William Dale Montgomery has had a long and challenging career in diplomacy, the former US Ambassador to Croatia from 1998 to 2000, he has also served as the US Ambassador to Bulgaria as well as Serbia and Montenegro. Born in a relatively small town in the US he hadn’t really seen the world before his diplomatic career began, and one of the first stops was Dubrovnik, and it was love at first sight. He liked the region so much that he decided to retire here and lives in Konavle.
With the US on the brink of what could be a historic Presidential election, with Donald Trump eyeing four more years, we caught up with Montgomery in his home to discuss the future for his country. From gun rights, to investment and the “broken political system” and of course Trump vs Biden, the former US Ambassador to Croatia gave his opinion.
William Montgomery talking with Mark Thomas - Photo Tonci Plazibat
Firstly, I have to ask you about your love affair with the Dubrovnik region. Why did you decide to retire to this area? How are you keeping yourself busy?
Although I had served in the Vietnam War I hadn’t really travelled so much and I had never been to Europe. My first steps in my diplomacy career was an assignment in Belgrade. I remember stopping off in Rome on the way and there I bought a small Fiat. I then caught the ferry from Bari and arrived in Dubrovnik. I really couldn’t believe it when I saw the city for the first time. This was back in 1975. I totally fell in love with Dubrovnik. I remember staying in the Villa Dubrovnik. I even recall that a friendly lady called Nada was the director at that time. I drove all over the region, the former Yugoslavia, in my little Fiat. Even though I was working in Belgrade I would often come back to Dubrovnik on holiday. And then years later in 1998 when I was made Ambassador to Croatia basically my wife and I had decided to retire to the Dubrovnik region. Although we first looked at buying in Dubrovnik in the end we went for Cavtat, it just seemed a better fit for us then with our young family.
In 2000 we bought our first home in Cavtat. In 2004 I retired from the diplomatic service but continued to keep myself busy with a whole range of ventures, including writing a book. About two years ago I basically stopped and now I spend a lot of my time walking and climbing. I love walking and a few years ago I climbed Kilimanjaro. I also enjoy walking the Ćiro pathway and have walked the whole length.
Every country seems to be handling the pandemic in their own way - Photo Tonci Plazibat
How have you been coping with the Covid-19 situation?
We have been keeping ourselves busy but it has been challenging to travel. I feel really sorry for the friends that I have in business in Cavtat who are suffering terribly. Every time I see the closed restaurants and shops in Cavtat and indeed Dubrovnik it pains me. Every country seems to be handling the pandemic in the own way without consultation with a central body, countries are taking a political view to a health issue. You also have the situation where governments are making unilateral decisions very abruptly. Whether that’s the UK or Slovenia, they close their borders extremely rapidly, making travel so unpredictable. The uncertainty drives people crazy. Also the lack of up-to-date information has made travel and indeed tourism challenging.
The 3rd of November sees the US Presidential elections, Trump versus Biden. Are the polls correct and will we see a democratic president?
First of all, this election is more than anything else a referendum on President Donald Trump. Just to give you some background. I was appointed Ambassador by both by a democratic president and a republican president. I was a Republican all my life until President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq. That was the turning point for me. I think that historians will view that as one of the most horrendous mistakes made in the century. Secondly, this election is about the future of the US. 30 years ago there were obviously differences in the political parties in the US. These differences started off very small. This small little crack has grown into a chasm, that’s filled with hatred and mistrust of both sides. There is now a huge inability to work together between the parties for the common good.
You actually now have two Americas. These two parts are defined by radically different views on every issue. If you look at the main issues today, gun control, gay rights, abortion, illegal immigration, racism and health care, these are issues that divide this gap between the parties totally. And then there’s foreign policy. European leaders went from first being polite to President Trump, to trying to establish a relationship, to deciding that they couldn’t work with him, and finally to laughing at him, he’s a clown, a figure of fun. For 50 years we, as Americans, have taken for granted that we are the leaders of the free world, this is no longer the case. Due to the actions of Donald Trump the Europeans don’t look to us for leadership or help, we’re drifting unilaterally on our own.
Due to the actions of Donald Trump the Europeans don’t look to us for leadership or help - Photo Tonci Plazibat
If Trump does indeed lose the elections what implications could there be for him in the future?
I think the implications for him could be really serious. As an example he is currently having a dispute with the IRS, which for reasons unclear to me has been allowed to continue. If you are an average American and don’t pay your taxes the IRS will take away your home, but somehow Trump has avoided this. If there is indeed a democratic president, then he will have a tough job on just how hard to push many of these issues on Trump. Even if Trump does lose he will still have a lot of supporters in the country. There are a million ways in which Trump can disrupt this election if he decides to. I doubt if he will give up without a fight. And don’t forget that Trump now has an advantage of 6 – 3 in the Supreme Court, meaning that if he does challenge the result there is a possibility that the court will decide in his favour. The only way to avoid Trump challenging the final result is for Biden to win by a landslide.
With Trump winning the Presidential elections in 2016 a spotlight seemed to have been shone on the voting system and its deficiencies. Is America’s democracy in need of repair?
I think that the whole democratic system needs an upgrade to “American Democracy 2.0.” The problem is that I just don’t see how that’s going to happen, there are just so many vested interests. The President should be the person who wins the most popular votes, but we have seen two democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, win the most votes but lose the election, due to the electoral system. Hillary actually got 3 million more votes than Trump. Now this electoral system was set up in 1783, because there was a fight between the then 13 states to establish a system that balanced the power between all the colonies, that was the birth of the electoral college. At that time, you had smaller states who were worried about their sovereignty and didn’t want to lose their voice to the larger states. This same system is in place today, therefore today the Senate today has the same number of representatives per state no matter how many people live in that state. Now you have to bear in mind that this was done at a time before telephones, before any type of remote contact, so representatives of each state had to physically meet. Of course now the same states don’t want to give up this power.
If you look at the primaries before the election, these primaries are held in states that are ridiculously small, and for the rest of the four years of a Presidential mandate will get no attention at all, but they enjoy being in the spotlight for that short period of time. The power of lobbyists has also grown incredibly and affects greatly our political system. Our country is broken and nobody wants to talk about it. They’ll talk about specific issues and agree they need changing, but there is no consensus on the broken system. It has been ingrained on our mentalities that the American democracy is the standard for the world. And that is the view that I took with me on my diplomatic career. Today, I could not represent the United States of America anymore. I would never hold our country up, or our political system up as a model for the world.
It isn’t only the US that is facing this problem. What’s happening is that in democratic countries today you are seeing a gridlock, things can’t get done. Where things are getting done are is in authoritarian countries like China. This is really dangerous. But nobody is focusing on this problem.
The healing process is going to be difficult and take a long time - Photo Tonci Plazibat
With the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, amongst many others, the USA seems to be more divided than ever. What will it take to reunite the nation?
That’s a good question. I think it has to start with a Biden victory. But the healing process is going to be difficult and take a long time because if you travel through America you will see radically different countries. This has got to a point where your friends would now be from the same political party, whereas before it really didn’t matter so much which party you supported, in fact you probably wouldn’t know who your neighbour voted for. That is sadly no longer true. The only way to start to heal the divide is for the ruling party, let’s say that’s the democrats, to adopt bills and laws that appease the republicans, that will be hard but that’s the only way. If they try to override the republicans, there is the real possibility of a lot of civil unrest. When you see these protests in the US today, you have seen armed groups facing armed groups.
So what are your views on gun control?
The American attitude towards guns is a total disaster. I don’t think anybody in Europe can quite understand how we allow this situation. Every time there is a mass shooting, a lot of people think of a mass shooting in the same way they think of a natural disaster like a hurricane. They compare the two like they are both bound to happen. I have lived a long time in Europe and I can’t understand, or rather partially understand, why we still allow people to carry weapons. I fail to understand how we have got to the position where people can openly buy assault rifles. You can still buy weapons in the US without any background checks or controls. If you sell a weapon privately you don’t have to report it to anybody. That can’t be right.
Croatia should be included in visa-free regime - Photo Tonci Plazibat
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced on a recent visit to Dubrovnik that Croatia would soon enter the visa-free program. What are the implications of this and do you have any knowledge as to when this might happen?
I think it will happen and Croatia’s no meets all the criteria for this to actually happen. The percentage of rejected visas from Croatia to the US is now under the 3 percent threshold. Visa-free travel to the US is available to almost every country in the European Union and there is absolutely no reason why Croatia shouldn’t be included. This is a positive thing for both Croatia and America. I have probably been approached 30 to 40 times by people asking advice on how to get a US visa whilst living here. In reality the vast majority of Croatians who visit the US are going to come back home anyway. But even if they don’t come back they will be great citizens of the US.
How can Croatia attract more foreign investment from US companies?
Croatia makes it harder for foreign investors than any country I have even served as an Ambassador in. The impression that foreign investors get is one of lot of red tape, corruption and basically a lack of interest. Whilst I was Ambassador in Croatia there were a lot of deals that never happened. And it was always in the same way. There is always great interest from the local authorities at the beginning of the negotiations, with initial contacts always being welcoming. And then at a certain point in time the doors get closed.
Look at Dubrovnik, I remember coming here 20 years ago and there was an office for the Royal Dubrovnik Golf Club. There is still no golf course. The golf course looked like a win/win situation. I don’t know if it has happened in any city in the world before that a referendum was held as to whether to build a golf course. We are talking about rocky land that can’t even be seen from the city. There are innumerable examples, from Hotel Belvedere to the golf course, and that’s just in this city. 25 years after the wars finished and hotels are still destroyed, waiting for investment.