Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 10, 2017 and Island Ad-Vantages, August 10, 2017 and The Weekly Packet, August 10, 2017
Local voices, global issues: Anne Sigmund, U.S. Foreign Service
by Anne Berleant
Working behind the scenes and in the forefront of U.S. policy in foreign countries may not have been what Anne Sigmund envisioned as a Russian and Eastern European Studies major at the University of Kansas in the 1960s but that was where she landed.
Sigmund, who moved to Deer Isle in 2007, retired in 2003 after 33 years with the State Department Foreign Service, with most of those years spent in foreign countries across the world. By now, she has more than tripled the time she has lived anywhere since she entered the Foreign Service in 1970, one of three women accepted in a class of 75 junior officers.
A master’s degree in Russian Studies in hand, and in the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Sigmund had taken and passed the foreign service exam and was waiting for security clearance.
“I didn’t like academia, and the glass ceiling was lower [there] for women than other fields,” she said. “I was so relieved when I got the call asking me to come in. I didn’t regret a day of it.”
But Sigmund was not sent to Russia or Eastern Europe but first to Buenos Aires, Argentina, after four months learning Spanish.
She was assigned to Nicaragua in the early 1970s, during the Somoza dictatorship, and was in Managua during the 1972 earthquake that leveled the U.S. Embassy.
“In the days after the earthquake I took journalists around a city still on fire,” she said. This was after she protested the U.S. ambassador’s order for all women officers, and families of officers, to leave the country, and was the only female officer allowed to stay. Her next posting was in Budapest as Assistant Public Affairs Officer.
“Being a woman held me back initially,” she said. “But as I moved up, it was less of a problem.”
Sigmund ended her career with three years as first Deputy and then Acting Inspector General for the Department of State, overseeing 250 auditors, inspectors and investigators, reporting to the Secretary of State and congressional committees with oversight of the Department. Her final project was reviewing the decision-making process relating to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But first came decades spent in Russia and Eastern Europe, where she had hoped to go from the start.
Eastern Europe, and back again
Sigmund was sent to Kyrgyzstan in 1976. As a young foreign service officer, she arranged tours and interviews for the American press and assisted embassy diplomats. She served as assistant press attaché in Moscow in 1977 for two years, returned to Washington D.C. as a desk officer for Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and then was sent to Leningrad as Branch Public Affairs Officer at the consulate, which also included Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Her Eastern Europe assignments also included time spent in Russia and Poland, with a break as press advisor for Bernard Aronson, who was U.S. Assistant Secretary for Latin America, during the first Nicaraguan presidency of former Sandinista Daniel Ortega, stationed in the State Department Washington, D.C.
Then the Soviet Union fell apart.
“So, I was in Washington, watching the Russia crisis,” she said. “We knew it was going to eventually implode [but] it came as a complete surprise. We didn’t fully understand the forces at play.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union offered an opportunity for the United States to advance democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
“Suddenly there were these republics that had never been independent states,” Sigmund said. “When the Russians left, they took everything of value with them.” Also leaving the republics were Russians of the technocratic class, the people with expertise. “Economies were collapsing…There was a vacuum and we tried to fill it.”
The U.S.“went in with good intentions,” Sigmund said. But U.S. policy in Central Asia was also “driven by short-term interests. We were [there] because we could be, not because we should be.”
“The problem in Central Asia is we oversold political and economic reform,” she continued. “I was complicit in this [in Kyrgyzstan]. We pushed them to make changes for entry into the World Trade Organization but the WTO didn’t bring them…the prosperity we promised.” It did provide advantages, Sigmund said, but just not enough.
“We said, ‘a free press.’ For the first few years it was an amazing press, but the president, essentially corrupt in a clan-based society, shut it down.
“We said, ‘If you do these things, you’ll have a vibrant, democratic society,’ and it never happened.”
After the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. shifted its focus from Central Asia to the south, Sigmund said.
“We [had] started down a road to push human rights and democracies but too often security interests or economic interests, on occasion, supersede this,” she said. “But I think we’ve done a lot of good things. The things that capture the public attention are the big crises, but there are a lot of things we do that are really, really good: Fulbright scholarships, economic programs, treaties on oceans, the environment and human rights.”
Representing the U.S. abroad sometimes means riding the line between policy and personal beliefs, Sigmund said.
“It doesn’t mean you agree with [the policies], and it doesn’t mean you don’t lobby behind the scenes to change it. If you can’t live with it, you resign.”
On her life in Maine, Sigmund said: “I’m a Northern person. I always intended to retire to Maine. I certainly wasn’t going back to Kansas.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated August 14 to reflect minor corrections to Sigmund’s foreign postings.