The newly-appointed US ambassador to Lithuania, Robert S. Gilchrist, says he will focus on deepening security relationship between Washington and Vilnius. In the meantime, he plans to get a dog, keep bees and host all his American friends eager to visit Lithuania.
Before his appointment to Vilnius, Gilchrist served in US missions in Estonia and Sweden and was the director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
In an interview with LRT.lt, Ambassador Gilchrist talks about his plans in Lithuania, the turning point in 2014, and the media attention on him being the fifth openly gay ambassador appointed by President Donald Trump.
Having just arrived in Lithuania, what are the goals of your mission and how do they relate to the main aspects of Lithuanian–US relationship?
My main goal is to to build on on what’s already a very strong relationship. [...] In Washington, when I had my consultations and my Senate hearing, the views on Lithuania were incredibly good, very strong, there’s recognition of the strength of our relationship and all that Lithuania brings to the table in terms of being a reliable ally.
Two percent GDP [that Lithuania spends] for defence – I heard recognition of that in pretty much every conversation I had in Washington. [...] It's important not just symbolically, but really demonstrates that Lithuania takes seriously its defence commitments.
During my time here, I’ll continue to focus first and foremost on the security relationship. I’m looking forward [...] to being at the Distinguished Visitors Day for the Defender 2020 exercise. I’m looking forward to continued discussion with the Ministry of Defence and others on ways that we can deepen the security relationship even further.
I have a lot more work to do as well. Before I came, I met with a group of American companies with investments here in Lithuania. Across the board, they had a positive view of doing business here, with Lithuanians and Lithuanian companies. So I’m gonna work to deepen their engagement, to try to increase trade and investment in both directions. Because that provides jobs, but also it’s a way of tying our two countries and people together.
People-to-people exchange is really critical. And as a diplomat, what I’ve discovered during my 30 years of doing this job is that some of the most meaningful impact I’ve been able to have has been in bringing Americans here to talk about various issues and to gain exposure to the countries in which we operate.
And in the opposite direction, taking people to the US, exposing them to American institutions and increasing their understanding of our society, which is very complex.
You previously worked in the embassy in Estonia and know the region well. How is it seen in the US foreign policy circles?
I’ve worked on this region for nine years of my 30-year career. [...] The region on the whole is viewed positively in terms of the strong relationships that we have. Certainly among the Baltic allies, but even for the strong strategic relationship that we have with Finland and Sweden and, obviously, the other allies: Norway, Denmark and Iceland. I think there’s the strong appreciation with reagard to the transatlantic alliance and the reliability of this region and our partners here.
At the same time, during the course of the past 12 years that I’ve worked on the region, there have been some changes. Obviously, 2014 was a big turning point, with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I think it began a little before with Georgia [in 2008]. To some degree that did change the security dynamic and focus on the region. What you have seen definitely is greater American engagement here at the security level.
Since 2014, the US has provided over 230 million dollars in bilateral security assistance to Lithuania. That has gone for infrastructure, for training, equipment. I think that there’s clear demonstration of strong American interest in the region and recognition of the particular security concerns of the region.
There’s a sense that the US focus is shifting away from Europe onto Asia.
I've been asked before about the US focus on Asia and my response is: the US is quite capable of multitasking. What I see is greater engagement in this region.
Lithuania is seen as a strong, reliable, independent and sovereign partner. And there’s tremendous appreciation for that as well as for Lithuanian contributions in Afghanistan, Iraq, the list is long.
The Lithuanian president has already met with Donald Trump in a recent NATO summit. Could we expect a visit to the White House or one from the White House to the Baltic countries?
Nothing would make me happier as ambassador than to have presidential visit. It keeps us busy, but is also exciting and a high point for any embassy.
This year is an election year in the United States. I think it will hard to see that happening this year. American politicians, and certainly on the presidential level, are focused entirely on what’s going on domestically.
When the US media was covering your confirmation, it noted that you were the fifth openly gay ambassador nominated by Trump. Why do you think that is important for the media?
I don't know why it’s important. What I hope is that I’ll be judged on the quality of my ambassadorship. I’m an ambassador who has 30 years of experience as an American diplomat, with nine years of experience in this region. Experience of working on NATO, on security.
I was in Iraq when rockets were flying and I have experience at some of the highest levels in the State Department and the US diplomacy. I’m approaching this job energetically, I’m looking forward to getting out across the country and I hope that I’ll be judged on that more than other things that the press may decide to focus on.
You don’t expect having any issues, bearing in mind that Lithuania does not have a brilliant record on LGBT+ rights?
So far, I’ve had a fantastic experience and, as I’ve said, I’m going to do my very best job as an ambassador.
Did you come here with family?
I’m actually here on my own. I want to get a dog. I’m planning on that, probably a rescue dog, but we’ll see. It has to be one of those things you discover, we have to find each other somewhere.
I’ll certainly have a lot of visitors because word is out that Lithuania is a good place to visit. I had a lot of friends who were very excited about my being nominated as ambassador, not just for me, but I think largely for them, because they want to come visit.
And I’m gonna get bees. I heard that my predecessors had beehives so I’m gonna get those. I don’t know anything about bees except that I like them and I like honey. I’m hoping that somebody else comes with the smoke [to collect the honey]. You might see me running away from the hive and bees coming after me.
You participated in the Baltic Pride parade in Estonia. Are you planning to join it here?
That was a long time ago. It wasn’t actually a parade then, they had an event. I was a deputy and our ambassador at the time participated, along I believe with the British ambassador. And I was with him.
Once the event comes [to Lithuania], it’s something that I know that our embassies have done in previous years. And I’ll be glad to do that again, of course.