EU High Representative Catherine Ashton

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European Union Vice President Catherine Ashton at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in July 2010. Pascal Bastien / New York Times-Redux

Initial reactions [to your getting the job] were pretty dismissive, weren’t they?

Most of the criticism came from Euro-skeptic newspapers in Britain and Euro-skeptic members of the European Parliament. I would have been more upset had they welcomed my appointment.

Was sexism a factor?

There are too few women in top jobs around the world, but many more than a generation ago. Among the foreign ministers in the EU, we have gone from no women when I started this job to having three now. I remember learning at school that glass is not a solid but a liquid—perhaps the glass ceiling is slowly beginning to drain away.

As Europe’s first foreign minister, you more or less had to invent the job.

Harold Macmillan, Britain’s prime minister half a century ago, famously said the biggest influence on him were “events, dear boy, events.” Events have shaped my job, too. The Haiti earthquake was a huge challenge early on. I spent three fascinating, horrifying days there. It has been a similar story with other challenges, from the Middle East peace process to building Europe’s relationship with the rising Asian giants, China and India. Events dictate.

Your background is that of a politician, not a foreign-policy professional. Has that helped or hurt?

For much of my adult life I have been a negotiator, 20 years ago bringing companies, local government, and unions together in local development projects, more recently as a minister in the House of Lords. [Labour Party Prime Ministers] Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had healthy majorities in the House of Commons, but they never had a majority in the House of Lords. Every time I took legislation through the Lords, I had to build alliances with peers from other parties as well as independents. This often meant delicate negotiations behind closed doors, keeping confidences, building trust, achieving productive compromises, and delivering agreements—just the skills needed to make progress in my present job.

Your travel schedule is horrendous, yet you have no EU-supplied plane.

I couldn’t justify the cost or the environmental impact. I use commercial flights whenever I can. When there is no practical alternative, I use an air-taxi service. This allowed me, for example, to visit five Middle East states in four days, speak to all the main players in the peace process, see conditions for myself in Gaza and the West Bank, and end up in Moscow for a meeting of the Quartet.

What are Europe’s biggest foreign-policy challenges?

Europe, like the rest of the world, is adjusting to a new era: a single military superpower, the rise of China and India as economic powerhouses, the challenges of poverty, terrorism, and climate change. We need new tools to respond to these challenges. Paradoxically, I believe that Europe’s influence depends on our not having great military power or imperial ambitions any longer. We are able to play an objective role in which we are trusted because we seek genuinely to end conflict, assist development, and resolve differences, not distrusted for being thought to have a hidden agenda.

Few Americans know about you. Do you know America?

One of my brothers moved to the States some years ago. He and his family are now American citizens, and we keep in touch. Aside from family links, I’ve visited the U.S. many times for work and vacations. I visit Washington a lot, more than any city outside Europe.

It helped that I was an avid viewer of The West Wing—not so much for its splendid if somewhat unreal idealism, but as a beginner’s guide to the mechanics of Washington life. I used to think that in another life, I’d like Josh Lyman’s job.

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