An Interview with Daniel Shields, U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam

Brunei Daniel ShieldsDaniel Shields III was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam on March 28, 2011. Prior to this posting, Shields, who is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, served as Director of the Office of Mainland Southeast Asia at the State Department. Shields has also served as the Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore from 2007-2010, as well as Political Minister Counselor at U.S. Embassy Beijing from 2004 to 2007 and Political Section Deputy at U.S. Embassy Tokyo from 2002 to 2004. Prior to these postings, Shields served at Consulate Nagoya and Embassy Manila, and has also served in Washington D.C. as Economic Deputy in the Office of China and Mongolia, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and as a Cambodia Desk Officer. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Shields earned a B.S. in international relations from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and later received an M.S. from the National War College.   

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I grew up outside Philadelphia and my family had a high level of interest in public service and international relations. Those were things I wanted to get involved in in my career, but I can’t say I had a lot of experience living in other countries growing up. We were very rooted in that one place, but I had an older brother who had the opportunity to study abroad in Austria and he came back from that experience and told me how much he enjoyed it and what he got out of it. And I think that kind of inspired me to pursue an international career. When I was applying for colleges and universities, I went to Georgetown School of Foreign Service and I had the opportunity then to work part-time at the State Department. The person I was working for was an economist for the State Department, and he is blind, so I worked for him as a reader. That was how I got my first experience working for the State Department. I enjoyed the experience very much and I thought I’d find a way to pursue that, so when I graduated from college I took the Foreign Service exam and was able to pass, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

The Politic: Were you motivated by patriotism?

Absolutely, I think it’s important for every young person to serve the country if he or she can. There are obviously different ways to serve your country, depending on what your particular talents are, but for me, I was interested in international aspects of things and I was interested in persuasion and trying to find ways to resolve problems between countries peacefully. And so for me, the Foreign Service was easily the best way for me to serve our country.

The Politic: What are the greatest challenges you’ve had working in the Foreign Service?

I think working in the Foreign Service has one thing that is both a great advantage and a great disadvantage. You start over every few years. You move to a different country every couple of years and you have to make new contacts, you have to figure out a new environment. You are trying to advance American interests and values at all times but the context in which you are trying to do that changes every couple of years. It keeps it fresh, it keeps it exciting, but it also makes it quite difficult and challenging.

The Politic: Out of curiosity, are there any ambassadors who stay with one country for more than one term consecutively?

In the U.S., we don’t really have that ordinarily. There are cases where political appointees in particular might remain in the country for a long time. It is quite rare but it is possible. For example, one of my early assignments was to the embassy in Tokyo. At that time our Ambassador was Mike Mansfield, who was a legendary figure. He was a former Senator and he ended up staying in place for eleven years. That’s quite unusual; you rarely see a case like that.

The Politic: What sparked your interest in East Asia and South-East Asia in particular?

Well, when I was a college student it was the early 80s, and everyone started to focus on Japan and the Japanese economic miracle, so I began to be interested in East Asia around that time. A lot of the things you see today with the focus on China and India – you could really see the roots of that in the early 80s. So I was quite interested in East Asia and I was lucky enough to get my first assignment in Manila, and that happened right around the transition between Marcos and Aquino. The people power demonstrations and so on. We were all going out to the streets of Manila to find out what was going on, and that really got me hooked on Asia.

The Politic: My next question is about the importance of Brunei geopolitically. I know you’ve had Secretary Kerry over there and you have had a large Asian forum. Among the American public, very few people probably know that much about the history of Brunei, so how important is it for American interests that excellent relations are maintained with Brunei, and I think more interestingly, what evolving role do you see Brunei and its neighbors playing in the international community?

I have certainly enjoyed getting to know more about Brunei through my interactions with the country, and I would encourage people in the United States to take the time to learn more about Brunei. The relationship with Brunei goes back to 1845 when the USS Constitution first visited Brunei. Our countries signed a Treaty of Friendship and Trade in 1850, which is still in effect today. We enjoy excellent relations with Brunei right across the range of political, cultural, and military issues. We have a couple of hundred Americans working in Brunei, many of whom are involved in energy-related ventures. This year Brunei is playing a particularly important role as the Chair of ASEAN. So this is a really big year for U.S.-Brunei relations.

Brunei’s doing a good job as the Chair of ASEAN, focusing on making ASEAN a stronger organization. One of the things that the United States and Brunei are working on together is the Brunei-U.S. project for English language enrichment in ASEAN. It’s a $25 million, five-year program. Basically, students who are from [the countries of] ASEAN come first to the University Brunei Darussalam, UBD. They study English here, and then they proceed onto the East-West Center in Hawaii for a few more weeks to continue their English language studies. The idea of this is that English is really a key to ASEAN; it’s the common language of ASEAN. So to the extent that you are going to have a strong ASEAN [in which] Cambodians and the people from Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, and the Philippines will be able to communicate with each other, they have to be able to do it in English. That is an example of an interesting program where the United States and Brunei are able to collaborate.

A few other interesting things we are working on with Brunei: There’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. Brunei is one of the partners, along with us, in that negotiation. It’s a very ambitious effort to open up trade between our country and the other partners that will help create jobs through exports from the United States. I could go on and on. Brunei has been a strong advocate for free navigation, and it is working to advance itself.

On environmental issues, Brunei has very rich energy resources, and they have used the wealth that enters the country to be extremely careful with protecting the environment. The rainforest on the island of Borneo — where Brunei is located — is one of the oldest and most pristine rainforests on earth. The part in Brunei is beautifully preserved, and I would encourage anyone who has the chance to get out here and take a look at the beautiful rainforest in general. Also, Brunei is the first country in the world that has banned all trade in sharks. It’s a very green-minded country that’s trying to protect its very beautiful, natural environment.

The Politic: Secretary Kerry recently made some remarks about Brunei’s environmental credentials. It sounds like, next year, you’ve got a lot on your hands.

Absolutely, we’re going to be very busy. We’ve got a small Embassy here, and we are supporting a lot of visits by very senior U.S. officials…quite challenging, but we’re getting a lot of help. People from Washington, and from around the region, [are] coming in to help us and to make it happen. It is, again, quite exciting for us to be in the middle of the action on that.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?

In my seat here, the overwhelming factor has been this ASEAN year. It has thrust Brunei into a leadership position. It has given us a great opportunity to jumpstart U.S.-Brunei engagement. U.S.-Brunei relations have always been very friendly; we’ve never had any problems with Brunei. But in terms of really working together to help solve specific problems, things have advanced quite a bit, and I think a lot of it is in connection with Brunei’s increased visibility as the host of ASEAN this year. We already talked a bit about the English language project, but we’re doing similar things with Brunei, and in this particular case also with Indonesia. The U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Energy Partnership [is] to help spread sustainable access to energy all around the Asia Pacific region. Brunei is playing a leading role in that as the Chair of ASEAN this year. Indonesia is playing a leading role as the Chair of APEC, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. So that’s another interesting example. But the thing that has made this enhanced cooperation possible is all of the visibility associated with Brunei chairing ASEAN this year.

The Politic: It seems like it is [Brunei’s] first really big entry into the ASEAN policy arena. It sounds very interesting indeed.

Yes, they are doing a great job leading ASEAN this year.

The Politic: My next question is more economics-based. Basically, the majority of Brunei’s economic wealth is completely contingent on its energy resources. As far as I’m aware, at current extraction rates, [the resources] will probably last no longer than a few decades. I was wondering about what kind of policies, if any, the United States puts in place to help encourage Brunei to diversify its economic base? What do you think are the main challenges posed by this transition, which is obviously going to happen?

It is true that Brunei’s energy resources are finite, as any country’s energy resources are. But I have to give the Brunei government a lot of credit for recognizing that reality and for making a lot of efforts to move in the direction of diversifying the economy. Brunei is the largest net exporter of oil and gas in Southeast Asia. Most of its exports are natural gas, or LNG [liquefied natural gas]. It produces approximately 140,000 barrels of oil per day. Brunei is hoping to increase production in the coming years, through a combination of opening the reserves and using new technology to extract more oil from older reserves. But still, Brunei remains focused on diversifying its energy mix beyond gas, and aims to generate 15 percent of total power from renewable sources by 2015. Part of that is green-mindedness; part of that is just self-interest. The more that Brunei can meet its own energy needs through renewable resources, the more it can export oil and gas. They are particularly interested in exploring solar energy.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Civil Society Members in Brunei (July 2, 2013)
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Civil Society Members in Brunei (July 2, 2013)

The Brunei government fully understands that it can’t run its economy on oil and gas forever. It is actively diversifying its industries. One of the things they are working hard on is trying to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have worked a lot with the government of Brunei in that effort to encourage a more entrepreneurial perspective among its young people. I would encourage U.S. companies to look for opportunities in Brunei. As Brunei addresses these issues and tries to diversify its economy, there can be opportunities for U.S. companies. There are some U.S. companies that have been here in Brunei for a long time, like Citi on the financial side, or companies like Halliburton or Baker Hughes on the services side. Although the market is not big – it has a population of 400,000 people – it is a wealthy place, and it is a place where you are giving the opportunities to companies that can help the government and people of Brunei achieve their objectives with regards to diversifying the economy.

The Politic: As far as I am aware – and please correct me if I’m wrong here — Brunei is a constitutional sultanate. What do you find are the challenges of working with a system that is so different from the United States, and what do you think are some of the benefits of dealing with such a system?

Well, it certainly is an honor to serve in Brunei for the United States. It has been a stable, secure nation since its independence in 1984. His Majesty the Sultan and his Majesty’s government are very committed to building strong, bilateral mutual ties. I would say the unique feature of it is that it’s a very centralized system, and this can accelerate the decision-making process on issues. His Majesty the Sultan has entrusted key sectors — such as international trade regulations, energy, defense, finance — to experienced and qualified ministers. I get to meet with them. I think we are able to have frank conversations about any issues that we need to discuss in that manner. We regularly engage in all kinds of issues such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. He is definitely a very popular and even beloved monarch. So I think that is the key to the system. The important thing for us is to stay aligned with what the people of Brunei want. I think the system very much enjoys the support of the people in Brunei.

The Politic: Brunei got independence from the British in 1984, I believe. Do you happen to know how attitudes towards the sultanate have changed since 1984 to the present?

I don’t really have that historical perspective. I don’t really know too much about what was happening here in 1984, other than what I’ve been able to read about it. The resources in that regard are fairly limited in terms of what you can find about popular attitudes in Brunei in 1984. Certainly, looking at the current situation, His Majesty is very much supported by the population. And my sense is that this is something that is pretty deeply rooted in Brunei’s history and goes quite far back. The current system, with a sultan ruling Brunei, goes back hundreds of years, so I don’t get the sense that it is something that has changed very much in the period since full independence in 1984. The government here, led by His Majesty the Sultan, is very careful to share the wealth and people in Brunei enjoy lots of benefits — health care, housing, education, and fuel. So people in Brunei enjoy a good life. They have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and remarkable economic and political stability. So it is very much a situation where the government enjoys the support of the people.

The Politic: The United States has a de facto policy of encouraging political freedoms and democratization around the world. Brunei has a parliament, but it does not hold any elections. It seems to be a country that, in the loosest sense, does not hold a form of government compatible with the ideals of the United States. So to what extent do you think the United States is becoming more tolerant of states with different political aspirations, especially in such exceptional cases such as Brunei? And how, if at all, are you personally expected to promote democratization as an ambassador?

In his Cairo speech, President Obama said that no system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other. America is willing to work with governments that reflect the will of the people. It is the role of the Brunei people, not the United States, to define Brunei’s political system. We are proud to demonstrate our values and the benefits of the American system of government, but at the same time we listen to the desires of the Bruneians with regards to their own country and we align ourselves accordingly. I think the key for us is to keep ourselves aligned with what the people in Brunei want. I’ve been out here now for about two years, and I have the strong sense that the system of government in Brunei really enjoys the support of the people.

The Politic: That is very much the impression that I get as well. My next question is: apart from this massive economic transition that Brunei sounds like it has taken care of, what are some of the greatest challenges facing Brunei at this moment, of any form?

Right, well I guess this is related to the transition issue. I do feel that an important challenge facing Brunei and many countries around the world, including the United States, is figuring out how to ensure that young people who are entering the labor market can find appropriate employment. As Brunei grows it is addressing the challenge of ensuring that it has the local talent — that it can meet growing demands — for everything, from construction workers to IT professionals to CEOs. But it needs to make sure that there is a proper match between the kind of employment opportunities that are available and the kind of personnel that the educational system is producing. To a certain extent, Brunei has always been open to bringing in workers from outside to fill in any gaps — either at the high end with skilled professionals, or in terms of ordinary laborers. But Brunei has put a big premium on ensuring that it can find appropriate opportunities for its own young people, especially in the energy sector.

I admire the way that the government is working very systematically to encourage its young people to pursue careers in those areas, and then ensure that they have the education and the training that they need so that they are qualified to fill these positions. I think that as we look around the world, and as technology advances and a number of employment opportunities that people traditionally have had can be performed by computers or robots, I think that every nation will have to figure out how it is going to find appropriate employment opportunities for its young people. And Brunei is no exception, but they are certainly working hard to address that challenge.

The Politic: Which aspects of the United Nations concern you the most? Which aspects do you think are worth supporting and promoting to an even greater extent?

In U.S.-Brunei relations, United Nations issues normally revolve around particular votes that might come up at the UN where the United States will seek Brunei’s support, or maybe if there is a position that is opening we might seek Brunei’s support. Brunei has traditionally been very much in line with the Non-Aligned Movement and ASEAN positions on UN issues, but increasingly we’re finding opportunities where the United States and Brunei can find ways to vote together at the UN. For example, on Syria issues the United States and Brunei have been very like-minded.

The Politic: How do you promote U.S. economic, political, and cultural interests and values in Brunei?

That is definitely a huge part of our job here. Any U.S. embassy has to do its best to explain and promote U.S. interests and values. We try to use the full range of diplomatic tools that we have available. Certainly public diplomacy is a critical part of that. It also involves economic statecraft and military-to-military engagement. We are very much keen on articulating U.S. values, introducing the standards of training and humanitarian assistance, and promoting free market practices.

In the case of Brunei, as we talked about, the population is not very big; there are about 400,000 people living here. It is actually quite practical in a place like Brunei to do a lot of retail engagement where we can meet people and talk with them about these things. One thing that makes our job easier here in Brunei is that U.S. interests and values tend to align in many areas with the interests and values of Brunei, so that gives us a good entrée into these issues. Of course there are naturally going to be issues where there are differences, but we can talk about that frankly as well with our Brunei counterparts.

The Politic: Do you feel there are any areas where we could be doing better in our obligations abroad?

We can always do better. We have to look at that everyday – not just in U.S.-Brunei relations, but also in our foreign policy. When we see areas where we are not doing as well as we should, we need to intensify our efforts. In the case of Brunei, a few years ago we realized that we could do more with Brunei, and we really stepped up our efforts. We formally opened our new embassy about two years ago. It’s got to be a constant process: you have a general idea of where you want to go with your foreign policy, what your interests are, and how to promote them. But you need to constantly take stock, see where you can do better, and then adjust your course.

The Politic: Generally speaking, how do you think that Americans are viewed abroad? How do you think that we represent ourselves, and what kind of image are we trying to portray? Are there any elements of U.S. foreign policy that you would want to change?

Royal Brunei and U.S. sailors salute aboard the USS Tortuga (May 10, 2010)
Royal Brunei and U.S. sailors salute aboard the USS Tortuga (May 10, 2010)

The perception here in Brunei of the United States is very positive. I guess that’s a better question to ask the people of Brunei than me, but I certainly never run into obstacles where I’m dealing with some entrenched, negative perception of the United States. That’s not the case here. People in Brunei have a positive perception of the United States and see us as a good partner with whom they would like to engage. There is a lot of interest here in trade and in expanding our trade ties through things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There has also always been a lot of exchange between the United States and Brunei on energy issues, but there is a realization that we can do more together in the energy area.

Because of Brunei’s very strong, historic ties with the UK, when Bruneians study abroad they think first of the UK. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that very strong UK-Brunei relationship is something that’s good for the region and good for the world. At the same time, we want to encourage Bruneian students to look to opportunities to study at U.S. universities. University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD) has been really trying to expand its contacts with U.S. universities. In fact, there is some Yale involvement with UBD on rainforest-related research. UBD has included memorandums of understanding with U.S. universities including the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan. There are more Brunei students who are studying in the United States; there is a very positive trend there and we’d like to continue that. Granted, we’re starting from a pretty low base, but we’ve got over one hundred Brunei students in the United States now. I think those numbers can continue to grow.

ASEAN is a classic example: both the United States and Brunei want a strong, independent ASEAN. Brunei definitely sees the United States as a good partner in helping to ensure the coherence of ASEAN. Brunei is very much welcome to the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, but the Bruneians understand that this rebalancing can’t all be about the military. There is a military component to it, but it should also very much involve the economic, educational, business, science and technology, and environmental aspects. Brunei has been a great partner for us as we sought to rebalance in that comprehensive way to the Asia-Pacific region.

The Politic: How do you determine where your next assignment will be?

Basically the way that it works is that we look around the world, and there is a list of what positions will be opening up at a particular time. Of course you are looking for jobs that are at the right level in terms of seniority. In some cases, if there’s a language requirement for a particular job, you might be looking for a job where you already speak the language or where there’s enough time for you to learn the language at an appropriate level before you have to get out there.

So I would say that it’s kind of like a bidding or a market system where there’s a list of what jobs are available, and then the individual officer will express preferences in terms of which of those positions he or she is most interested in. And then the central personnel system tries to make a match so that you get the appropriate officer in the appropriate position.

The Politic: Thank you so much for your time. 

I’m certainly happy to have the opportunity to encourage students to consider Foreign Service careers. I think it is a great career, and I have enjoyed it very much. It is a very unique career, and it opens the door to such an extraordinary range of experiences.

One thing that is coming up here in Brunei is the Hari Raya holiday. During Hari Raya in Brunei, you visit the homes of the Bruneians; in fact, you can even go to the palace to visit His Majesty the Sultan and shake hands. Ordinary citizens can do that. It is a pretty extraordinary opportunity. You can go to the homes of people like His Majesty the Sultan or ministers in government, meet them and their families, have a conversation, and get to know them as people. I probably just wouldn’t be aware of it if it were not for the Foreign Service. So I think the most extraordinary thing about a Foreign Service career is the experiences it opens the door to. You can have a career where you are serving your country and at the same time you are having an extraordinary array of experiences. So I very much encourage people to consider that possibility.

The Politic: Do you have any final comments?

I would encourage Americans to come out and visit Brunei. It is a very interesting place — not that well known among Americans, but that is changing fast. With the East Asia Summit coming up in October, I think Brunei’s profile will become higher. If you are interested in rainforests, the kind of Islamic practice in Southeast Asia, the energy business — there are a lot reasons Brunei could be quite intriguing for Americans to visit.  It has a very friendly, gracious, polite, and welcoming culture, so I definitely encourage Americans to visit Brunei.


Embassy of the United States to Brunei:

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