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Q&A with Marie Yovanovitch ’80, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

<h6>&nbsp;Kharkiv Investment Forum / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
 Kharkiv Investment Forum / Wikimedia Commons

Marie Yovanovitch ’80 served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 through 2019. She began her foreign service career as a U.S. State Department official in 1986, and left the State Department in 2019, when she was recalled from Kyiv by former President Trump. She later testified in Trump’s first impeachment inquiry. 

Yovanovitch will be discussing her recent memoir Lessons from the Edge on campus on April 12 as a part of the Walter E. Ledge lecture series. She sat down with The Daily Princetonian ahead of the lecture to discuss her career, memoir, and how Princeton students can give back through foreign service.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

The Daily Princetonian: What led you to spend so much of your career working in the Soviet Union or former Eastern bloc states? 

Marie Yovanovitch: I came to Princeton, and I started studying Russian. This was during the Cold War, when lots of people who were interested in foreign policy studied Russian. I mean, that changed after the break of the Soviet Union and in the early 2000s, with the focus on the war on terrorism and so forth, but when I was at Princeton, Russian was a very popular thing to study if you were interested in foreign policy. 

I chose to do that in part, not only because of my interest in foreign policy, but also because of my family history. So I took Russian for much of the four years at Princeton. I didn't quite know what I was going to do next after Princeton, [but] I ended up doing a semester abroad in Moscow at a language school to study Russian with a bit more diligence and I really, really got interested in it.

DP: Your memoir describes a great deal of the fear and confusion and betrayal you felt after you were recalled from your post in Ukraine. In particular, you describe moments of self-doubt. What inspired you to publish these more vulnerable reflections? 

MY: I'm not sure how I'm actually comfortable with that because I'm a private person. But after my testimony during the impeachment inquiry, I got lots and lots of letters from Americans primarily, although also from people abroad, saying, ‘Thank you for your service. We are interested in hearing more about your life, about the challenges of the State Department. We didn't really know what foreign service officers did.’

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This book is in part a response to those people who wanted to know more about diplomacy, about the State Department, about what we do for every American that we represent, and hopefully, it's provided a little bit of context and background for that.

DP: What are the lessons that you're hoping people will take away from your memoir?

MY: The importance of diplomacy to all aspects of our national security. 

I think when many Americans think about our national security, they think about the military. They think about maybe the CIA. They don't necessarily think about the State Department, and the State Department is absolutely fundamental. I also — and this was particularly true after I came back to the United States — realized how I’d taken our democracy for granted even though my parents, who had fled totalitarian regimes in Europe after World War II, brought me up to be so grateful to be in the United States and to be able to become an American and live in the land of the free. 

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George Kennan [Class of 1925], a famous diplomat with a long association with Princeton, wrote about how our single biggest strength is our values, our democracy. And if we have a strong democracy at home, then that really is the engine for our diplomacy where we can attract other allies and work around the world to safeguard American interests, American values and promote those interests abroad. That link between a strong democracy at home and a strong diplomacy abroad, I think, is really important.

I also thought a lot about the importance of integrity, individually and also in foreign nations. I was shocked and continue to be shocked that the former president of the United States would have basically used his office to try to browbeat a foreign president, and I'm thinking specifically [of Ukrainian] President Zelensky, into doing him a favor. I describe the corrosive nature of corruption, both here in the United States and abroad. 

And, I talked about the theme of Russia and the former Soviet Union, because that was my foreign service experience. I wrote this long before the latest invasion of Ukraine, but Russia presents a challenge, and a real danger.

DP: What are lessons you took away from your time at Princeton?

MY: When I was at Princeton, the motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service.” That motto really made an impression upon me. I was an immigrant to the United States. We were rich in the things that mattered, but we didn't have a lot of material things. And, I sort of washed up in this very elite university, and at every turn, when we had lectures from the president of the University or alumni coming back to talk to us, they would all repeat that motto of “Princeton in the nation’s service.” What I took that to mean is that all of us, no matter who we were, were privileged to be able to attend a great university like Princeton, and study with some of the finest minds. And that it was kind of a responsibility of ours — if not an obligation — to give back. My parents have brought me up with that same kind of value set.

Although I took some detours after I graduated from Princeton, I ended up in the Foreign Service, which was the right job for me because it was a way of giving back and serving the American people. But it was also something that married my purpose with my interests. I love history, I love foreign policy, and like politics. It's all really interesting to me, and I like traveling and meeting people from different cultures. It was the right kind of career for me.

DP: You weren't sure that you would enter the Foreign Service after Princeton?

MY: No, I really didn't know. It was one of the things that was kind of in the back of my mind, but I was not nearly as focused when I graduated from Princeton as perhaps I should have been. But, honestly, detours are good for you because you learn perhaps other things that you might have not have learned. 

DP: What advice do you have for students potentially thinking of a career in foreign service?

MY: First of all, I think a career in the Foreign Service at the State Department is a wonderful thing. It was a great career choice for me. And if people are interested, I think they should definitely pursue it. Because not only is it a super interesting career, it’s a super interesting lifestyle. You can also make a difference every day in somebody’s life because people look to the United States. They look to the U.S. Embassy, they look to individual diplomats, and you can really be a force for good and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to make a positive change in somebody’s life or in a country. 

DP: Do you have any advice for students who aren't interested in the Foreign Service, but still face the question of “what do I do after Princeton?”

MY: I think [you should] cast your net wide because when you're graduating from Princeton, you have this great educational background. And looking forward, it is likely that you’re at a time in your life where students who have just graduated don’t have that many responsibilities. I’m sure some students do, but many students don’t. You’re really only responsible for yourself. So you are at your freest in terms of thinking about you know, ‘I’d like to have a career in banking in a couple of years, but right now I'd like to explore I don’t know, teaching English in Taiwan, or joining the Peace Corps and maybe going to Africa, or just traveling, or working in the inner city.’

I would access that Princeton motto about how students can be part of that Princeton service for the nation and the world. I think there’s so many opportunities out there and you learn something from all of them, even if you decide that this really was just a detour. 

Jasmyn Dobson is a staff writer who often covers SPIA events and administrative changes. She can be reached at jbednar@princeton.edu.

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