An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Daniel Weisfield

Conducted by Joyce Xi

WeisfieldDaniel is completing a J.D. at Yale Law School and an M.B.A. at the Yale School of Management. As a U.S. diplomat he worked in 26 countries, served at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In the private sector, he has advised multinational corporations at McKinsey & Company, developed strategy at ArcelorMittal, and founded a small real estate venture. The recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and the State Department’s Meritorious Honor award, he hopes to create social and financial value through business innovation. 

The Politic: Why did you choose to apply to be a Yale World Fellow?

I wanted a chance to be part of a cohort of amazing people. It’s a privilege as a Yale student to be part of this group of really accomplished, inspiring leaders from various fields from all over the world. We have a Managing Editor from the Economist, a Venezuelan opposition politician, a Dutch filmmaker who’s running an arts center in the middle of the Congo. There’s a chance for me to really push myself, to be a peer of very accomplished people and hopefully to teach them as much as I learn from them. I also believe in the power of people and relationships to create understanding. Understanding on its own doesn’t necessarily make the world better, but it can lead to concrete initiatives that do. I’m interested in complicated problems that transcend government and business, for example how to make mining investment in developing countries more responsible. If you want to develop a responsible mine, that’s an environmental problem, a human rights problem, a government problem, a finance problem, a legal problem, an engineering problem, and I think I need to form the types of relationships that the World Fellows program presents to have a chance at tackling those types of problems.

The Politic: What is it like being a World Fellow? What have been some highlights of your semester so far?

It’s a very public role—in a sense the World Fellows serve an educational purpose here at Yale on campus, but it also has a diplomatic purpose. We are presenting Yale to the world. So it’s been a transition for me having been a Yale student for a long time to adopt more of an ambassadorial role for Yale. I think my best moment was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which is the holiday of huts. Every year for seven days we build a hut, eat our meals in it, sometimes we sleep in it, and this is to commemorate the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and wandering in the desert. Basically we were nomads and we lived in teepees. So I built a hut this year at the School of Management (SOM) and I invited the whole SOM community and World Fellows to come see my traditional hut. I explained to them the thatch, the walls, the symbols, and what that meant to me. It was a way for me to share part of my identity and culture with these Fellows who have shared so much of their cultures with me.

The Politic: You’ve served in many different roles in the U.S. Government, working as a diplomat in 26 different countries and at the Mission to the UN, and in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Could you talk some more about each of your government roles and how you ended up where you did?

My first experience in government was as a Yale student. I applied online for a State Department internship at the U.S. mission to the UN in New York and spent an eye-opening summer working on Security Council issues. At the time there was a push to expand the composition of the Security Council– Japan and Brazil in particular were pushing for membership. That was my first exposure to diplomacy and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. When I was a senior here at Yale, I had a Fulbright lined up to go to China and I also had dreams of being a journalist, and then I got a job offer from my boss from the summer internship at the State Department. He called me one day and said, “I now have another role at the State Department. I’m in charge of all U.S. rule of law programs around the world.” This is 2006, 2007, so there were major programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Colombia, and Lebanon. The administration’s big push at the time was Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he said, “I need an assistant—do you want to come?” I’ll admit, I was torn. I had some other options that I was considering but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve in government and to see how foreign policy and international relations actually work firsthand. So I went to the State Department and it was an incredible first job. Sometimes I would pinch myself. I couldn’t believe that here I was, 22 years old, and there were meetings with Condoleeza Rice, her assistant and my boss and me, or meetings with the Attorney General of Afghanistan talking about the future of Afghan justice, or meetings with the Commanding General of NATO at the headquarters in Brussels talking about strategy for Afghanistan. In the White House situation room, seeing how foreign policy decisions actually get made in real time was incredible and I decided I wanted to stay in government at that time and transitioned to becoming desk officer for the European Union, which was a very different role. I went from being special assistant to someone influential to a much more independent role where I had less visibility. As desk officer I had responsibility for my chunk of knowledge, with less travel and access, but I was the expert and fundamentally responsible for my remit. And I loved that. I was desk officer during the French EU presidency, the Swedish EU presidency and the Czech EU presidency. I worked with Europe on a variety of issues, not looking so much at what was going on in any one European country at one time, but more on how the United States works with the European Union as a union of 27 democracies on issues we all care about. So these include the Iran Sanctions, the Middle East Peace Process, the Russia-Georgia conflict which happened in summer 2008 when I was working on these issues. And I was working with Europe on civilian and economic and rule of law components of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Picture 1The Politic: You talked about working in a lot of different countries in different parts of the world. How did you approach familiarizing yourself with these countries and understanding each one well enough to do a good job in your diplomacy with particular countries?

It’s something I struggle with a lot and continue to think about. We come from America, and because we are the world’s strongest power, I think it is often hard for us to adopt other mindsets. I think we struggle with that more than some other cultures do. We tend to be monolingual. This is a challenge—how do you take a diplomat or a soldier or intelligence officer or NGO manager or journalist or business person and put them in a totally foreign context and have them understand a new environment? I think the typical mode of doing this in diplomatic circles is looking backwards and studying history. I think there’s a lot to be said about studying history. I tried to do it as much as I could. But I think there are many other modes of reasoning and ways of knowing that people maybe undervalue. How do you bring in anthropology to inform understanding of political and social relations, or the social studies, and humanities? I was a Humanities major here at Yale. I have a lot of belief in the ability of literature and philosophy to explain the fundamentals about a culture, so I advocate that. I mentioned earlier that I had a Fulbright lined up to go to China. I wanted to study the history of human flight in the Chinese imagination; to look at how we in the West have conceptualized flight and grown our mythology of Icharus flying too close to the sun to Leonardo da Vinci and his sketches all the way to the Wright Brothers building the airplane; and look at how the dream of human flight has evolved in the Chinese imagination in history literature and religion. I think that can tell us about Chinese versus Western conceptions of invention, power, space, and privacy. I really think that this type of cultural analysis can tell us a lot about the present.

The Politic: What were some of the most challenging diplomatic issues you encountered, and how did you and your colleagues respond?

So in November 2007, I was part of some pretty intense debates in the United States government on how to handle the explosion of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. The opium poppy crop was not just a classic drugs problems per se. It was a larger strategic problem because it was funding the insurgency, setting back legitimate economic development in Afghanistan, and fueling corruption. There were huge debates about how we should tackle this problem, and that’s just within the U.S. government. More importantly, how did the Afghan government want to tackle this problem? Of course it had its own entities and interests. Then there was the NATO alliance and other allies and partners who were part of our international effort in Afghanistan. I was a part of some intense policy debates, and we faced a question of whether we wanted to help fund a program under which we would essentially fund Afghan provincial governors to eradicate poppy crops. You can see what the problems are—you’re creating in some sense a perverse incentive for farmers to raise illegal crops. There were various debates in the State Department, within the Department of Defense, going up to the White House level. To answer your question directly, there was one time when my boss and I went to the White House situation room and we ended up meeting General Doug Lute, who was George W. Bush’s War Czar in charge of running the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan from the White House. There’d been intense debate on this question of eradication. We’re sitting in the situation room, we’re waiting for him to come in, he’s busy running two wars, and he comes in. He’s read his briefing paper, we talked for about five minutes and he makes a decision on the issue. We shake hands, he walks out of the room. He’s got two wars to fight and this is one tiny issue on his desk and the decision was made. That was eye-opening about how foreign policy actually works and the many interests involved, and at the end of the day that’s how its done.

The Politic: Do you have any particularly memorable stories from your extensive time abroad that you could share with us?

I spent a month in Indonesia this past spring. It’s the world’s fourth most populous country, and it’s had surprisingly strong economic growth over the past ten years, despite global recession. I’m really interested in natural resources and infrastructure, and Indonesia is a really fascinating place to think about those issues because it’s really rich in minerals, oil and gas, forest products, so I decided to go there. I took beginning Indonesian this past year in Yale College so I learned some of the language. I got it into my head that I wanted to climb an active volcano. Indonesia has more active volcanoes than anywhere else on Earth and I started Googling and trying to figure out what I could about these volcanoes. There was one mountain called Gunung Sirung and it’s on a little island called Alor. It’s active. I was Googling these mountain climbing forums from Indonesia and there’s very little knowledge about it. Someone climbed it and posted a picture, and I saw in the comments on this blog a USGS Geologist had written back and said, “We want to learn more about this volcano, it’s hard to reach and we don’t know much about it, could you send more pictures?” So I thought wow, this place sounds cool, so I decided to check out. I flew to Jakarta, and then I had to fly to Kupang, which is out close to East Timor. Then I had to wait another two days to take a little puddle jumper plane to another island. Then finally I took an 8 hour boat ride to this tiny island Alor. It was unlike any place I’ve ever been. I found a local guide who people told me could walk me to the top of this volcano. When we got to the top it had this incredible lake of sulfur and fire and I asked if we could get closer. He said, “No, not in this time of year. Our elders believe that if we walk into a volcano at this time of year it will make the volcano angry and it will spew and destroy our crops, so you have to come back in a few months and then you can walk down.” As we we’re walking down the volcano, and of course people here have cell phones, motor scooters—capital connects us—my guide Joseph sees some friends of his and raises his arms and I turned and I’m kind of surprised because I see this guy with a bow and arrow and an animal slung over his back. I start talking to them in my broken Indonesian and it turns out they make their bows and arrows and learn how to do it from their fathers. They hunt in the forest with bows and arrows. These are people who are equally comfortable with a cell phone and a bow and arrow, and in all my travels I never met people like that before and I felt privileged to meet them.

The Politic: What led you to transition from public service work to the private sector? How have both experiences influenced what you plan to do in the future?

Working at the State Department and in the intelligence community was a privilege. It was an education unlike any other and I very seriously considered staying in the Foreign Service and making it a career. I thought hard about my experience and interests and what I loved about diplomacy, and I realized that I could find some of the same things I loved in the private sector, and possibly have a bigger social impact. As I mentioned, I’m particularly drawn to mining, energy, infrastructure, and other international capital intensive businesses, especially in emerging markets. Those industries involve human rights, negotiation, government relations, labor negotiations, a global macro view, and at the same time they’re really concrete and tangible. How do you get the ore out of the ground at point A and get it to point B and do it profitably and responsibly? These are the kinds of issues I really want to think about in this point in my career—tangible and concrete with real social dimensions. We’ll see where the future takes me.

The Politic: Yale College, now Yale Law, Yale SOM and a Yale World Fellow. What has led you to stay here at Yale? Could you tell us a bit more about your undergrad days?

Someone the other day asked me to describe my identity, and how I’d break it down. I had to say I’m an American, I’m a Jew, I’m a Californian, and I was educated at Yale, because I think Yale has shaped a lot of the way I think and the way my life is unfolding. It has given me opportunities I’m grateful for. I’ve kind of inadvertently become a triple Yale-degree Yalie. I had an incredible experience here as an undergrad. I came from California, and I wanted to come East because I thought this is where real learning happened. It’s closer to Europe. I thought people thought big thoughts here. I wanted to study with Harold Bloom and study the Canon and read Nabokov and that kind of thing, and I did. I majored in Humanities, took Shakespeare with Harold Bloom, and with Yale’s support, I spent a year studying Mandarin Chinese in China, and spent a summer studying Portuguese in Brazil. I got to lead backpacking trips in the outdoors as a FOOT leader, I got to sing, believe it or not, gorgeous Slavic music in the Yale Russian Chorus. This place opened my eyes to a universe of possibilities that I never knew existed growing up in California. That’s one of the reasons I came back. I think this university is an intellectual wonderland. It in some senses can be very inward looking. A lot of academic discussions exist for academia. On the other hand Yale is a bridge to the world. It’s incredibly outward looking, it’s global, it’s diverse, and I think it has a strong ethic of making the world a better place, and that drew me back. And I love New Haven. I love the pizza here.

The Politic: What are some of your goals or plans for after graduation?

Immediately after graduation I plan to go work at McKinsey and Company, hoping to focus in their global mining, energy, and infrastructure practice. I’d like to advise multinational companies and sovereign governments on these really knotty, complicated issues relating to foreign investment and strategy and operations in these capital intensive industries. Longer term I have a few dreams. If possible I would like to either start my own company or run a company that tries to make mining and extractive industries more responsible. That’s one path. My wife is an architect and I love building and creating spaces that can make life better for people, so I could see myself doing work in real estate that tries to make lives and communities better. And then I’m really interested in education. I would love to one day run a school, but at this point I haven’t done the things that I would need to do to prepare for that.

The Politic: Do you have a single most important piece of advice to share with Yale students?

Don’t be afraid to do something awesome, because by the mere fact that you’re coming from Yale, you already have incredible privilege and cushion if you mess up. Set aside your risk aversion.

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