Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
50th Reunion Brief Talks

The Life of an Ambassador to Norway
During the Obama Administration
Barry White

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Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to discuss my four years as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Norway. Just as it seems impossible that 50 years have gone by so fast, it is hard for me to believe that our four incredible years in Norway have gone by so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that I was presenting my credentials to His Majesty King Harald V and moving into Villa Otium, the exquisite home of the U.S. Ambassador in Oslo. It is impossible to describe these four years in 10 minutes, so I will touch on a few highlights and a few interesting issues.

Prior to my being asked by the Obama administration to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, I had no ambition to become an ambassador and indeed did not really know what the role of an Ambassador was. Eleanor and I had never lived abroad. Indeed we had lived in the same house in Newton Massachusetts for 35 years and I had only had one job for 40 years—as a lawyer at Foley Hoag.

I had been involved in political campaigns before—mostly for friends, classmates and partners, such as Paul Guzzi, Scott Harshbarger and Paul Tsongas—some of the campaigns were successful, but many, I must admit, were not. Aside from my two years in the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health service after graduating from law school, I had not worked for any governmental body.

The four years were filled with an unbelievable number of unforgettable experiences. From the visit of President Obama to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize within the first six weeks that I was at Post to discussions with the Norwegian officials over issues such as the reformation of NATO, nuclear non-proliferation, Iran sanctions, Libya, Syria, the Middle East, Norwegian and U.S. votes at the United Nations, exchange of intelligence information, cyber security, cluster weapons, and business and trade and educational exchange issues etc., to consoling Norwegians on their domestic bombing and shootings on July 22, 2011, to traveling though out Norway, to visiting and playing basketball on an off-shore oil rig in the North Sea, to riding in the back seat of a Norwegian F16 jet, to doing a sky-dive at the dare of the current Defense Minister, to driving a Tesla on an ice track, to visiting with the Norwegian diaspora in the U.S.

I felt it important that I get out and around Norway as much as possible and meet as many people throughout the country as I could. I visited all 19 counties in my first year and had the honor and privilege of speaking at numerous chambers of commerce meetings, at many universities and high schools, judged beauty contests, cup cake contests, presided at several July 4 parties, hosted several congressional delegations and held hundreds of events at our residence.

One of the unexpected pleasures was getting to spend so much more time with Eleanor, my wife of almost 47 years, planning and hosting and attending events together and traveling together. The spouses of diplomats do not get the recognition that they deserve from either the State Department or the host country. Indeed, I think that we should consider recognizing the spouses with a title and perhaps even compensating them for the work that they do.

Secretary Clinton emphasized the role that Ambassadors play in economic diplomacy. I spent a great deal of time working on promoting U.S.-Norwegian business transactions and relationships. A lot of attention was spent on energy issues. The backbone of Norway's very successful economic position is the off-shore oil and gas industry. Many people do not realize that Norway has the world's largest sovereign wealth fund—valued at 850 billion dollars—for only 5 million people.

What lessons did I learn as the Ambassador to Norway. First and foremost, I came to greatly respect the incredible efforts and sacrifices that our foreign service officers make. On the whole they are highly intelligent, very well trained and dedicated to their mission of serving the interests of the U.S. abroad. They are asked to serve in places all over the world that are much less glamorous than Oslo (although I love Oslo, glamorous is probably not the right description of Oslo, but you understand what I mean) and often more dangerous. The horrendous events at Benghazi stand out. They serve terms of two or three years and are constantly uprooting themselves and their families. They also are underpaid and I believe under appreciated.

I also gained a great deal of respect for our military. I had no background or familiarity with our military services before I arrived in Oslo. We had a substantial military presence, especially a Naval presence at the Post. The military officers were extraordinarily knowledgeable and well trained, respected the fact that I had little background in military affairs and took great care to both educate and inform me and we worked very well together on a number of issues. Not to get too political, but we had a Vice Presidential candidate who said that she could see Russia from her porch. Well, Norway borders on Russia, and we have a very close intelligence and cooperative relationship with Norway as an ally and as an active member of NATO. The Russian submarine fleet is based in Murmansk, which is not very far from Norway. We learned a great deal about the culture of Norway.

Although they all speak English and are very up to date on all things American, their culture is very different. It is a social democracy—free health care for all, free education through a PhD and retirement benefits paid for by the Government. There is an $850 billion Pension Fund. Only 4% is used each year for budgetary purposes. The fund is available for future generations. Up until 25 years ago, Norway was a country that was 90% white, Lutheran. Today, 25% of the population of Oslo are recent immigrants. The social welfare and benefits program and the very healthy economy attract people from all over the world. I think that it is fair to say that the Norwegians are having a difficult time integrating the immigrants into society. Indeed, we held three Interfaith Dinners at our Residence—on Thanksgiving, Passover and during Ramadan to bring members of different cultures together for evenings dedicated to learning about each other. Unfortunately, these were the only such dinners held in Norway.

On foreign policy matters, I can still remember my first few speeches describing the foreign policy of President Obama—emphasis on multilaterialism and bringing allies together rather than unilateral U.S. actions, a renewed commitment to the United Nations and a commitment to pay our debts to the United Nations, a commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and a continuation of the commitment to combat terrorism, a commitment to finish the work in Afghanistan and get our troops home as soon as possible and to close Guantanamo. History will judge how well the administration performed. I can only say that events beyond anyone's control interfere with the best of intentions. As hard as one can try to put in place an overall strategy or approach to foreign policy and relations with other nations, unexpected events continually interfere with those plans. I learned that it is easy to say that we should have sent U.S. troops to Syria or we should have intervened in Ukraine or closed Guantanamo, but these are very complicated matters that are frought with complexities, and I came to respect and admire the capabilities of those both in the Administration and the members of Congress, notwithstanding that they may disagree on the best approach, they are usually well prepared and knowledgeable.

I would like to see the State Department get more respect for the work it performs. I think that we have overemphasized the ability of our military to solve national security problems, whereas the role of diplomats and foreign policy experts at State in national security are often brushed aside. I have seen a statistic that there are more lawyers in the Pentagon than diplomats in the State Department. Only 1% of our budget is spent on the Department of State and foreign aid. There are only about 22,000 employees of the State Department, whereas there are 3.2 million employees of the Defense Department. This is way out of balance.

One last issue that has been in the news recently (for those who follow foreign policy issues) is whether we should appoint political ambassadors who have not come up through the ranks of the foreign service. Approximately 1/3 of our ambassadors are political appointees. The U.S. is very unique in this regard. This issue recently surfaced when my designated successor as Ambassador to Norway had a difficult time in his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee considering his confirmation. There is no question that foreign service officers have a great deal of experience and expertise and a life-long commitment to foreign affairs that someone like me did not have—Not withstanding my international relations course with Henry Kissinger and teaching fellow Leslie Gelb. On the other hand, there is a great deal to be said for political appointees who often have life experiences that can be very beneficial in representing the U.S. interests abroad. Political ambassadors often are very experienced in establishing people-to-people relationships and negotiating transactions with others. They have been involved in political campaigns and often fund raising and those talents lend themselves to establishing good relationships with both government officials and civil and business societies in the countries that they serve in. They also tend to have good contacts at the White House and at the very senior levels of the State Department. This debate will continue, but I doubt we will change our current system.

Thanks for listening.

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