Women in Diplomacy

Kuwaiti women play a critical role in society


United States Ambassador Alina L. Romanowski, who took over in February as the top diplomat to represent her country in Kuwait, in a wide ranging interview with The Times Kuwait, speaks at length about women in diplomacy, the challenges they face, and what she enjoys most about being a diplomat. She also gives her candid impressions on Kuwait, its people, and society, based on her brief interactions over the past seven months that she has been in the country.

Can you please tell us a little bit about your background and how you entered the diplomatic profession? Also, please tell us more about your previous postings.

My interest in international affairs started when I was a young child. Different cultures, different languages, and international travel were all very much part of my upbringing. Both my parents immigrated to America, and our dinner table conversation was often about our families “back home” and the different experiences they had growing up. Our family also moved to Switzerland for a year where I started school and learned French, and we traveled all over Europe.

After high school, I went on to study Middle East history and international relations at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, a prudent choice considering how fast world affairs were evolving at the time.

America was coming to grips with Watergate, Margaret Thatcher ushered in a new era in Britain as the first female prime minister, OPEC brought the global economy to its knees after proclaiming an oil embargo, and a historic peace treaty was signed by Israel and Egypt. It was a dynamic decade to say the least. I became fascinated by international politics, and how countries, people, and governments worked together to resolve their conflicts and make progress in developing their economies, governance, and security.

After completing my master’s degree, I moved to Washington D.C. to begin my career with the U.S. government and work on developing and implementing U.S. foreign policy and national security. I’ve proudly served for almost 40 years across various U.S. government agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is my first time serving as ambassador and I’m proud to represent my country in Kuwait. I look forward to marking two important milestones next year: 60 years of U.S. – Kuwaiti diplomatic relations and 30 years since the U.S. led an international coalition to liberate Kuwait.

What challenges have you faced as a woman diplomat? How easy or difficult do you think it is for women to work in diplomacy? What effect does it have on your family life?

The challenges women diplomats face today are no different than those faced by women in other professions. We work hard, can work long hours, can be called away from our families on short notice. To succeed, we build professional networks, look for strong mentors, and seek opportunities where we can demonstrate our best qualities. Those women in senior ranks need to be role models for, and bring along, the next generation of women diplomats.

Diplomacy is a profession like many others that needs more women. It wasn’t until 1949, twenty-five years after the U.S. Foreign Service was established, when President Harry Truman appointed America’s first female ambassador. Today, around 60 percent of Foreign Service generalists and over 70 percent of Foreign Service specialists are men. Without a doubt, we need to encourage more women to join its ranks and become ambassadors.

But times are changing, and women across the world are making progress.

Several countries currently have, or have had, female heads of state: Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Norway, Finland, to name a few. Moreover, in the Arab region, the percentage of female representation in parliament increased from 10 to 18 percent between 2012 and 2017. Even when it comes to peacekeeping, UN statistics show that peace agreements are more likely to last when women are included at the negotiating table.

Being a diplomat is not easy, regardless of gender. In the fast-paced world of international politics, we play an important role by representing the United States overseas and strengthening our relationships with countries across the globe.

It’s also a fun and rewarding career, especially if you have an ear for language, a passion for learning about other cultures, and an analytical temperament. A diplomat’s career can also offer their families to a unique opportunity to travel and live overseas.

Do you face any obstacles being a woman diplomat in Kuwait, especially in the Kuwaiti diwaniya culture?

The U.S. and Kuwait enjoy a longstanding close relationship. Since arriving in Kuwait seven months ago, I have certainly felt a warm welcome. I was especially happy, and even pleasantly surprised, to have been received so well on social media with my own Twitter account. I think the diwaniya is every diplomat’s dream. It offers visitors like me the chance to visit different segments of Kuwaiti society and learn about their rich culture and traditions. COVID restrictions have limited my ability to visit diwaniyas, but I look forward to doing so once they reopen.

Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to overcome some of the limitations that the pandemic has placed on all of us. I’ve participated in dozens of online discussions with journalists, civil society groups, local business owners, academics, and even students in Kuwait. I will admit, as a diplomat, it’s still not like meeting and talking face-to-face.

What do you enjoy most about being a diplomat?

I remember giving a presentation over ten years ago while serving in the Bureau for Education and Cultural Affairs in Washington.

I spoke to young Foreign Service officers at a town-hall meeting about the importance of international exchange programs and the incredible opportunities they offer to build mutual understanding between America and countries around the world.

Essentially, that’s what my job boils down to today as U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait. Cooperating with the people and government of Kuwait to build on the work of my predecessors and cement long-lasting ties between our two countries is what I enjoy most about my job.

Who is your role model in the field of diplomacy? 

I admire Colin L. Powell, who had a very distinguished career serving as the Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War. His leadership and service to others has inspired so many. Powell worked closely with presidents of both political parties to benefit the United States, and I deeply respect that. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell drove the strategy behind the American military’s victory in the first Gulf War. As Secretary of State, he deeply impacted foreign policy.

Powell was also a trailblazer. He was the first African American Secretary of State. A son of immigrants who grew up in the Bronx, a very diverse New York City borough, Powell learned to connect with people of all stripes and backgrounds. He embraced cultural diversity and viewed differences in perspective as an asset, which is important in the work of diplomacy.

Tell us about your experience in Kuwait as a diplomat. What are some of the responsibilities you have undertaken so far? And what will your main priorities be during your tenure? 

I have had a positive experience thus far in Kuwait despite the challenges presented by COVID-19. Currently, I am working with the Government of Kuwait to implement many of the initiatives we have mutually agreed on under the U.S. – Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, which serves as an essential framework for our countries to build even stronger foundations.

I am focused on deepening our cooperation on regional and bilateral issues, for example working with Kuwait to preserve the security and unity of the Gulf and addressing Iran’s malign influence in the region.

The state of our economies is a primary concern. The United States and Kuwait have a trade volume of nearly $5 billion, and I am working closely with the American Chamber in Kuwait to ensure American businesses remain active here.

I’m also looking forward to deepening our cooperation in education, health care, border security, community preparedness, e-learning, and doing business virtually.

Thanks to the diligent lobbying efforts of Abolish153, an advocacy group led by a team of Kuwaiti women, the National Assembly passed an important domestic violence bill. Additionally, amendments were made to the medical guardianship law, giving mothers the right to authorize medical treatment for their children without requiring male consent.

And in a landmark move, one that sets a precedent for the rest of the Gulf region, Kuwait welcomed eight women to the judiciary for the first time in the country’s history.

Finally, as we gear up to celebrate three decades since the liberation of Kuwait, we should take time to pause and reflect on those who sacrificed their lives during the Iraqi occupation, 89 of whom were women. Asrar Al-Qabandi, Wafa Al-Amer, Sana Al-Foudari, and Suad Hassan are some of the Kuwaiti women who fought for their country and defied the occupation. I am inspired by their bravery and heroism.

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