An Interview with Luis E. Arreaga, U.S. Ambassador to Iceland

A career Foreign Service officer, Iceland US AmbassadorLuis E. Arreaga was nominated by President Barack Obama as Ambassador to the Republic of Iceland on April 22, 2010. Previously, he led State Department efforts to recruit and hire the largest increase in Foreign Service personnel in the U.S. State Department history. Arreaga has also served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Panama, U.S. Consul General in Vancouver, Canada and as director of the Executive Secretariat Staff at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. He has also served as Deputy Director of the State Department´s Operations Center and Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Arreaga was born and raised in Guatemala before immigrating to the United States. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he received a Ph.D. in economics and a Masters Degree in Management.

The Politic: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, Mr. Ambassador.

It is nice to meet you and we are very grateful for your interest in us. We think we have a good story to tell, so any opportunity we have to tell that story we are grateful for. Particularly… the organization that you represent is very, very important to us from many different points of view. [It shows] interest in academia and in foreign affairs by young people, which means that there is interest in careers in foreign affairs, something that is very close to my heart. So it gives me an opportunity to talk about both.

The Politic: Why did you decide to join the Foreign Service?

Oh gosh. Well, my story is a little bit unusual. I was born and raised in Guatemala, and I went to college in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I have always been interested in working overseas. Initially, I thought I would do that by getting a degree in business and so on, but then I realized that I didn’t see myself working for a large multinational corporation overseas. I did not see anything wrong with that, but that just didn’t fit with my interest — which was more in the [realm] of the policy and public service.

Right out of college, I joined the United States Agency for International Development, which is the arm of the U.S. government that provides foreign assistance. After 11 years working as an economist, I decided that was fun and I wanted to stay in the Foreign Service. But I wanted to do the more traditional generalist work that the State Department does, so I joined the State Department.

The Politic: As an Ambassador, what are your day-to-day responsibilities? What does your average schedule look like?

Working in the Foreign Service, there is never a dull moment. There is always something new, something different, and we change from one day to the next. One day, I may be meeting with a group of businessmen who are interested in learning what our perspectives are on the economy in Iceland and what the investment environment is like. In the next hour I may be meeting with a group of young people who are interested in studying in the United States and want to hear about the U.S. My job is to meet with them, talk to them and tell them about the importance of the relationship between Iceland and the United States, and why we think it is important that they pursue studies in the U.S.

One other thing we are focusing on is outreach to people. Traditionally, embassies have been more focused on dealing with our counterparts in foreign governments, or maybe the business sector. But we believe that we need to do a lot of outreach to people. [We] try to reach out to people in many different ways and present the human face of the United States. We work for the government, and we want to share with them the basic notion that Americans, the people that we represent, are very similar to them. They have the same concerns, the same aspirations, the same fears, and this is the basis by which they should judge the United States. [They should not judge us] by the specific actions of the government, which are mostly right but occasionally not very right. We want them to think of us as people, not as this big country that has a big army and that is involved in many different parts of the world. We want them to think about us as a nation of people that are just like them and have our own day-to-day lives.

We do a lot of that by doing outreach through social media. We have a Facebook page, I write a blog, and we also use Twitter. We use social media to engage with the public on day-to-day issues so that they understand what we do and why we do it. We invite, for example, the youth wings of political parties just to have a conversation. We bring them to the residence and basically open the floor and say, “Ask us whatever you want to ask us. We know you have questions. We know that you disagree with some of the things that we do. We also know that you agree with some of the things that we do. So why don’t we have a conversation about it and try to understand our perspective.” We do a lot of that. We also try to do a lot of educational exchanges. Scientific cooperation is particularly big because Iceland has one of the best educational systems in the world. It is important for us to try to convince the Icelanders and Icelandic scientists to work with the U.S. And of course, what we do is only a tiny portion of what actually goes on at the universities.

Other institutions have their own ways of reaching out and we try to bring attention to it. We try to tell the Icelandic people to look at what our scientists can do with your scientists. We are working together to make this a better world, whether it is through medicine or research in geology, volcanology and geothermal energy. We work in a whole range of areas — and I think this is the sort of message that we try to convey. They should not just judge us by what they read in media, about what we are doing in Syria (the U.S. is talking about arming the rebels). I mean, that is an important part of what we do, but it is about more than what they read in the newspapers.

The Politic: What would you say the biggest challenges are of working for the Foreign Service? Also, what would you say is your favorite part? What do you find the most rewarding?

I like to think of the Foreign Service as not so much a career, not so much a job, but a journey. It is a perpetual lifelong journey of learning. Picture yourself: you are going to spend a good chunk of your life going from country to country. And every country is different; every culture is different. Every place you go, you are basically going cold. And the challenge is that you need to get inside the heads of your host country’s people to try to understand why is it they do what they do. In the process, you learn a lot about your host country’s culture and, more importantly, you learn a lot about yourself. [This is] because you can really hear the views of people who are not Americans and who have certain perspectives. You learn to see things about yourself that perhaps you would not have if you had remained in the U.S.

There is the challenge of understanding the culture and of living in a place that may not have the sorts of services (health, water, security) that you are accustomed to. So you have to learn to adapt. Sometimes, that can be difficult. I remember going [to El Salvador] and being worried about security, and being worried about the security of the children. My children actually used to get picked up in armored vehicles with guys carrying machine guns and shotguns. Now, if you think about it, that is kind of crazy. But the world was a little different then — we don’t do that anymore. We do not send families where they could potentially get hurt because we have learned over time. So that learning process is what we do.

Learning a foreign language and trying to communicate in a foreign language is another challenge. That is something I am experiencing here with Icelandic. I am trying to speak Icelandic — I think I do okay, but it is very hard. The other thing to appreciate is that you are taking an interest in their culture and making the effort to understand them. And that will change minds. That is the kind of thing that you do in the Foreign Service.

The downside, of course, is that you are never in one place for very long. If you have children, they have issues putting down roots. The children can sometimes develop an idealized vision of the United States because they don’t live there, and they think of the U.S. as this sort of Nirvana. When you are in the Foreign Service… your children are used to just having fun and going to exciting places, so it is sometimes hard for them to return. When they get to the U.S., they think they know it, but they may realize that they are outsiders. And it takes a little bit of time to learn the culture — so that is tough. That is a bit of the downside.

On the other hand, because you have moving from one culture to the next, the kids develop a set of skills that enables you to deal with anything that comes your way. You are never intimidated by anything; you can actually look at a challenge and have a good sense of how to deal with it. So our children tend to be a bit more mature because they are challenged from the beginning. That is on the family level. And then, of course, you are moving from place to place, which can sometimes get old. Moving doesn’t get any better with practice because you have more stuff to carry and more stuff to worry about and it is always hard to say goodbye. You make friends, and then you leave them. You have to go to a new place, but you don’t know anybody, so you need to start over again. Friendships have to develop, and that takes time.

The Politic: How does working in Iceland compare to your other overseas postings? I know that you have been in Peru, and El Salvador and Honduras, so how does Iceland compare?

Every place has its own set of challenges and opportunities. In Iceland, of course, the quality of life is pretty much second to none. Healthcare is fantastic and it is the safest country I have ever been in. I mean, it is so safe that I have to remind my colleagues: “You guys, don’t let your guard down completely.” You have to be a little bit worried — not because something is going to happen to us, but because you are in a place where you are basically soft targets. You have to be mindful of it without being paranoid. Iceland is a very unique country with a very compelling history. If you think about when the Vikings came here a thousand years ago, they carved out a living in a very inhospitable place. That has forged an Icelandic character that is fiercely independent and very entrepreneurial — so it is a very different kind of place.

For me, it was a completely different culture —it was a Western culture, [contrasting] my work in Latin America. Because I am Latin, it was pretty easy for me to get along there. But I had to start from scratch in Iceland. That said, it has been a fantastic experience working here. The set of issues that we have to deal with in Iceland have absolutely nothing to do with what I did in Spain or in Geneva. It is completely different. Here, we have the Arctic. Ten years ago, nobody was talking about the Artic, but it is now becoming one of the most strategically important areas of the world. The United States is trying to adjust to that and figure out how are we going to deal with this. What are some of the U.S. interests in the Arctic and how are we going to work with our Arctic partners to deal with those issues? How are we going to manage the environment? How are we going to manage shipping? How are we going to manage the extraction of natural resources and oil?

Drilling in the Arctic is a completely different game than drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — you know what happened in the Gulf of Mexico: we had that horrible spill. Considering the amount of pristine resources in the Arctic, it would be a catastrophe of enormous proportions if we do not do it right. Iceland is a world leader on geothermal energy — 80 percent of Iceland’s energy is from renewable resources. So this is a unique laboratory for the United States to learn about how they are using their resources. We work with them on geothermal energy and on researching issues like volcanology. Iceland’s volcanologists are among the most knowledgeable in the world because, of course, the country is literally on a bunch of active volcanoes. There are lots of opportunities for research.

Iceland is also interesting in the sense that it literally straddles both the American and the European side of [the ocean]. Culturally, you can think of Iceland as a place that is both European and North American in its values. It is interesting to deal with that because you think you understand it — given that they share some North American values, such as entrepreneurship or inventiveness. But then, when you start talking about issues such as social protection for society, they are very European. They believe that government should be the provider of social services, which works very well here. For us, it is an interesting time to try to understand how to treat and how to deal with them.

The Politic: How do you promote American economic, political and cultural interests in Iceland?

Okay, let’s start with economic interests. We believe that Iceland is a very important trading partner for the United States and also a very important investment partner of the United States. We worked, for example, with a group of Icelandic CEOs to establish the American Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. The American Icelandic Chamber of Commerce is an institution that existed about ten years ago, and then it closed down. So we worked with them to reestablish it. They had a program to promote U.S. products in Iceland at supermarkets like food and clothing. That is one way. We also try to encourage American investment and trade delegations from the states. We have welcomed, at least, in the last year, delegations from Denver and delegations from Anchorage, Alaska. We organize events to put state delegations in touch with Icelandic counterparts so they can explore possible joint ventures and investment opportunities.

One of the things we have been putting a lot of effort into is promoting startup companies in Iceland. Iceland has quite a few startup companies and they are very creative. We think that a startup company should think of the United States as a market so that the companies develop ideas not only for Iceland, but also for the global market. We have brought American venture capitalists to Iceland to talk to them about how they can develop an ecosystem to promote startups. The end result is that jobs are created for both Iceland and the United States because these companies can establish offices in the U.S. and create a nice synergy.

In terms of cultural affairs, we are trying to bring American performers to Iceland and organize events for young people. We concentrate our efforts on reaching out to young people because young people are, of course, the future. They have a natural openness to American music and artists, so we bring them [to Iceland] and organize master classes by the performers at the schools here. We organize events so the Icelanders have a chance to understand and to hear our performers. We do that with jazz, with country music and with classical music. There is a major organist coming to play at a famous church in Iceland… an iconic church in the middle of Reykjavik. Everybody knows this church, so having an American performer there when the church is celebrating its anniversary is very important because it helps us highlight the connections between the U.S. and Iceland.

The Arctic is a unique area for us because if you go back to the United States, nobody is talking about the Arctic, aside from think tanks. But in Alaska, the Arctic is their livelihood. So what we try to do is establish connections between Iceland and the Arctic. Next month, we are bringing an Inuit scientist participating in a conference on global warming. This will be a very important event for us because we are going to highlight the scientific connections between the U.S. and Iceland. The scientist will be a native of the Arctic, and that will enable us to highlight a number of different aspects of the United States that we would not otherwise have been able to emphasize.

Iceland - Reykjavík, Iceland's largest metropolitan area
Reykjavík, Iceland’s largest metropolitan area.

You have to have a blend of everything. It is important that you connect with Icelanders on many different levels.

Years ago, for the first time, the United States Embassy participated in the Reykjavik Gay Pride parade. The tens of thousands of people lining the parade were just blown away by seeing people with a banner from the Embassy saying, “The United States Supports Gay Rights.” They thought we were never going to do that. It opened minds and we received a whole bunch of emails saying, “Congratulations, this is great. It is great to see America showing some leadership on this particular issue.” We have marched two years in a row now, and we are going to do it again in early August. We are going to use the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act as the theme of our participation.

Linking our own historical experiences to theirs is something that is very important to Icelanders. We participated, for example, in a reading of Martin Luther King’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail.” I sat there with the Mayor [of Reykjavik] and other leaders reading these letters. And again, it was a very moving moment for us. When the movie “Lincoln” came out, we had a premiere where we invited university students, high school students, and leaders from the human rights community. It was a chance for us to highlight our own journey in terms of human rights, and of course we had a full house.

We are also promoting methods to combat human trafficking, so we are working to support a women’s shelter to train and connect them with similar organizations in the United States. That should give you a bit of a picture of how we connect human rights with culture. I like those connections.

The Politic: I know that in 2009 the United States signed a trade and investment framework agreement with Iceland. Would you say that its been successful in reaching its goal to enhance bilateral trade, or would you say that there is still a lot that is being and developed and needs to be done?

That provided a framework for conducting regular dialogue and I think it was a good beginning. Our hope is that we can expand that agreement. It has been successful in its objective, which was to establish a framework for a two-way conversation, but I think we can do more. The Icelanders are concerned with the recent announcement that the United States and the EU are beginning negotiations for a trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership. Because they are not members of the European Union, they believe they might be left out. That is one area where we need to work with them, and reassure them that while it is true that they are not part of it now, it is in the interest of both Europe and the United States that Iceland be brought in at some point. I cannot tell them when that will be — and they are rightly concerned about that. Part of the reason behind this is that they decided not to continue negotiations to join the EU. So they are feeling left out, which is understandable.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so? Any experience, or person, or big event that has happened in Iceland that has changed the way that you think about how you approach the Icelandic people or changed your policies towards Iceland in any way?

We do not have very many differences with Iceland. But there is one difference, and I think it is very tricky and very difficult to deal with: this is the area of whaling. Iceland is one of very, very few countries in the world that still whales. They not only harvest whales, but they are trying to export them to Japan. The United States and a few other European countries, however, are very much against whaling. We have a fundamental difference there, and anytime we say anything or do anything about it, Icelanders interpret it as a big country trying to impose its will on Iceland. As I said before, Icelanders are fiercely independent, so the conversation often deteriorates and we never really get anywhere. We have been struggling for some time to figure out how we can engage on this issue and address it constructively without triggering the same kind of negative response that we do every time we bring it up.

There is one Icelander who actually started the first whale museum and is one of the major guiding forces behind whale watching. (The Icelandic whale watching industry has grown tremendously over the last three years.) Through our connection with him, we have one of the most effective ways to deal with Iceland’s whaling: by promoting whale watching. Whale watching and whaling cannot coexist for very long because there is a fundamental difference between those two. We are now fully engaged with promoting whale watching, and in doing so, we are strengthening an industry we believe will crowd out whaling and will make whaling disappear. We are doing this in a way that does not seem as if we are trying to meddle in their affairs, but by supporting an activity that is positive, that generates jobs and opens tourism. That is one example.

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

I would not be here if there were not things that I would like to change. But it is fundamentally my job to represent the American people, the government they elected, and the government’s foreign policy. Throughout my career, there have been issues and policies that I have not agreed with. But that is not what I am supposed to do here; at the end of the day, my job is to promote American policies. There are times when I am called to do things that I am not in agreement with, personally. But I am very proud that we [have flexibility] and that this embassy can do things that are out of the ordinary. Sometime earlier this year, we decided to organize a zombie walk. Through social media, we invited young people to join us on a walk to downtown, dressed as zombies, which was a great way to reach out to the Icelandic youth.

However, we also need to do other things along with this. So the [zombie walk] program was combined with the opening of the first season of the American television show “The Walking Dead.” By combining outreach with a fun activity, we also promoted U.S. programming. And it was one of the most fun things we did: getting all made up and walking with a limp down the main street. And the Icelanders loved it. It put a human face on the U.S. government, and a face that they could agree with.


Embassy of the United States to Iceland:

Click here to return to Diplomatic Discourse

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *