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US Ambassador to Britain champions listening as key to diplomacy

Matthew Barzun, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, speaks during a conversation on how today's diplomats can foster connections in a post-Cold War climate of global uncertainty and strife. Mohammad Al Wazzan, SSH’12, L’16, president of Northeastern's Young Global Leaders, moderated the event, held on the 17th floor of East Village on Thursday. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Matthew Barzun, U.S. ambassador to Britain, told a standing-room-only audience at Northeastern’s East Village Thursday night that baking an apple pie was simple, but not easy.

Each step—peeling the apples, rolling the dough—is important, but requires time, effort, and patience. Such, he said, is global diplomacy.

“It’s simple, and hard, and repetitive, and meaningful,” Barzun said of diplomacy, echoing a similar sentiment he said he expressed during the toast at his brother’s wedding. “Listening is policy. If you listen, people hear you differently.”

 

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Barzun led a spirited conversation about the current state of diplomacy at the event, titled, “21st Century Diplomacy: Housekeeping, Bridge Building, and Apple Pie.” Mohammad Al Wazzan, SSH’12, L’16, president of Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders, moderated the discussion. Al Wazzan is a partner at the private equity firm Valia Investments.

In addition to the full house at East Village, more than 1,000 people tuned in to a Facebook live stream of the discussion, many of whom used the social media platform to ask their own questions of Barzun.

Barzun, a native of Lincoln, Massachusetts, told the audience a story about one day just before he took office as ambassador to Sweden. He met with Obama and asked for any advice the president had for a first-time diplomat.

Listening is policy. If you listen, people hear you differently.
—Matthew Barzun, U.S. Ambassador to Britain

“‘Well, Matthew, listen,’” Barzun recalled the president saying. Thinking it was the start of a list of advice, Barzun was poised to write it all down.

“He didn’t say anything else, and that’s when I realized his advice was simply to listen,” Barzun said. It’s advice he’s carried throughout his ambassadorships.

Barzun has traveled to 156 high schools across the United Kingdom, meeting with more than 19,000 18-year-olds in that timespan to gauge both what frustrates and inspires them about the U.S. His approach of openness and outreach is revolutionary in a post that has traditionally been driven by hierarchy and protocol.

On Thursday, he was met with questions from people largely concerned about the state of global relations and particularly the ratcheting-up of nationalist, isolationist discourse both domestically and abroad fostered in part by the current presidential election.

Though Barzun’s position as ambassador requires him to be apolitical, he said, “The unease you’re feeling is exactly the same unease I’m feeling. That’s why I wanted to spend tonight talking about how we can build bridges and not burn them down. It’s hard to do, and it takes a lot of work, and we need to spend more time talking about how we can do more of it.”

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Al Wazzan asked Barzun specifically about Brexit—the intention of the U.K. to withdraw from the European Union as the result of a June referendum vote—and how it might have impacted the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K.

Barzun noted that the vote was a domestic matter in the United Kingdom, and as such, not one in which the foreign diplomats actively engaged. They were often asked for their opinion on the matter, however.

“The way I’ve always explained it was that we valued a strong U.K. within a strong EU,” Barzun said, “and now that the vote turned out the way it did, we value a strong U.K. and a strong EU. Regardless, our special relationship will be intact.”

Barzun began his political career in 2008, when he joined then-Sen. Barack Obama’s fundraising team during his first bid for the White House. Prior to that role, he worked for the technology news and reviews website CNET for 11 years, during a pioneering time in the internet’s history.

Barzun was appointed U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2009 to 2011, before becoming national finance chairman for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid. Then, in 2013, Obama appointed Barzun to his current ambassadorship, an office considered to be the most prestigious position in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Given his unique perspective drawn from experience in both technology and politics, Barzun was asked more than once about the internet’s impact on global events as well as our perception of those events.

“I strongly believe the power of the internet is a much more positive thing than a negative thing,” he said, adding, however, that it can be a place where “fear spreads quickly.”

Relating that to the scare tactics employed by terrorists, Barzun said, “We can control whether we’re terrorized. That’s a choice each of us can make: to be freaked out, or to be resilient.”

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