Meridian makes a place for diplomacy in the Trump era

The following article was originally published on July 29, 2019 by Laura Weiss in CQ Roll Call.

Stuart Holliday, once part of the U.S. mission to the United Nations and a high-ranking State Department official, thinks there’s room for diplomacy in Donald Trump’s America.

Once an aide to George W. Bush and Bush’s father before that, Holliday is in a good position to push for it. As president and CEO of the Meridian International Center, he’s navigating America’s relationships with world leaders by hosting events featuring diplomats, foreign officials, politicians and numerous Trump administration officials, including then-secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper, who is now secretary of Defense.

“Communicating what our long term goals are — and our vision is — is critically important,” Holliday, 52, says of America’s foreign policy during an interview in Meridian’s historic headquarters in northwest Washington.

He views the mission of Meridian, to strengthen U.S. engagement with the world, as more relevant than ever now because he believes there are fewer places where discussions can take place in which people respect each other’s views. Holliday has led the group for 13 years.

During Holliday’s tenure, Meridian has launched an annual global leadership summit featuring high-profile politicians, diplomats and CEOs; created a joint U.S.-France dialogue series emphasizing European alliances amid Brexit; launched new collaborations with companies and foreign countries; and created a social innovation fellowship, among other endeavors.

Meridian, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, reported revenue of $37.2 million in its most recent annual report and listed corporate and private donors, including U.S. politicians and foreign officials. The State Department is one of Meridian’s largest backers and provides funding primarily for professional exchange and youth leadership programs, a spokeswoman says. The groups’ leaders include both former Democratic and Republican-appointed government officials.

Meridian also has a half-century-old tradition of hosting an annual ball featuring a guest list that’s a Who’s Who of Washington. Last year’s was attended by White House aide Kellyanne Conway, then-spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then-GOP Rep. Ed Royce of California, all of whom rubbed shoulders with diplomats, lobbyists and journalists. 

Holliday says foreign leaders have faith in the United States and its long-term view, and also understand there are new top-of-mind concerns for the country based on how Americans have voted. They still want the United States to be a leader engaged in the world, he says.

While that vision could conflict with Trump’s promises to put “America first” and his attempts to slash State Department funding, Holliday believes the president’s objectives are not inherently in conflict with diplomatic aims.

“Our point here at Meridian is that our national interest can best be advanced by engaging with, partnering with, listening to and working with other countries — not at the expense of the American people, but actually to give them markets, to give them an opportunity to compete globally and for our security,” he says.

Meridian’s former chairman, a Democrat, concurs that Trump’s America-centric rhetoric doesn’t impact the organization’s mission, emphasizing the group’s neutrality. Still, James Blanchard — a former Michigan governor, congressman and U.S. ambassador to Canada — stresses the organization’s current importance.

“Today, especially, when there’s uncertainty as to what the U.S. foreign policy is and maybe uncertainty in terms of how strong our alliances are with historic allies, Meridian is an anchor of stability, of international understanding and appreciation for our allies all around the world,” Blanchard says.

There are particular points where Holliday sees the need for clarity on the direction the Trump administration wants to move. He pointed to trade deals as an example, as well as the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where Holliday once worked as a naval officer. Trump has pulled out of some trade deals, is attempting to renegotiate others and has said European allies need to take on more of NATO’s burdens. 

When it comes to the Paris climate agreement, from which Trump vowed the U.S. would withdraw, Holliday sees flaws in the deal and doesn’t take issue with the U.S. pulling out, but says Trump could do more to show his administration is addressing climate change and is willing to work with other countries on environmental issues, including those nations that face significant threats from sea level rise.

Holliday was born in Malawi, where his father was working as a foreign service officer, and grew up in a series of countries, including France, Morocco and Kuwait. His family emphasized public service, and his upbringing sparked an interest in international affairs.

After college, Holliday joined the navy as an intelligence officer, where he witnessed the end of the Cold War and its aftermath and served in Operation Desert Storm. His career included stints in public affairs, consulting and internationally focused non-profit work, as he moved through political roles.

Holliday spent years working on campaigns and in government posts for both Bush presidents. His first major political job was working on then-President George Bush’s failed re-election campaign. That’s how he met his wife, Gwen  Moore Holliday, who worked in Bill Clinton’s camp. They got engaged on election night in 1992.

The experience of the failed campaign illuminated to Holliday the importance in politics of connecting international engagement to concrete improvements in Americans’ lives.

He went on to work for George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas and followed him to Washington when he won the presidency. Holliday held a White House role advising the younger Bush on government appointments and, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was tasked with helping staff the White House’s first homeland security office. 

Under Bush, Holliday held two State Department positions before he took on his U.N. role as U.S. ambassador for special political affairs, representing the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council.

Holliday, who worked on U.S. peacekeeping policy, found that peace- and institution-building generally lacked the proper investment, leading to notable failures including in Haiti and the Congo.

At Meridian, he says he’s shifted the organization’s attitude away from having foreign leaders come to the U.S. to gain knowledge of American ways and toward exchanges to collaborate and share ideas.

Blanchard says fresh programs, more frequent events and a new diplomacy center, as well as outreach to and training for corporate executives, are among Holliday’s marks on the group.

Holliday is hopeful for a world moving toward more democracy and peace. The right voices must be elevated, he notes, and the “ghosts of the past” can’t constrain the U.S.’s ability to advance as a world leader. “The voices that are pointing out the negative or things that divide us are louder or get more coverage,” Holliday says, “It’s important to give voice to those people around the world, including right here at home, who all want kind of the same thing for their families.”

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