Meet David O'Sullivan: Irishman, European, internationalist, lover of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

In a previous interview, Ambassador David O’Sullivan described the process by which we all build our identity in layers, or rather, as he clarifies, that we each have many identities.

“In the case of my own sort of life experience,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan, “obviously Ireland is my primary point of reference because that’s where I spent most of my youth, and that’s always what leaves the greatest mark on you one way or the other. I think it’s always home in a fundamental sense of that word.”

Though he grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family, Ireland itself was a relatively poor and insular country in the 1950s during his youth. He came to California in early childhood, which proved to be a transformative experience.

Photo courtesy of the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.

“I think I’ve described it in other places as that moment in the Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from black and white to Technicolor,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan. It’s an apt and rather literal description given that his only images of the United States came at a time when televisions only broadcasted in black-and-white. “And I acquired at that point a great love and affection for this country, which has never left me.”

One of the lasting impressions was an appreciation for pop culture, particularly the singer-songwriter movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Though his mother — who had a short career as an opera singer — had filled the sonic space of his childhood home with Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi, Ambassador O’Sullivan’s personal tastes embraced Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.

“I’ve always loved pop music,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan. “I still listen to pop music, I still listen to the top 40 whenever I can.”

In 1979, Ambassador O’Sullivan took a leave of absence from the Irish Foreign Service for what he assumed would be a couple of years to work for the European Commission. Now serving as Ambassador and Head of the European Union Delegation to the United States (EUintheUS), it would appear that his initial estimate was off by a few decades.

“I admit that I thought I was going to Brussels for a couple of years — like most people by the way,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan, but each posting became progressively more interesting and satisfying, until he never returned to his national foreign service. His career has included a number of notable and senior positions within the Commission, including Head of Commission for President Prodi’s Cabinet (1999–2000) and Secretary General of the European Commission (2000–2005). Directly prior to coming to Washington, DC he was the Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and was responsible for establishing this new diplomatic arm of the European Union.

But it was one of his earliest positions that cemented his belief in the work of the European Union. At short notice, he was offered a job in Tokyo, Japan.

“I love all of Asia,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan. “Every country in Asia is different, but when I go to Japan, it always feels like a little bit home. It’s so well organized. It’s so clean. It’s so efficient. Everything just works really well.”

There, looking home from almost 6,000 miles away, he saw that the European nations risked becoming irrelevant if they did not cooperate on external relations. Aside from perhaps France, Germany, or Great Britain, no individual European country was particularly important in the eyes of the Japanese. It was a life-changing experience.

“But it was whenever we were able to work together and present a united front that the Japanese actually took us seriously,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan. The trade disputes between Japan and Europe over cars and video cassette recorders (“whoever remembers VCRs”) in 1982 and 1983 were one of the first moments of collective action among EU members, which dramatically changed the way the Japanese looked at the European market.

Nevertheless, the challenge continues to the present day. “Scale will count in the 21st century,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan, invoking the warning of former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The story of the European Union first began as a narrative about peace and reconciliation after World War II, and then an economic narrative during the creation of the Single Market, and more recently bringing the continent back together following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ambassador O’Sullivan said Europe and the World must be the narrative for the 21st century: “How does the Union actually influence the world in a way that projects EU values and defends EU interests?”

Despite the current stresses and strains on the European system, Ambassador O’Sullivan remains an optimist, inspired by the perspective his years of service has given him and the progress he has seen.

“I remember what European political cooperation was like in the 70s,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan and explained the “traveling circus” that was the Commission at the time, which at best could deliver a block of votes in the United Nations.

Now, he said, coordinating with Brussels is a matter of course for member states. Votes in the UN bring not just the 28 EU members, but most of the associated and regional nations as well. He also highlighted the EU’s work in the Middle East Quartet, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran, and sanctions against Russia as recent examples of a Europe moving forward united and always towards more coordination, even when individual member states may at times have differing perspectives.

“It’s not a harmonizer. It’s not a single policy. It’s a common policy,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan. “One of the myths about the European Union that I sometimes get angry about is this notion that somehow it’s this huge homogenizing force that is turning everyone into some amorphous, homo europaeus or something. This is not true.”

Integration and coordination will progress only on the basis of outcomes. In this way, Ambassador O’Sullivan believes that the European Union is built as a complex, but effective system best suited to the needs of its citizens.

Embracing complexity is not only important for integrating a supranational and intergovernmental politico-economic union, but also for integrating our own sense of self.

An Irish birth, a European career that has taken him to Asia and back again, and a bit of American pop culture are some of the many layers that constitute Ambassador David O’Sullivan, but none have shaped his worldview as much as his father’s career as a member of the Irish military and United Nations Peacekeeper. As a result, from a young age, Ambassador O’Sullivan was exposed to “the concept of the international community, to intervening in other parts of the world, a sense of global responsibility.”

“And I think that really probably is the most important influence on my outlook.”

One more question for Ambassador O’Sullivan…

Do you have a favorite pop or rock album?

My choice of favorite album of all time is very predictable and boring, but I’m afraid it’s Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. It probably has to do with the moment you first hear these things. I have lots of other albums I love, but if I have one that I would go back to listen to time and time again it’s that.

n.b. Ambassador O’Sullivan is a Member of the Diplomatic Advisory Council of The Congressional Study Groups.

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