An Interview with David Huebner, U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa

New Zealand david huebnerA native of Pennsylvania and longtime resident of California, David Huebner is a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University, where he studied at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also a graduate of the Yale Law School.  Before being posted to New Zealand and Samoa, Huebner was a partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, where he headed the law firm’s China Practice and International Disputes Practice. He has chaired the California Law Revision Commission, served as president of the Los Angeles Quality & Productivity Commission, and was a founding board member and general counsel of the national Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Huebner has been an arbitrator for many years at the Willem Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moots in Vienna and Hong Kong. The ambassador is an avid fan of rugby and U.S. college football.

The Politic: What exactly does your job entail as ambassador to New Zealand?

First of all, just so you are aware of the background, I am separately accredited to New Zealand and to the independent state of Samoa. We have an embassy in the capital of those two countries, as well as a consulate in Auckland and our polar programs in Christchurch. In addition to the countries of Samoa and New Zealand, I also cover the Cook Islands and Niue, two Pacific Island Nations who are in a free association with New Zealand for foreign affairs. So that is really my purview: New Zealand, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Antarctica. As ambassador, I have a variety of functions. There are actually five:

One is to conduct the traditional diplomacy that embassies still conduct, which is communicating between the two governments — passing information, seeking information, working on joint projects, etc. That involves a good bit of contact with members of the government as well as the Parliament here as well as in Samoa.

Number two: there is a significant commitment in our embassies to public diplomacy, which is engagement with ordinary citizens of the countries we are stationed in. And that is really the big focus of my two embassies here, for reasons we can discuss later if you like.

Number three: I engage in a significant amount of economic diplomacy, which is attempting to increase the business and investment relationships of the host country that I am stationed in.

Number four: these days, being an ambassador is really a CEO position; Secretary Clinton really emphasized that changing dynamic. I spend a good deal of my time managing what in the U.S. would be a medium-size business with a footprint that includes four facilities, several hundred staff, and a meaningful budget.

And finally, number five is actually the most important function of any American embassy. That is to attend to any needs of Americans in our territory and to deal with any entry into the United States of non-Americans. I supervise our American citizen services and our immigration services that are conducted from our consulate. So it is a very broad and diverse portfolio, and not just for me here but for most of our ambassadors around the world.

The Politic: As you mentioned, that’s a very broad purview. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being an ambassador?

I have to caveat this (as a Yale Law grad, I am very focused on my caveats), and the caveat is that I have only been posted here in these two embassies. My view is derived from this single set of experiences. For me, the biggest challenge is actually an institutional one: taking a very esteemed, ancient set of institutional structures that have served the United States well for 237 years or so and adapt within my own jurisdictions those procedures and structures to modern needs and modern priorities. In some ways, it is a re-engineering challenge. It is easy in any bureaucracy to focus on the challenges of 20 years ago and to keep doing what seems to have always worked. As a private sector person, I am focused on constant revision and adaptation. I say it is a challenge not because there’s any great resistance, but because that kind of adaptation is not necessarily something that is taught in large bureaucracies.

Let me give you an example; it is something that is small, but instructive. Like many of our embassies, we had an American Resource Center. It’s a library, with books, where members of the public could come and read about the United States. That is a great idea; it remains a great idea in parts of the world. In more developed parts of the world, it is not particularly useful or necessary because fewer and fewer people are actually reading books. They are getting their information in other ways.

We had an American Resource Center, fully staffed here with lots of books. What we ended up doing was decommissioning the library and building a Digital Video Studio. So what we now have instead of a library is a high quality, almost professional quality, video studio where we can produce content for our social media platforms. We can do interviews with visiting officials and other VIPs and we can bring our students from university or high school in to do programming for us. That is an adaptation and it is a powerful adaption to how the world is currently configured. It takes a good bit of argument time and a good bit of resource entrepreneurship to do something like that, that I am not sure has been done before. There are challenges, but it is also invigorating to work with a team adapting in those kinds of new ways.

The Politic: On that note, I have read up on your embassy and you really seem to be leaders in things like social media outreach and using technology in a 21st century brand of diplomacy. Can you talk about that?

I tend to instinctively resist buzzwords and taglines because they get distorted with their use. I think among the buzzwords and taglines, “21st century statecraft” is actually a very serious, substantive, meaty one. We have embraced it here at the mission wholeheartedly. We have embraced it because it allows us to reach potential constituents and stakeholders who would never come to an embassy and who the embassy would never be able to reach otherwise. It also allows us to refine our messaging and to engage in an interactive way rather than a broadcast way with people.

Shortly after I arrived, we went all-in on this. I encountered a surprisingly tiny budget for the work we are expected to do. A country that is of a modest size but is quite spread out in terms of population and some reputational challenges because the embassy had a somewhat musty-dusty reputation — the 21st century statecraft allowed us to address all of those challenges and to break through the barriers of proximity, or lack of proximity, with some of our stakeholders.

What do all those words mean? What I’m trying to say is not so much adapt as do a blank sheet exercise and construct what we thought an embassy in the 21st century should look like. That blank sheet exercise led to a quick conclusion that we should be embracing all social media platforms that there is value in given our size. It would not simply advance our mission to do this kind of work, but it would allow us to reorganize our own workplace — make the work more fun, more interesting, and more attractive to the people we were hoping to recruit.

Specifically, the 21st century statecraft project began with two things. First, I formed American ambassador advisor groups at each of the universities in New Zealand so that we would be able to reach future generations directly. Most embassies spend all of their time, it seems to be, with straight, white, successful business guys over 55. In any country, that is a relatively small part of the population, but it gets the attention for obvious and natural reasons. Our view was, given the work we wanted to do, we needed to start building relations with future generations and go straight to the source.


The second thing we focused on was starting to build a test capacity for social media platforms. We went from having a single Twitter feed and a website to having multiple feeds, multiple Facebook pages, including private ones for different stakeholder groups. I have started blogging, which I have kept up for more than three years, multiple times a week. We launched a sports diplomacy blog, which my staff writes. We have, in beta, a science diplomacy blog, which I’m very excited about. When a new platform comes along, like Instagram, we grab it first and we test it and we advise the State Department on what’s working or not working. We have done that with Pinterest as well. Those are the two pillars of 21st century engagement for us: the future leader and youth outreach and social media outreach.

Since then, it has expanded into a variety of other areas, and we’ve deepened and refined what we are doing. We have a philosophy of experiment, operationalize, institutionalize. We experiment with a lot of things. The things that clearly are not working we bury in the backyard pretty quickly and we try to operationalize the others. Once we have a period of operationalization, we consider ways for the things that are high-impact, producing results, to institutionalize them so that they survive any changes in personnel. We are in the institutionalization phase of most of our experiments at the moment.

The Politic: It sounds like you guys are really leading the charge. I am going to pivot now to some more questions based on the evolving relationship between the United States and New Zealand, questions that you are uniquely qualified to answer. There’s been a recently proposed free trade agreement between New Zealand and America. Can you speak on that?

It is a very exciting development because it is much larger in ambition than a normal free trade agreement. It is not a bilateral effort; in fact, it is now a very large multilateral effort. The Trans-Pacific partnership is intended to build free trade and 21st century economic relations across a broad swath of the American, Pacific, and Asian regions. In a way, that reflects how economic engagement occurs in the 21st century: lay down consensus rules and procedures and infrastructure that will allow other nations, as they wish, to join. That is a very ambitious and very exciting project.

We are particularly focused on it because it is an ambitious deal in terms of content. That is why it is taking a bit of time to negotiate; it is already been through 15 rounds. As the rounds proceed, additional countries express an interest in signing on. Mexico and Canada are now engaged, Japan is expressing an interest, because of what the deal, when it is accomplished will produce for its member countries.

Now, when I say it is an ambitious deal, what I am talking about is that many trade deals are actually, in my view, 19th century trade deals. They deal with tariffs and subsidies, which are two important, but narrow issues that have been around for a couple hundred years. When you look at trade deals, they often only deal with tariff reduction and subsidy reduction or modification. What the TPP is trying to do is to inject the modern issues of intellectual property protection, cross-border investment, behind the border regulation, environmental guarantees, minimum labor guarantees — a range of sophisticated and modern trade deals. When concluded, it will be a very good result for all countries involved, in part because there is such a huge percentage of world trade passing through the Pacific region and there is no indigenous multilateral trade architecture. This architecture would fill a gap generally and help ensure stability within what is the most important trading region on the planet. That stability is good for everyone on the planet, not just the signatories.

The Politic: On that note, would you consider the United States’ relationship with New Zealand to be especially important? If so, why?

The American-New Zealand relationship has always been warm and deep and it is always been important. New Zealand and the U.S. have shared civic values, aspirations, and the same view of engagement in the world. That is why we’ve been such close partners for such an extended period of time. The relationship is even more important at this point because the world is moving more quickly with technological advances. The world is becoming more complex and in a complex, multipolar world, it is important for societies with common values and worldviews to work together as closely as they can.

There is a second point that is subsumed in that: both New Zealand and the U.S. have a particular interest in the Pacific. We are both Pacific nations and we both have a strong interest in working to ensure continued stability and to increase prosperity in the Pacific, specifically the Pacific Islands. The partnership between the United States, New Zealand and Australia is important to our shared goals in dealing with the challenges that our Pacific neighbors face. We do work very well together on that and we’re working on improving our communication.

I just got back from ten days in Samoa, where Pacific Partnership 2013 was stopping. Since the South Asia tsunami and earthquake many years ago, our Pacific fleet has organized a three-month humanitarian mission every summer which does disaster preparedness, interoperability work in six or seven of the island nations. We do that in cooperation with our partners. This year, the deputy commander of the mission, working off the USS Pearl Harbor, was a Kiwi. We had a French ship and French marines with us as we did the construction and disaster preparedness projects across Samoa. Having the U.S. and our other regional partners working that way advances the interest we all have in uplifting our neighbors and preparing to work together more efficiently when disaster strikes. The reality is, on such a big planet, nobody can guarantee that they will be in the right place when one of our neighbors needs help. Building this network of interoperable partners allows us to move more quickly and efficiently when the next problem occurs.

The Politic: That sounds like a very valuable and unique relationship. Can you give me one experience, person or event throughout your time in the Pacific region that has greatly influenced one of your policies? And how so?

Interesting question. I cannot give you a single name, but I will give you a small group. I launched my student advisor groups remotely before I arrived. I insisted in my first week at post that I wanted to meet with a group of students. I ended up taking twelve students from Victoria Wellington University to a pub here in Wellington. The twelve students and I went to the second floor room of the pub and ended up talking for four hours. It started off slowly because they all showed up in suits and ties, expecting a formal presentation. It took me a few minutes to loosen them up, but one of the skills I have refined as a lawyer is how to loosen people up and make them comfortable and I got them talking.

That four hours shaped a lot of my views on New Zealand, how I should be engaging in New Zealand, and what New Zealanders might really think. It was that encounter with that group that has been most influential on my work here in New Zealand. I stay in touch with all twelve of them and I continue to tap them for information and advice. I have encouraged some of my friends who are ambassadors elsewhere to do likewise. There is always the official version of things you get when you are engaging with the government. Being an American, I tend to discount the official versions of things unless I can triangulate them to people whose job it is to not state the official position. The more that we engage with the public, particularly young members of the public, about what they really believe on the issues, what they really think we should be doing as an embassy and what kinds of projects we should be developing with our Kiwi counterparts — unless we do all of that, I think we are missing a good bit of the opportunity to engage in a smart, effective way.

One of the many diplomatic pubs in Wellington
One of the many diplomatic pubs in Wellington

The Politic:  So it definitely sounds like a lot of diplomacy does not occur in just suits and ties.

Let me react to that point. There is still a good bit of diplomacy conducted that way — with suits, ties and, god forbid, cigars. There are a lot of people who would like it to remain this way; it’s controlled and it is a small group of people whose names you know. The reality is that’s not how the world works. Any serious student of diplomacy will realize there is no way to contain or control messaging, policy, and diplomacy. People need to recognize that the Internet, the proliferation of mobile phones, and the increasing inclusiveness of groups who had previously been excluded in society — all of those factors dramatically and necessarily change the way that diplomacy is conducted. That is a great thing, but there are always folks who resist that and view it as impure. I think it is the new normal and we just need to embrace it.

The Politic: My last question is: how do you feel that America is represented abroad and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

Well, those are two questions. I think that America is very well represented abroad. I came into the State Department with a clinical appreciation of it from a distance. Coming into the State Department, I have become even more impressed with the professionalism, the skill, the focus, and the sacrifices by many of the people who serve as Foreign Service Officers and locally engaged staff in our embassies. I do focus on entities other than the State Department as well. I think USAID and the Peace Corps perhaps present the best face of the United States overseas. It troubles me that both of them tend to periodically appear to be endangered species in terms of their funding. When I look at what the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Defense Department and others do overseas, I am very proud of how they present the face of the American people and represent American values. It is very easy to criticize any or all of those groups. They are easy targets because the work they do is difficult and there will always be mistakes. I think that objective observers should be awed by the skill and impact that they make.

In terms of policy, one of the challenges and joys of being an ambassador is that we are technically implementers rather than creators of policy. I tend to avoid policy questions because there are folks in Washington whose job it is to answer those types of questions. I do not want to dodge your question, so I will say as my answer that the policy that makes my work the most difficult is the contentiousness that tends to surround the funding of our agencies and our efforts abroad. If there were one thing I could change, I would change whatever the dynamic is that leads folks to undervalue what we do beyond our borders. In the modern world — with the interconnectivity, the way trade is developing — what occurs beyond our borders is of extreme importance to the health, welfare, prosperity and security of my fellow citizens who live within the United States. We need to be more clear-eyed and more generous in how we fund many of our overseas activities.


Embassy of the United States to New Zealand and Somoa:

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Published by Alex Petros

Alex Petros is a staff writer for The Politic from Lexington, Kentucky. Contact him at

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