries, including USA. Human rights, due process, the rule of law… are all critically important. I think if we lose those, we lose our core identity. At the same time, we have to secure our borders, and protect our people. So it’s a constant balancing act that nations have to go through to decide where they want to be on the scale. It’s never perfect. The scale tips one way or the other, then you have to rebalance it again. But there will always be an overlay of human rights concerns when you are trying to implement policy on issues related to terrorism. You always have to recognise that they must go together and that policies must be balanced between both sides. It’s a constant struggle.”

Coming back to the campaign: we have so far concentrated mainly on Trump and Clinton, but another striking aspect so far has been the meteoric rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders. This is turn points towards fundamental differences between American and European political attitudes. Sanders was heavily criticised for being a ‘Socialist’… but that, in itself, would not be considered criticism in Europe. 

This suggests that ‘socialism’ is traditionally a no-go area for US politics (and there is much history to support that view). Yet Bernie Sanders still gave Clinton a credible run for her money.

Is the US attitude towards socialism changing? And if so, could this also be a reflection that the progressive elements were dissatisfied by the change promised (some would say not entirely delivered) by Obama?

“I can’t offhand remember all the promises that were made in 2008…. but Obama did deliver a fairly radical healthcare agenda for the US, which he had promised in the campaign. In that regard there has been significant change under the current Obama administration, especially in domestic policy. The reform had started under [Bill Clinton], but it wasn’t successful at the time. With our system of checks and balances, the White House can propose, but the Congress has to fund. There is always a balance going on.”

This balance, she adds, will continue to be in place regardless of the election outcome.

“There is a lot of change going on in the world; one could call it an evolution of ideas. But I think there is also a lot of good stable activity going on as well. I think America, because its interaction with the world is so broad and deep at so many levels, I think that brings a certain balancing factor to the equation, and a certain stability to it as well.”