Mark Gitenstein, the American diplomat patching up EU-US relations

“There has never been a time in history when there has been such a level of collaboration between the European Union and the United States,” said Mark Gitenstein, US Ambassador to the United States. European Union. The Review of Parliament.

“I spent a lot of time talking to former US ambassadors to the EU [and] other experts on the EU and the United States. And people say it’s never been so united.

US President Joe Biden has made mending US ties with Europe a key part of his foreign policy since taking the White House in early 2021, following the tumultuous years of the Donald Trump administration.

He decided to ask his best friend and former neighbor – his pal of nearly 50 years, Gitenstein – to help him do this by being his main representative on the continent.

The top diplomat began his new post in January and in earnest, with Russian President Vladimir Putin launching his brutal attack on neighboring Ukraine just weeks into Gitenstein’s tenure.

“I literally didn’t have a day off in the first two months,” he says. “Every day I was attending a videoconference between high-level figures in the US and the EU. It was quite intense.”

“[Putin] totally underestimated the unity between the two largest democratic systems in the world: the European Union and the United States. He thought the European Union itself would crumble under the stress. But that’s not the case, he actually got stronger.

But he says that in the short time he has spent living and working in Brussels, a period dominated by Russia’s continued – and so far failed – attempt to crush Ukraine’s defenders , it quickly became clear to him that the relationship between the US and the EU is stronger than it has ever been – a force of Western unity which he says has “totally” taken hold. President Putin, whom he describes as “the most dangerous autocrat we face in the world right now”, by surprise.

“He [Putin] is clearly threatened by the functioning of the free market and democracy in Ukraine,” says Gitenstein. “But more importantly, he totally underestimated the unity between the two greatest democratic systems in the world: the European Union and the United States. He thought the European Union itself would crumble under the stress. But that’s not the case, he actually got stronger.

Born in “small town” Alabama in 1947, Gitenstein went to high school in Birmingham, where his formative years were “heavily influenced” by the historic protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. era, he says, was Alabama federal judge Frank M Johnson Jr, whose landmark rulings on segregation and disenfranchisement helped desegregate the South.

Gitenstein then attended Duke University in North Carolina, where he was involved in anti-war and civil rights work. He then attended law school at Georgetown University, paving the way for what is today a highly regarded career in law.

One of his first jobs was working for a “reformist” attorney general in Montgomery, Alabama. Alongside his years in the US Senate, Gitenstein is also a former partner at the Mayer Brown law firm in Washington, DC.

Gitenstein describes his three-year tenure as US Ambassador to Romania as another key moment in his professional life.

Ambassador Gitenstein receives death certificates from an ancestor in Romania |Photo: United States Embassy in Romania

He has deep ties to this southeastern European country, with his father’s mother being from Romania. His father’s father, meanwhile, immigrated from neighboring Moldova.

During his tenure as ambassador to Romania, Gitenstein visited the town of Botoșani, where his paternal grandmother’s family is from. He remembers an “extremely moving moment” when, live on television, in the only synagogue still standing in Botoșani, a genealogist presented him with the death certificate of his great-great-grandfather. The moment also came with a revelation about his father’s Hebrew name, which Gitenstein says came from a famous rabbi. In fact, he says, “it was named after this guy [his great, great grandfather].”

“Unfortunately my father had passed away six months before, so I couldn’t tell him. I was almost in tears when they introduced him to me. It connected me to this town in a way that I was unprepared.

Gitenstein’s diplomatic mission in Romania began shortly after joining the EU, and he was tasked with assisting the former communist country in its transition as a new member state. One of his challenges was to improve the conditions of the Roma minority population, which, according to the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI), continues to “face discrimination in all areas of life “. “The good thing about the Romanians is that they really tried to deal with that,” he said. “I was impressed and supported that.”

“I often argued with the Romanians about why they had to make such and such a change. And I said because you made the decision to join the European Union and you are bound by those rules. Gitenstein reflects on his home country, adding, “Just like Alabama, as a member of the United States, after returning to the United States after the Civil War, [being] bound by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits discrimination based on race.

In a 2009 speech in Bucharest, where he served as ambassador, then-Vice President Biden called Gitenstein his “personal best friend.” Indeed, few can claim to have had a greater impact on President Biden’s life than Gitenstein, who is now 75. The couple met as young fathers in their early thirties and worked closely together in the US Senate. From 1981 to 1989, Gitenstein served first as chief minority counsel and then as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Senator Biden chaired from 1987 to 1995.

Biden - Gitenstein Dinner Social December 2021 The Bidens and the Gitensteins dine at home in December 2021 |Photo: Courtesy of Ambassador Gitenstein

Over the years, the professional and personal lives of President Biden and Gitenstein have intersected to such an extent that the two have become highly trusted confidants. The latter acted as the former’s lawyer when he was selected as Barack Obama’s vice-presidential candidate. Later, Gitenstein co-chaired Biden’s vice-presidential transition and more recently played a key role in his presidential transition.

Gitenstein’s daughter, now in her 40s, was an intern for Biden and the two families now consider each other parents, even owning beach houses in Delaware 200 yards apart.

“I helped him figure out which house to buy,” says Gitenstein.

Before Biden was president, he would “show up in my backyard with his dog and we would walk together…We spent most of our time talking about personal things.” [like] the education of our children and grandchildren.

“He showed up with full security and it was very overwhelming,” Gitenstein says. “All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks: He’s not just my friend anymore, he’s the President of the United States.”

In November 2020, shortly after beating Trump in the last US presidential election, the then-president-elect and his bevy of security guards dropped by the Gitenstein house to say hello.

“He showed up with full security and it was very overwhelming,” Gitenstein says. “All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks: He’s not just my friend anymore, he’s the President of the United States.”

“It was both a happy time and a sad time,” he adds, “because I knew it would be harder for him to just walk out the front door and show up at my house. .. It will probably be like this for the rest of his life.

As soon as he can get away from it all, Gitenstein, a self-proclaimed “history enthusiast”, relishes a walk in Brussels to “disengage” himself from the pressures of his diplomatic role: “It’s a fascinating city! It is 1000 years old. There is a lot of history here”.

He also enjoys painting watercolours, although he insists “I’m not very good at it”, of scenes from the Belgian countryside near his home.

But with global turmoil showing no signs of easing anytime soon, Gitenstein is planning many more long nights in his Brussels office, and the watercolors may have to wait.