Reflections of an Ambassador

Interview with Mary Ann Glendon

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Irene Lagan

BOSTON, Massachusetts, JAN. 23, 2009 ( As newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama embarks on his new mission to steer the United States in a new direction, many of the ambassadors appointed by the former administration are heading back home.

Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, who represented the United States before the Holy See, has already returned to Boston, where she is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. The former ambassador will also resume her work as the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

In this interview with ZENIT, Glendon offered some reflections on her term of service in Rome, which lasted little less than a year.

Q: After representing the Vatican for so many years, what was it like to represent the United States to the Holy See?

Glendon: As a representative of the Holy See in U.N. settings I was engaged in the sort of work to which we lawyers are accustomed — advocacy focused on specific issues such as development goals and human rights. What made the position of ambassador to the Holy See especially fascinating for me was its variety. Practically every day brought new experiences and insights because the concerns of the Vatican, like those of the United States, are worldwide in scope.

The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 177 nations; its moral voice reaches almost every corner of the earth, and its networks of parishes, dioceses, and humanitarian aid workers make it an extraordinary «listening post.» Much of my work also involved «public diplomacy»  — speaking and writing on issues of common concern to the United States and the Holy See.

And of course I was responsible for the day-to-day administration of a small but very busy embassy. For someone like myself who teaches in the international field, it was a great privilege to be able to acquire first-hand knowledge about the U.S. State Department, the Holy See Diplomatic Corps, and the art of diplomacy as it is practiced in these challenging times.

Q: What were your greatest accomplishments, and challenges, during your tenure as ambassador?

Glendon: I feel very fortunate to have served at a time when relations between the United States and the Holy See were especially close, as evidenced by Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United States in April 2008, and the extraordinary hospitality shown to President George Bush on his visit to the Vatican in June.

Not only did the Pope and the president share a common outlook on a wide range of social and cultural issues, but there was a strong correspondence between the views of the U.S. government and the Holy See on the importance of strengthening the global moral consensus against terror (especially against the use of religion as a justification for violence); promoting human rights (especially religious freedom); fostering interreligious dialogue; and combating poverty, hunger and disease through partnerships between government and faith-based institutions.

In our increasingly interdependent but conflict-ridden world, it is a challenge to find ways to lift up and reinforce those shared values. But an excellent opportunity to do so was afforded by the coincidence this year of the 25th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since the declaration expresses so many of the ideals to which both the United States and the Holy See are dedicated, the conjunction of those anniversaries provided many occasions to explore and expand common ground. Accordingly, I arranged for our embassy to sponsor a series of conferences on various aspects of human rights. I’m happy to say that they were very well attended — and I believe they helped to deepen the bilateral relationship while acquainting new audiences with the highest and best of America’s traditions.

Q: In your outset of your tenure as ambassador, you mentioned that a priority would be to highlight the issue of human rights. As you are leaving your current post, what is your perspective on the state of human rights globally?

Glendon: Looking around the contemporary world, no one can deny that struggle for human freedom and dignity has a long way to go. But the human rights movement that gathered momentum in the latter half of the 20th century does have impressive accomplishments to its credit: It played an important role in the fall of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and apartheid in South Africa; it has helped to shine the spotlight of publicity on abuses that would otherwise have been ignored; and it has effectively discredited the assumption that a nation’s treatment of its own citizens is exclusively that nation’s business. As Benedict XVI said in his speech to the United Nations last year, «Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and ethical substratum of international relations.»

But, sad to say, the more the human rights idea has shown its power, the more intense has become the struggle to capture that power for various ends, not all of which are respectful of human dignity. Human rights ideals are under direct assault from cultural and philosophical relativists who deny that any values are universal. At the same time, they are being undermined indirectly — by escalating demands for new rights, by the spread of selective approaches to the common core of basic rights, by hyper-individualistic interpretations of rights, and by forgetfulness of the relation between rights and responsibilities.

Q: In your encounters with Benedict XVI, what stands out as most memorable?

Glendon: Certainly I will never forget the visit of Benedict XVI to the United States, so filled with striking moments and images, with each speech so full of hope and encouragement, and so perfectly tailored to the audience to which it was primarily addressed. After spending a year in Rome, I will also remember quieter moments that were especially revealing of the pastoral character of this wise and gentle man — his gift for speaking about God with children and young people, and his tender fatherly words to newly ordained Roman priests.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation