The U.S. relationship with Slovenia is defined by mutual respect, I’ve found it easy to have candid, constructive conversations here about how we can partner to improve our existing strong ties”, says Lynda Blanchard, U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia. Although she has been in Slovenia for only three months, she sees opportunities to further nourish and develop mutual ties in almost every aspect of bilateral relations. Furthermore, she and her family already feel at home in Ljubljana.
The U.S. has been occasionally opening doors to a different breed of diplomats with strong backgrounds in other fields. What dynamics do you think they may add to bilateral relations?
That’s so true. I have been really impressed with the diverse array of experience among our staff here at the Embassy in Ljubljana and in the State Department in general. We have diplomats who used to be teachers, lawyers, journalists, soldiers, you name it. The range of knowledge and expertise that brings to our decision-making is invaluable. We’re also extremely fortunate to have some staff who are experts in the region, and others who have spent much of their careers working in other parts of the world who come to Slovenia with a fresh perspective that can be incredibly useful. In terms of the impact that diversity has on our bilateral relationship, not only do I think we represent a broad spectrum of opinion when going out into local communities and talking to Slovenians about America, but for me personally for example, I already feel like coming from a business background helps me in promoting what is one of our highest priorities – strengthening economic and trade ties between the U.S. and Slovenia. I know what companies are looking for when assessing potential partners and investments, which I think is a substantial advantage.
Where do you see opportunities for boosting bilateral relations between the U.S. and Slovenia?
Literally everywhere I look. We talk a lot about our extensive defense and security relationship, and we have had an unprecedented level of bilateral military engagement between our two countries this year. But in many ways, the strength of our relationship lies in the interpersonal ties that are often far less visible. I have been amazed by the sheer number of informal relationships that exist between Slovenes and Americans based on a variety of shared interests. It was great to hear just recently how many Americans are coming here to find their Slovenian roots and explore their heritage. I think there is huge potential for the diaspora community to foster collaboration between the people of the U.S. and Slovenia in a variety of areas. So much so that I’m planning to go to Cleveland when I’m in the U.S. this month to explore new opportunities and figure out how we can help.
We’re working to build on existing relationships across America. I traveled to Colorado before coming to Slovenia to talk to officials there about how to leverage the already strong partnership the Slovenian Armed Forces have with the Colorado National Guard to forge new ties between our countries. Less than a month later, the Mayor of Pueblo, Colorado, came to Slovenia to identify new areas of cooperation to expand their Sister City relationship with Maribor. Then I just met with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, because they too want to increase trade and investment with Slovenia. The possibilities are truly endless.
In which areas of joint activities in the international field do you see an opportunity for further U.S.-Slovenia cooperation?
Slovenia and the U.S. have long been partners on promoting security and stability in the countries of the Western Balkans. Integrating those countries into Euro-Atlantic institutions will continue to be a priority for us, as is maintaining the integrity of those institutions – particularly NATO. I think there is potential for us to partner on some new initiatives of broader regional or global interest as well though, especially perhaps in areas like cyber security. I am pretty sure everyone knows by now that I am from Alabama, a state with unique resources in the realm of defense, space technology, and cybersecurity among other things. Spending some time with local experts to identify where potential synergies lie between Slovenia and the U.S. in such areas is also high on my agenda for when I am back home in November.
The U.S. and Slovenia have an enduring bilateral defense relationship. What are your priorities in this domain?
Slovenia is a reliable, capable ally that has proven consistently willing to step up and contribute to ongoing operations. We value Slovenia’s contributions, and U.S. forces want to continue to train jointly with their counterparts in the Slovenian Armed Forces, so facilitating that is a major priority for me. From my perspective, that means getting out into local communities, talking to people about the critical importance of our close security relationship, and working together with the Ministry of Defense and our SAF counterparts to try and address any concerns they may voice.
I understand the series of bilateral and multilateral exercises hosted here earlier this year was incredibly successful, enhancing military mobility and interoperability in a variety of tactical and operational areas, and underscoring that Slovenia is a valued partner in defense. Likewise, recent increases in the defense budget and announced acquisitions are positive steps toward enabling Slovenia to meet its commitments to NATO, but also its own requirements for national defense. I hope to see continued progress in these areas during my time here.
In a recent powerful speech before the CEED/World Chicago “Start. Fail. Scale.” event you have said that one of the most important areas in which you want to engage is economic prosperity. Which type of US business companies would you like to bring to Slovenia?
As an embassy, we’re very focused on encouraging Slovenian companies to invest in the United States, but also certainly want to assist American companies interested in doing business here. I see my role as helping to connect people, and I want to do all I can to increase trade and investment between our two countries. The United States is already the third largest source of foreign direct and indirect investment in Slovenia, valued at well over a billion dollars. I know that many American companies in high value-added industries are attracted to Slovenia because of its location, infrastructure, and talented and hardworking population.
I’m also excited about the prospects for Slovenian companies to invest and establish production facilities in the United States, which offers one of the largest and most diverse markets in the world. Next year, I hope to recruit a delegation of Slovenian companies interested in investing in the United States and to accompany them to the June 1-3 SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington. The SelectUSA Summit is a one-stop shop for information, networking, and access to key policymakers to help companies make informed decisions on establishing a presence in the United States. More than 1,200 investors from 79 international markets attended this year’s Summit, including two Slovenian companies. I hope next year’s delegation will be even larger!
As a knowledgeable person in mathematics and computer science, did you have a chance to meet with the start-up scene in Slovenia, which is highly ranked in the block chain sector?
I have had the chance to meet with many aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as those working to support the vibrant start-up scene here, and have been really energized by the spirit of innovation in Slovenia. I know Slovenia has emerged as a leader in Europe’s burgeoning blockchain technology community through companies like Bitstamp and Studio 404. As these startups mature, the obvious next step is to look for partners and financing in the United States, which leads the world in the artificial intelligence and high-tech sectors. I’m proud that a Slovenian blockchain developer participated in our SelectUSA Investment Summit in 2018. I hope other companies will reach out to our team at the Embassy as they consider prospects for expansion into the U.S. market.
During the Embassy week-long program on artificial intelligence, Joseph Dumoulin, Chief Technology Innovation Officer at Verint Intelligent Self-Service, emphasized strong Slovenian AI capabilities and the use of AI in industry. Are these opportunities recognized by the highly innovative U.S. companies?
I think American companies are increasingly recognizing that Slovenia is one of a handful of countries with a long history of research and development in the field of AI, and in my discussions with Mr. Dumoulin, we talked a lot about the potential to take that specialized expertise and partner with U.S. companies to find practical, and perhaps profitable, business applications for the technological innovations emanating from local institutions. Both Slovenian and U.S. companies recognize the tremendous potential of AI in industry, 5G technology, digital transformation, the Internet of Things, etc. to transform our economies and provide more choices and products for consumers. That’s why it’s so important that as Europe and the United States begin to develop their 5G infrastructure, we make sure those resources are safe, secure, and meet U.S. and EU standards for protecting personal privacy and data.
You are a co-founder of the development foundation 100X, which is looking for creative solutions for the elimination of poverty and improving lives of children around the world. How can this experience be employed in your diplomatic career?
While working abroad in several countries, I felt I really needed to immerse myself and learn about the country and its culture in order to effectively partner with local stakeholders. Working to improve the lives of children abroad also certainly taught me the importance of respecting experts in the region. That’s been invaluable in my initial months here in Slovenia, as has having had experience working with other parliamentary democracies and understanding how the political process differs from ours. And because the U.S. relationship with Slovenia is defined by mutual respect, I’ve found it easy to have candid, constructive conversations here about how we can partner to improve our existing strong ties.
You are a mother of seven children, of whom four are adopted, which is a rare situation in this part of the world. How does an active woman who pursues a career find time to be a good parent?
I really glad that you asked this question. While I’ve often worked long hours since arriving in Slovenia, our family has actually spent more time together here than we did at home. This country is so focused on family time and the outdoors that after I finish work and the kids school, or particularly on weekends and days off, we are able to do the same. In the short time we’ve been here, we have already hit the stunning caves in Skocjan and Postojna, done some hiking in Triglav National Park, visited the beautiful horses in Lipica, and explored around Potoroz, Lake Bled, and of course Ljubljana. We love trying new restaurants in Old Town, running in Tivoli Park, and shopping in the wonderful open market.
How has your family adapted to the completely new environment?
Amazingly well. Slovenia is similar to Alabama with all of its lakes, rivers, and even green spaces within cities that are family and dog friendly, which is great for us. And like Slovenians, Alabamans are passionate about all sports – indoors or out! The one thing that may take a bit of getting used to is the snow, but we can’t wait. We all ski and want to check out as many of the local slopes as possible, so we’re crossing our fingers for a nice, cold winter. And now that I’ve seen the giant ski jumps in Planica, I need to go see the ski flying competition in person – because I just can’t imagine watching someone launch themselves into the air from up there!
What are your first impressions of the Slovenian nature, hospitality and quality of life?
I know it’s been less than three months, but when we crossed the border back into Slovenia after a recent family roadtrip, we looked at each other and said, “welcome home.” That’s truly how we feel. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming. Slovenians are proud of their pristine, picturesque country and anxious to share it. It’s so nice that people always take the time to ask how we are liking Slovenia. And our answer is always the same – we love living here as a family and love your beautiful country!
Everyone has been incredibly friendly
At the time when you were a nominee, you argued that U.S.-Slovenian relations needed to continue to improve “through direct outreach and engagement with Slovenian people.” Now when you have had some initial experiences on the ground, where do you see the potential to engage and bring this human touch to the diplomacy?
The Embassy has always made it a priority to get out and talk directly with the people of Slovenia, and our team wasted no time in getting me out and about in my first weeks here. I’ve loved meeting with groups of young students, local religious leaders, women working in STEM fields, NGO partners, and others who make up the vibrant civil society here in Slovenia. But I’ve also learned so much from chance encounters with Slovenes willing to share their thoughts and opinions with me. People I meet while walking in the park, at the flower shop, or the crew who hosted me for the Diplomatic Regatta. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and welcoming to me and to my family.