Profile – Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich

Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich

Profile – Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich

The crowd of Vice Chancellors, government representatives, journalists, and distinguished university executives falls silent as he approaches the podium at the National Press Club, Canberra. There is an odd feeling in the air; a tension that permeates the room as the audience awaits the news that this smartly-dressed American herald bears. The question on everybody’s lips: In a dislocated world, do universities have a case to answer? Former U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich makes his polite acknowledgements and finally addresses the waiting crowd.

“In the past, whenever I’ve been asked questions about politics or elections, I always did what diplomats have long done: I thought very carefully, before saying… nothing.”

The reaction is palpable as hunched shoulders begin to relax, pensive expressions break into smiles; the stifling tension eases. Yet the gravity of the topic remains, and Bleich does not mince words.
“The recent U.S. election has evoked a profound sense of uncertainty across the political spectrum. The things we had counted on suddenly, and surprisingly, proved incorrect. We are not sure what we can rely on anymore, and it has shaken many people’s confidence about the path forward.

“It is times like these, when good friends like the U.S. and Australia put aside conventions and get real about what we need to do together. And that is what I hope to do this morning.”

It is this candidness; this casual shift between irreverent humour and profound insight that makes Jeff Bleich such an engaging speaker. When I had the opportunity to sit down with him following his March 2017 Universities Australia keynote address, I had to grapple with a peculiar sense of déjà vu because, regardless of whether you’re chatting with Bleich one-one-one or sitting in a crowd of hundreds, it always seems as if he is speaking to you.

When talking about his time as U.S. Ambassador, he is refreshingly frank.

“In 2009, when I came in, the U.S.-Australia relationship had always been a very positive, strong, productive one going back decades, but there were some fault lines. I think that there was a lot of concern among young people in Australia about U.S. leadership based upon the global financial crisis, which was not a good look in terms of our economic stewardship, and also based upon the unpopularity of the Iraq war and our leadership in the National Security space, so we had a number of questions to answer.

“One of my goals was to be very transparent about these things, to be honest about the shortcomings and mistakes that we’d made. I thought that was important as a way of ensuring that the unique aspect of our relationship, the closeness and the trust, wasn’t sacrificed, and that if anything we took a bad set of challenges and we grew stronger because of them.”

Bleich’s eyes take on a particular gleam when the conversation turns to his current role with the Fulbright Program; after Obama appointed him to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board in November 2014 he was elected Vice-Chair in 2016, then Chair this year. But even back during his tenure as Ambassador, Bleich always had a soft spot for Fulbright.

“I had admired a number of Fulbright Scholars and the program itself, but it’s one thing to know about it and it’s another thing entirely to attend all of the Fulbright events, meet the Fulbrighters, and be fully engaged with the program. The more time I devoted to this, the more I appreciated the genius of what Senator Fulbright had imagined when he created the program.

“He understood that the only real protection we have long term against missteps in foreign policy, against disagreements erupting into conflict, and in just improving the quality of our own understanding of the world and appreciation of it, was international exchange. The more we knew other people, the better we would be as people. The more we understood about our world, the more secure we would feel.

“Sitting down with members of congress and being able to talk about what Fulbright does has made me more convinced than ever that this is an essential part of our prosperity and security in the world. When Fulbright started there were barely any international exchange programs, now it’s a 36 billion dollar industry in the United States. So it actually increases our prosperity, but more than anything, it makes us better people.”

In a dislocated world, however, international exchange and intercultural understanding are of crucial importance, yet are increasingly overshadowed by populist rhetoric and isolationism. Bleich is adamant that the Fulbright Program has a role to play in the restoration of public trust in the values of a free and open global order:

“Whatever you’re worried about, the things that you want most are prosperity and security. The Fulbright program delivers both.

“In terms of prosperity, American education and Australian education are exports, in part because we have developed outstanding educational systems that are the envy of the world, and by bringing scholars to our country we actually make money. In fact, there are a number of countries that contribute five times as much as the U.S. to the Fulbright program because they want to be part of it, so it’s actually a very good program in terms of all the leverage it creates.

“It also attracts the best and the brightest to our universities, and when you look at some of the people who have held positions in business – the head of Virgin Galactic, the Chair of Intel, some of the biggest U.S. companies were either founded by, or led by, people who initially were exposed to the U.S. via Fulbright, and so it has paid back the United States many, many times over.

“In terms of security – there is a reason why all of our generals and military leaders say that this is an invaluable part of our security. The entire cost of the Fulbright Program for the United States is the cost of one C17 cargo plane, and we have built relationships with 160 different nations, and we have exchanged the best and brightest thinkers from those countries. When [Fulbright Scholars] come to the U.S, they invariably return with a much more nuanced, and much more positive, sense of the United States.

“So when the Generals say this gives us a better understanding, and when something goes wrong we know there is a person there who has trusting relations with leaders on the other side. Someone who can pick up the phone and come in, not as a faceless American, but as someone who they know, who they trust, and who they can talk to – that is invaluable, that saves lives, and it makes us more secure.”

Fulbright Commission: You oversaw the period that saw Australia as a fulcrum for President Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. What were your experiences during this dynamic time?

Jeffrey Bleich: “It was a wonderful time to be here and I think a real appreciation, on America’s part, of the importance of Australia.

“For a long time, for a variety of reasons, we had been Atlantic-focused. Not only are our traditional trade routes from England, but also our efforts in WW1 and WW2 had been largely focused in European theatres, and then a number of challenges in the Middle East had kept us focused in that part of the world. It was only as the economies of [APAC] started to rise that policymakers started to appreciate how much more we needed to do in this region than we were already doing.

“We had had decades and decades, particularly since WW2, of stewardship of the oceans and working with our close allies in this region, but it was only with the great rise in Asia that policy-makers in D.C. began to look across that pond and appreciate that we had to increase the tempo in which we were operating here. So that involved a great deal of shifts in terms of our diplomacy, a number of shifts in terms of our economic rebalancing, and also our national security laydown, and in each one of those Australia was the leading partner with us.

“It was a magical time to be working in diplomacy on such a broad set of issues.”

What do you think the key challenges are for the incoming U.S. Ambassador?

“Well I think, again, we are going through another transition point. The world is being disrupted by forces that are bigger than either one of our two countries.

“Massive changes in technology and globalisation have rewritten a number of rules about how peoples’ lives will go, mostly in positive ways – we are going to live longer and have more opportunities, and we’re going to be more integrated than we’ve ever been before in human history. But it’s very dislocating, it’s very disrupting, and entire industries are already feeling the strain of that. So a new administration coming in must first articulate a vision for how to address that. It can’t be top down, it’s a partnership.

“In addition to that, we are already in the midst of a number of things that we have to keep doing. Our [U.S.] rebalance to Asia has to continue. This is the centre of gravity, economically and in terms of demographic change, and also an area fraught with longstanding animosities among nations. The U.S. and Australia are uniquely positioned to be a bulwark against all the prosperity here going in the wrong direction.”

In 2014, following your posting as Ambassador, you took up a position on the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. What drew you to the Fulbright Program?

“A number of things. One of the roles that you have as U.S. Ambassador in Australia is that you are the Honorary Co-Chair of the Fulbright Program with the Prime Minister.

“I experienced that Fulbright effect on a regular basis when I was in the ambassador role, and so when I left the ambassadorship and the President said I’d like you to keep helping me out there, I took two other roles, but the number-one role on my list was to serve on the Fulbright Board. It has been an enormous honour, and has confirmed all of my hopes and dreams about the importance of this program.

“The line that I think of often (I thought someone else had written it but I actually wrote it myself at one point), was ‘the measure of success in any battle is in the peace that follows,’ and after WW2 the measure of success was, could we keep a peace?

“We did two things: we did the Marshall Plan; to actually rebuild the infrastructure of our enemies; and we did the Fulbright program to say ‘let’s understand the world better than we ever had before, and engage with the most thoughtful and outward-looking people we can find everywhere in the world,’ and we have had an extraordinary period of peace and prosperity since.”

After two years on the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board you are now Chairman – how has your experience of the role been so far?

“It has been an extraordinary opportunity working with a fabulous Board, amongst university presidents, senators, entrepreneurs; people with these magnificent careers from all walks of life, great scholars and great thinkers all committed to these issues. Working with them has been inspiring, but then also at every meeting we are able to meet with people who are running programs, people who are Fulbright scholars, people who are giving insights into how to improve Fulbright, and innovating to make the program more accessible, more relevant, as the digital age takes hold. That has been just edifying – I’ve learnt so much about how the world works because of that.

“The other thing I’ve gotten is a real appreciation for the political challenges that exchange programs face right now, and I think that people don’t fully understand how important they have become, because they’ve become a part of the wallpaper – we just assume there has always been a Fulbright program. So, part of what we’ve done is to refresh the Fulbright brand to help people understand its current relevance today, and to re-engage our alumni network.

“The thing about a program like Fulbright that no one can appreciate is that, while there are other exchange programs, there is no program that has 370,000 alums, heads of government, heads of state, Macarthur Grant recipients and Nobel Prize winners, and this tremendous network of people who understand the world, and who can help reach out and explain it.”

In your March 2017 Universities Australia address, you spoke about how a corrosion of public trust; specifically, trust in government, media, and (political science) experts, contributed to the unexpected November 2016 election result. What role do you see the Fulbright Program playing in the restoration of that trust?

“I think it’s easy to take democracies for granted. If you grew up in a democracy, you have a sense that, of course you would have a voice in the selection of your leaders, and that there would be checks and balances on any of them overstepping their bounds; of course the media would provide the information that you needed – timely, relevant, accurate information; and of course the institutions of government, the parties and political leaders, would deal with the issues that they needed to deal with. I think over time there’s been a sense within each of these institutions that someone would take care of it.

“For example, media. News became less about timely, accurate, relevant information than entertainment, offering opinions and offering entertainment to keep eyeballs on the screen. People have less reliable information to draw upon and they started relying on alternative news sources, a lot of which were unreliable. I think among voters, Australia doesn’t have this challenge because you have universal voting, but in the U.S. voter participation has been falling, particularly in off-year elections and midterms, but even in presidential years we think it’s a big year if 60% show up. That means that if it’s 31 to 29, 31% of people are deciding policies for all of America.

“I think the political parties have been more focused on how to cleverly hamper the other side than to actually solve problems. In terms of elections, their focus has been less on identifying real problems and their unique solutions, the policy that differentiates them from the other side, than they have been about slicing-and-dicing the demographic and finding a handful of issues that one side feels passionately about.

“Over time some rot has seeped into these institutions because people haven’t been preserving them. So when someone comes along and says “you can’t trust the government, the parties are just all engaged in stalemate, the media is untrustworthy they are not looking after you,” the only person you can trust is someone who has no experience with government, doesn’t trust either party, doesn’t trust media, and shares your disdain for all of that – people are drawn to this idea that if the government won’t solve our problems, maybe we need to shake it up and get someone who is prepared to condemn the entire system and just start from scratch. I think that explains a lot about where this election results came from, and Donald Trump captured that sense among people that he was actually a candidate of hope, that he could scramble things and maybe they would come out better.

“I think what Fulbright offers is two things: one is a perspective on how other countries operate without this sort of government. I was just at a Fulbright event and we had people from Pakistan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Mozambique – a number of countries that have had challenges in their leadership. When Americans talk to them, learn how their governments operate, how most of the world’s populations live and the experiences they have with the government, it starts making us appreciate much more the wisdom of our system and the need for them to invest in it; the need for them to take responsibility for our democracy. I think just having that perspective from people of other countries makes us both more proud of our system, but also more responsible for preserving it, and strengthening it.

“I think the other thing is that they bring fresh ideas. Fulbright scholars from Australia come and start talking about universal voting and Americans start to think ‘well that’s a pretty interesting idea’.
“People who are technologists talk about ways that you can have real-time fact-checking so that false information doesn’t go viral before someone has the chance to expose its dishonesty. I think again there is an opportunity for us to learn from these ideas and draw upon them. I think that those are two of the biggest ways in which Fulbright makes our democracy stronger.”

What do you envision for the future of international exchange programs, such as Fulbright, that champion the values of globalisation and international education?

“We are going through a major tectonic shift in how our economies work. This happened about a hundred years ago with the Second Industrial Revolution, where suddenly you had all these new technologies. In a 40-year period, suddenly you’ve got automobiles, aeroplanes, telephones, motion pictures, photographs, light bulbs, the internal combustion engine, factories, consumer appliances, and it’s all happening at once. People were overwhelmed, and their lives were transformed.

“During that burst of technology and creativity you had a number of dislocating effects, and people started blaming immigrants, they started demonising one-another. There was a real move for protectionism, a real divide between urban and rural communities, and a rise in extremist political views – a lot of the things that you’re seeing happening around the world. They had a Gilded Age, two world wars and a Great Depression; a number of things that we’d like to avoid, so there are lessons to be learned from how you maintain an effective democratic order during this kind of massive economic shift.

“I think that the Fulbright program is one that allows you to see how these different government systems actually work in practice, and things that sound appealing from a distance seem a little less attractive once you get up close to them – authoritarianism and some of these systems that seem appealing when you’re uncertain and looking for strong leadership.

“The other aspect of it is that Fulbrighters develop really interesting new ideas. When they leave their home countries, just the fact of being in a new place; new language, new culture, a new set of challenges, expands their thinking and they come up with ideas that they never would have if they had just stayed on their own little patch of earth. We have a lot of issues to solve during this period, and building bonds of trust, coming up with new ideas, and exposing the reality of false ideas is a big thing that Fulbright does, and does better than any other educational program in the world.”

What advice would you give to any aspiring Fulbright scholars?

“First, if you don’t have one, you should apply for one. One thing that I’ve been surprised by is how many people think that it’s too hard to get a Fulbright and won’t even bother to apply. In fact, we are looking for greater diversity, we want people coming out of more rural communities that haven’t produced a lot of Fulbright scholars in the past.

“Members of the board, we review 8000 recommendations every year, and so that is one of the things we look for – are we getting that kind of diversity, are we bringing in new voices, new perspectives, new institutions? So don’t be deterred by the fact that you don’t have and Nobel Prize yet.

“I think the second thing I’d say is, if you get a Fulbright scholarship, really experience the country. It is one thing to do your research there, and to collaborate with others who share your interest while you’re there, but the real Fulbright effect comes from things that are much more subtle.

“When you go to a country that you’ve never been to before, the sky looks different, the air smells different, the experience feels unfamiliar and it heightens your senses, and that makes you more aware; it just makes your synapses fire differently. The more people that you meet, the more that you get out into that country, the more of the Fulbright effect you’ll experience, and not only will it make your research better, but it will broaden your own thinking about the world as a whole.

“What I find most interesting is that not only do people tend to come to a country with a number of preconceived notions, then discover that many of those are wrong, but also when they come back to the U.S. or their home country, they also see their home through different eyes and appreciate it more than they did before.

You were once profiled by LAWDRAGON as one of the true ‘Rockstars’ of law – How would you comment on this title?

“I think my kids said it best. They said, “America has officially run out of rock stars now.” Although I have to say, rock has been around long enough now that apparently it’s ok to be a bald Rockstar…

“The way I think about articles like that is really, if they provide value, it’s in letting people know that you can have a rich career in law, not simply by representing the wealthiest and most powerful, but by making society more just, and that the satisfaction that you get as a lawyer comes, not just from how much money you may have made in a year or how famous your client was, but actually over time the cases that I remember most, and that I care about most deeply, were the ones where the person had no voice at all and were marginalised.

“You were their champion, you were their life-line. You were the person who made it possible for them to be heard and to receive their share of justice. Wealthy people, powerful people, they tend to do ok, even without lawyers, and you hope you can add some marginal difference in their lives. But for people who are the most vulnerable, you make all the difference in their life, and that was the most satisfying kind of work I ever did.”

Just prior to your departure from Australia in 2013, you remarked in a Canberra Times article that you would miss ‘Running, hiking… and Skywhale’. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to catch up with Skywhale in the years since?

“Well, not in that order – Skywhale is number one!

“The images of Skywhale seem to dog me on the Internet. There are images of me, you know, gazing lovingly at Skywhale… Skywhale was by far one of the more unusual things about being
in Australia. But you get here and, again, I had the Fulbright effect – there is wildlife here that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet, and I thought I had seen it all until Skywhale, this hot air balloon that seemed to have some pretty ridiculous features, came sailing over the U.S. Embassy and I thought, ‘OK, Australia you are constantly full of surprises.

“The thing is that Australians, they mocked it, but for me I thought, boy, this is the beauty of Australia. It’s cheeky and it’s bold, it’s unlike anything else in the world. It is Australians being willing to have a go at anything. For me, Skywhale was a metaphor: keep looking up in the sky, because you never know what you’re going to find.”



Alex Maclaurin