Interview: Matthew Barzun (US Ambassador)

US Ambassador

Despite the ominous motorcade parked outside, my interviewee, Ambassador Barzun is rather understated for the stereotypical perception of brash U.S. politicians.

He appears polished to within an inch of his life, not a single hair out of place, matching the care with which he picks his words. I’m catching a brief moment in the life of a diplomat, between an hour-long lecture given at our university and rushing off to catch his train.

I was a little nervous, the man who had just entered the room was by far the most important person that I had ever met, just about pipping Stephen Mulhern and Joey Barton to the title. His Wikipedia page makes for impressive reading, a descendant of women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott and also John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the city of Boston.

He graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Literature magna cum laude and went on to work with the technology media giant CNET. He used his knowledge of online technology to pioneer a ‘small-dollar’ fundraising campaign over the Internet, to support Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.

Since moving to this country in 2013 your residence has been in London but this isn’t your first time in Yorkshire, what are your favourite things about the United Kingdom and these two particular places?

Well I’ve had a great day today in York, and yesterday in Hull. For me, what I love to see, especially here in York, is the history at every turn. What I learned today is people being inspired by that history but not imprisoned by it. Today I heard lots of history but also lots of innovation and changes happening, bio-tech, chocolate, railways, all the current innovation here alongside the history.

You have visited over fifty sixth-form colleges across the UK and have been asking students what they think the best and worst things about America are. What do you think the they are?

Oh dear… I think the best thing is that we learn from our mistakes and we welcome criticism. We hold ourselves to a high standard, it’s not always painful when we make our changes but we keep expanding the circle of who’s included. I think you see that in American history. That’s what I am most proud of.

A lot of the students cited the issue of guns as the worst thing about America. What would you say to that?

It’s such a big subject but I don’t think that we have time to cover it now. What we do in these sessions, I mean it surprised us, that we were ready to talk about foreign policy, we were ready to talk about ISIL, climate change, the Ebola virus, Russia and Ukraine. Those are the things that I talk about because they are the things that the UK and the US work together on, those big challenges. But these young people want to talk about guns, confusion and frustration around guns, so we begin discussions on that also.

When you assumed office here in London, it was a couple of months after all the Edward Snowden leaks emerged. Did that have a big impact on your job straight away, being launched into a global issue such as that?

It did, during those few months when I went around and asked people what frustrates, confuses and concerns them about the United States I got surveillance related words or pictures much more I think in the years since President Obama announced his changes to surveillance. These issues don’t go away but questions around ISIL and other issues rise up. It doesn’t mean that just because they’ve drifted out of the tops of peoples’ minds, it’s important to remember that, as he said the other day, President Obama hasn’t forgotten about it, he takes really seriously every day how we get the balance right between privacy and security.

You’ve worked alongside Obama for a few years now since his 2008 presidential campaign, how would you describe him? Tell me something about him that other people wouldn’t necessarily know.

Everyone knows that he is a great speaker, but it’s not as well understood what a great listener he is. Having been able to be in small, big, quiet and loud settings with him and watching the intentness with which he listens, it’s a very powerful skill.

Your ancestry is quite formidable. How much do you think that that has influenced what you have already achieved and what you hope to achieve in the future?

Ancestry is something that I think that we are less into in America, we tend to be looking more into the future than the past. But my great-grandmother was an amazing women, her name was Lucretia Mott and she chaired the first women’s right convention in America in 1848. She is a particular inspiration to me, not only over the coming International Women’s Day celebrations, but every single day.

After the interview had finished, Ambassador Barzun made conversation as we packed up and asked me what music I liked. After naming a few musicians and bands, he recommended the band ‘The War on Drugs’ which as an answer is a lot funnier, and let’s face it, cooler than Cameron’s professed love for The Smiths. There was an effortlessness to Matthew Barzun, which in the run-up to our country’s forthcoming election, you just don’t see from politicians in Britain.