Interview with AmCham Executive Director George Welton
George: Ambassador, Sarah, what do you think are the strongest characteristics Georgia and the US have in common?
Ambassador Degnan: In the year that I’ve been here, what strikes me the most between the two countries is a drive to constantly be improving – that energy, openness to engage with new trends, to try new things. That isn’t the case everywhere that I’ve served. And, again, I’ve only been here a year, but it’s that energy and enthusiasm for change that makes Georgia such a good partner for the United States.
Sarah: Georgians have always been sort of rebellious, industrious, even entrepreneurial, in their own way. I think you see similar characteristics in many Americans. I think the best entrepreneurs have a revolutionary mindset in many ways. Also, while we can agree that our past makes us who we are, I like to believe that Georgia and the US also share both an expectation of moving forward, and an ingrained belief in a free-market economy.
George: Turning that around – are there are any characteristics you would like to see each country learn from each other?
Ambassador Degnan: Both countries are very polarized at the moment, but I still think that there is more of an understanding at this point in America’s democracy that democracy requires compromise. Whereas I feel at this point in Georgia’s democratic development there’s still not a full embrace of the fact that politics is the art of compromise. Compromise is not a sign of weakness.
Sarah: I agree that polarization is a big problem for both, but what I have come to really appreciate about the US over the past 4-5 years is that our institutions have held. Both sides are constantly crying foul, but with a few bumps along the way, our institutions have stood firm and held up against attempts by one side or another to abuse or dismantle our democracy. Georgia needs to have strong institutions that insure the same.
George: Ambassador, you’ve been here a year. How is your experience so far in Georgia compared to other postings?
Ambassador Degnan: It has been very much dominated by COVID. This is a unique prism through which to see any culture. The other side of it, of course, is that I arrived in the middle of a political crisis. It seems like a really important transition time for a country that is very much in the earliest stages of building its democracy. So it’s really a fascinating time to be in Georgia, and to be the United States Ambassador, when we are trying across the board in so many ways to be a good partner to this country.
George: Sarah, how do you see Georgia and the challenges it faces now compared to the challenges that it faced when you first came here?
Sarah: Frankly, there was often just a few hours per day of basic needs like electricity and running water, when I first came here. That was in the middle of the summer; just imagine the winters! I came at the end of it, but Georgians had been going through it for years. To see a country transforming, and to be involved in that change, over just 20 years from that first state of collapse to its current level of development has been phenomenal.
The Ambassador said that it has been a fascinating year, and I agree. But they’ve all been fascinating years! In my time here, I feel like I’ve gotten to witness not only the Rose Revolution, and the first peaceful transfer of power, but also something like the country’s economic and industrial revolution, its sexual revolution and the women’s empowerment movement. Things that I might be lucky to see one of, in a whole lifetime, in the US.
I appreciate this question for making me go back and appreciate all the good that has happened. Sometimes it’s too easy to get bogged down in what hasn’t happened yet.
George: Looking at the relationship between Georgia and the US, what is the most important component of that relationship? And what is your role in developing that relationship?
Ambassador Degnan: The people-to-people exchanges over the years, I think, are the most valuable connection that we’ve got. Obviously, just the experience of Americans coming to Georgia and Georgians going to America, you almost see the ideas light up, you see the connections. The United States Embassy has had wonderful exchange programs over the years – whether from the FLEX program for high school students, the Fulbrighters, the Humphreys, the Rumsfeld fellows – there’s close to 1,000 alumni that we’re still in touch with.
And I think the same is true for the Peace Corps volunteers who come here. They have the opportunity to contribute to English language training or skills building. But the gift that the Georgians give those Peace Corps volunteers to take back to America is just invaluable.
And so we’ve already got this rich stew that produces good ideas in business, good ideas in academics, in research cooperation, in agricultural cooperation. This, to me, is where it starts.
Sarah: When we built our company, we took practices from our experiences in America, and we want to call them ‘American’ but they are also just good practices…and we were able to prove that if you really do stick to a straightforward business plan, it can work here. I’m still proud of that. I think my role, over many years, has been about helping to understand each other. I’m not a diplomat, it’s not my job to work out foreign policy for either country. I just love both countries with all my heart and want the best for both of them, for my children’s two homelands, and so it’s important to me to see Georgia stay on the right track.
George: One of the reasons we’re having this interview is because we have just finished International Women’s Month. Ambassador, you’ve been in the US Foreign Service for quite a long time now. You must have seen some incredible changes over the years. Tell us a bit about that.
Ambassador Degnan: There have been very significant improvements in the almost 30 years that I’ve been in the Foreign Service. And before I was in the Foreign Service, I practiced law, which in those years was also very male dominated.
With careers in the United States, perhaps in other countries as well, it’s often the government that leads the way and opens doors for minorities, or for underrepresented groups like women. I think that has very much been the case in the United States government. I’m very proud of the support that the United States government has given to open all of our eyes to our own unconscious biases.
I also really appreciate what President Biden has done, very deliberately, to build a cabinet that reflects American society.
But it’s not enough just to bring in the numbers. It’s also about making underrepresented groups feel accepted and integrated and comfortable working in the Foreign Service or in the private sector, wherever it is. We’re still working on that. But I think most Georgians would also admit that there’s more work to be done in terms of truly integrating minorities and underrepresented groups here.
Having role models is so important to showing men and women that gender is irrelevant to doing the job. Because it’s important to encourage women, but it’s even more important, in my view, to help men understand that this is a plus and neither threatening or inappropriate.
I think, George, when you asked about what’s changed during my career, one of the most important things that I think has changed is that it has become easier for men and women to have a family in this life-style of moving all the time. When I first came in, it was much more often that women would have to leave their career in order to have their families and raise their children. Now, in part because of technology, it is easier for us to have two foreign service officers raising their children. This has allowed men to also have the experience of being more involved in raising their families, and I think that’s so important.
George: Sarah, how do you think you’ve seen the role of women change during your time here? What has the impact of that been on the country?
Sarah: US government organizations have done a lot of work on this issue, and others, too. We still need to get more women in Parliament, civil society and senior private sector positions, but we’ve also come a long way. We need to encourage girls in things like STEM fields and others, but I’m glad that it’s no longer a standout thing when a woman holds a high-ranking position.
To be fair, I never felt discriminated against in Georgia, but I came to realize that I was being treated differently because I was American. Georgian women are some of the most talented, intelligent and hardworking that I have ever met. They are doing an inspiring job of proving themselves at every level. One day, they won’t have to do so any more than their male counterparts do.
Though it’s not just Georgia, by any means. In 2012 or 2013, I went to Washington D.C. for a meeting at the US Chamber. It was for Presidents and Executive Directors, from AmChams throughout Europe.
One of our hosts from the US Chamber there in D.C. thought I was Executive Director…and when they realized that I was the President, they acted impressed and pointed out that all the other presidents in the room were men. I found that strange, but it didn’t really register to me at that moment. Later they came and told me that they had done some checking and were now pretty certain that I was actually the only female president of an AmCham outside of the US at that time. They all thought it was great and that I must be so proud. Actually, I was mortified. It was shocking. This was 2013. It shouldn’t have even been noteworthy and yet, out of the 115 AmChams they looked through, I was the only woman? Insane. Thankfully, that’s just so not the case anymore. There are lots of women presidents and being one gender or the other is not noteworthy.
I can think of another example. I remember in the early 2000s there were rumors that there was going to be a female US Ambassador to Georgia. I was shocked at the response. People were saying, ‘it won’t work to have a female US Ambassador here, Georgia is a macho society’. And I just thought, oh god, the best thing we could do is put a female Ambassador here, in that case! Since then, the UK, Turkey, Germany, now the USA, and so on – they’ve all had excellent Ambassadors many of whom happen to be women. It does work!
George: Ambassador, you trained in journalism and law; what does the training in journalism and the journalism experience bring you in terms of your engagement with the media here and what do you think about the Georgian media circuit?
Ambassador Degnan: I’m really glad to have that background because it gives me an appreciation for how hard their job is but also how high the standards need to be in order for media to play the role it needs to play in a democracy. And then there’s the level of politicization here; the level of polarization in a market this small is to me a disservice to the citizens of Georgia, because there are very few places that Georgians can go for impartial information.
As people are driven to social media to get their information that’s an even greater danger in many ways…the siloing of information, the reinforcing of stereotypes, the loss of that marketplace of ideas and exchange of views – it’s so damaging.
The first thing I did when I got here was I wanted to understand the challenges that the journalists and editors face here. It’s a tough, tough market everywhere in the world because it’s changing and the financing of it becomes so difficult. I feel like that is a challenge here, in particular. It makes it difficult for outlets to be impartial when their funding is not impartial.
But I also have a deep respect for self-regulated professions like the media, like law, where it is incumbent on the professionals to maintain those high standards of ethics and that commitment to doing their job ethically.
George: Sarah, as the owner of a technology company, how do you see technology kind of working its way into Georgia’s development?
Sarah: When we started UGT in 1997, there was hardly a landline network in this country. Everything was on paper, and so corruption was easy to get away with. It was unbelievable. No communication between anything, as you know. The way they have been able to jump ahead, in a relatively short amount of time, into a much better situation is of benefit to every single corner of society. I mean, my online banking works better in Georgia than it does in America and my cell phone data and network capabilities are much better! Georgia has been able to learn from other countries’ mishaps, without having to go through the expense of making them.
George: What role does business play in building US-Georgia relations? Are there any particular instances of this that you’ve seen that you found can be particularly compelling so far?
Ambassador Degnan: I would hesitate only because it’s been such a strange year that we didn’t have the kind of engagement that we normally would have.
We shouldn’t underestimate the influence of groups like the the American Chamber of Commerce, because I think the government needs to hear from the business community, not just in an ad hoc way, but in in a really unified way; when the business community, through groups like AmCham, speak with one voice to express what Georgia needs to do to make the environment more investor friendly, the government listens.
Those channels need to be sharpened, they need to be amplified, so that the business community can have a greater influence on the kind of legislation that goes through, the kind of environment that is created. That is a huge tool in terms of attracting foreign investment, whether from the United States or from other kinds of investors that Georgia wants and needs. I really can’t emphasize enough the value of what groups like the American Chamber of Commerce contribute. And I just really commend your membership for being so actively involved.
Sarah: From an AmCham perspective, with our solid American and Georgian roots, we are in a great place to demand the changes that need to happen, like judicial reform, demanding open markets, transparency and so on. In those things, no one could play a bigger role than the business community and we are central to that. And I think AmCham honors its responsibility to lead by example in abiding by those things, ourselves.
We are also well placed to push for bilateral agreements like a US free trade agreement, supporting discussions around the GSP program and how to use these treaties to push for positive change. For example, the US has a bilateral investment treaty with Georgia that is useful in helping us hold Georgia to a higher standard in some ways.
The private sector can be such a great way of connecting people. Those in Georgia and those in the United States, the Americans that come here to work, own companies, run companies, end up going back to the United States as sort of ambassadors for Georgia because pretty much every-body that lives here loves it, by the time they leave. The same is true of the Georgians that come back from the States, have loved their time there, and are transformed by it.
George: What are you most looking forward to post COVID?
Ambassador Degnan: I would say that the opportunity to be in groups again. It’s wonderful to have the small group exchanges where you can really get into different issues deeply. But I find every time I’m in a slightly larger group, and again, we’re still quite small here because of the precautions, it just warms my heart to see people again, and to connect with them, and to start exchanging ideas again, and get all of those flashes going of good ideas. And then, of course, to be able to do that in beautiful places like Svaneti, or Kakheti or out on the Black Sea coast – all the beautiful places that I still have yet to see here. I do hope to be able to do that soon.
Sarah: In other times we’d be having this conversation on a terrace in the city. I have taken for granted the ability to just be out and enjoy the heartbeat of this place. I miss people and the vibrancy of life. I am really looking forward to that again.