21st Century Diplomacy: Housekeeping, Bridge-building and Apple Pie

Story by Mary Chen, chen.mary@husky.neu.edu

With the glow of Boston’s effervescent sunset streaming through East Village’s top floor windows, Matthew Barzun, the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, told a crowd of over a hundred students, professors, faculty and visiting scholars that diplomacy is a little like baking an apple pie — simple, but not easy.

Describing the tensions between both sides of the Atlantic as “a gulf that’s growing,” Barzun said that diplomacy in the 21st century is more important than ever. With the unease and fear that has diffused around the globe as some people question the international system and purpose of diplomacy, he emphasized the needs to talk and act in foreign affairs.

Barzun started his career in diplomacy in 2008 as part of then-Senator Barack Obama’s fundraising team. With his experience and background in the up-and-coming technology business, he produced small-dollar, highly successful grassroots fundraisers via online and media outlets. After serving as ambassador to Sweden from 2009-2011 and National Finance Chairman for Obama’s 2012 presidential re-election bid, Barzun was appointed in 2013 to the most prestigious position in the U.S. Foreign Service – ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Barzun painted a picture of the day before he took office as ambassador to Sweden. In a meeting with Obama, tense with nerves, he asked for any advice the president would give to a first-time diplomat.  

“Well, Matthew, listen,” the president responded, according to Barzun who reenacted how he eagerly grasped a pen and paper at the time to write it all down. Barzun then paused a few moments without saying anything, as the audience shifted forward in slight anticipation.

“And that’s all he said,” the ambassador laughed, recalling the way he’d waited for a lengthy speech. “He didn’t say anything else and I realized that was it. His advice was to just listen.”

Keeping with his point that listening is the key to diplomacy, Barzun drew an example using the “housekeeper game.” The purpose of the game is to highlight how implicit bias can cause people to interpret certain words in different ways. Barzun used a colleague’s example, in which a civilian group and law enforcement group were presented with the word “housekeeper”. The majority of civilians said “mother” while the majority of law enforcement officials said “thief.”

This revelation, Barzun said, caused him to reevaluate the modern strategy of diplomacy and the way he spoke to other countries’ officials. “Listening is policy,” Barzun said. “If you listen, people hear you differently.”

Barzun’s style of diplomacy has been described as revolutionary, as he prioritizes personal engagement, understanding and openness through extensive outreach programs, particularly to younger generations. Visiting over 19,000 seniors in more than 156 high schools in the United Kingdom, Barzun appealed to their perspectives of international relations and diplomacy by asking them what frustrated or inspired them about the United States. Words such as police brutality, obesity, racism and guns were among those that students expressed as frustrating, while words such as freedom, education, diversity and opportunity were among those painted as inspiring. In a position dictated by strict protocols and tradition, Barzun has been heralded as re-inventing diplomacy in an age wrought by fast-paced change.

A question and answer segment followed Barzun’s talk, moderated by Mohammad Al Wazzan, president of Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders and a recent Double Husky Law Graduate. Barzun skillfully navigated questions varying from his daily schedule to the impact of the digital age, as well as the increase in American nationalist and isolationist pressures resulting from difficulties with Russia and Syria.

In response to several questions about the global crises affecting the Middle East and eastern Europe, Barzun stressed the necessity of building bridges between nations. Unlike apple pie, the ambassador toted building bridges as the more difficult of the two strategies.

“You have to see yourself and where you stand and what you stand for,” he said.

While building bridges isn’t easy, maintaining already existing relationships is important to consider when forming international relations. Barzun commented on the nature of the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom in the wake of the political phenomenon known as Brexit, in which the United Kingdom separated from the European Union as a result of a June 2016 referendum. Barzun reassured the crowd that collaboration between the two nations has yet to change and most likely will not be impacted, given the situation was more domestic than international.

In fact, the ambassador stated that although the U.S. has always valued a strong U.K. within the EU, it’s now about working with a strong U.K. and a strong EU separately.

“Every day, millions of Americans wake up and go to work for British companies, and a million Brits wake up and go to work for American companies,” Barzun said. “We’ve had decades and decades of listening to build these commercial bonds and that won’t change.”

With the violent conflicts happening in the Middle East, a few students questioned Barzun: Is the answer to these dilemmas still diplomacy?

Barzun nodded vigorously.

“We are at our best as a country when we can be humble, but also self-critical and self-confident,” he said. “Diplomacy isn’t just winning arguments — it’s about listening.”