Jeff Bleich ’89 Q&A
Jeff Bleich ’89 had some concerns when President Barack Obama asked him to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Australia. “Cutting ribbons and wearing sashes weren’t on my wish list,” Bleich said. “I wanted to make sure the job involved meaningful work geared toward important goals.”
Wish granted. While ambassador from 2009 to 2013, Bleich played a pivotal role in several policy advancements. He has received numerous awards, including the highest civilian honor given by the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department’s top award for a non-career ambassador. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called Bleich “the best U.S. Ambassador ever sent to Australia,” and The Australian dubbed him “Obama’s Superman.”
Now back in the Bay Area as a managing partner at Munger Tolles & Olson, Bleich will return to Boalt for Alumni Weekend. On September 20, he will describe some of his memorable experiences during a presentation entitled “Rebalancing America’s Relationship to Asia with Australia by Our Side.”
Recently, Bleich spoke with Boalt Senior Communications Writer Andrew Cohen about his work as an ambassador and his upcoming presentation.
Q: Can you summarize your Alumni Weekend talk and why you’re taking time to do this for the law school given your busy schedule?
A: I’ll describe how the U.S. manages its alliance with Australia; the planning of America’s economic, diplomatic, and security rebalance to Asia; and the challenges that will ultimately determine whether Asia rises peacefully and successfully or whether it fails to meet its promise.
I’ll also discuss the long-term implications for the U.S., and I’d like to give people a sense of what an ambassador actually does. I love coming back to the law school, and none of my professional experiences would have been possible without it. It’s a privilege to be able to give back to the State and to a school that prepared me with a world-class education.
Q: How did Boalt help prepare you for your responsibilities as ambassador?
A: I found that the skills required to be effective were very similar to the skills I was taught as a law student. Every morning you have to digest a lot of information. You have to advocate for positions, negotiate, and set different people in motion to achieve a desired result. It’s a similar set of challenges, just a different audience. Instead of a judge or jury, you’re trying to persuade a prime minister or a skeptical media. And the folks you’re setting in motion sometimes have four stars on their shoulder and oversee some important equipment.
Q: What was the toughest part of the job?
A: I think the hardest thing was maintaining the right priorities. We’re such close allies with Australia, and I didn’t want to waste time with small bilateral disputes. We were working on large global issues with an extraordinarily competent and reliable partner, so the real issue was zeroing in on what’s most important and not squandering those resources. We had 23 federal agencies in the embassy and to get everyone working together was a big management challenge. What’s more, one-third of our employees turn over every year, so it was challenging to put together great teams and then have to rebuild them 12 months later.
Q: What accomplishments were you most proud of during your time as ambassador?
A: Honestly, if I could boil it down to one or two things, then I’ve failed. Because what’s great about our relationship with Australia is that it’s very rich and complex, like a marriage. It’s a bad sign if you can say the one thing you were proud of in your marriage last year . . . . But a few things stand out. One is our rebalance effort, which included expanding our joint training exercises and expanding our Marine training in the north of Australia. I’m very proud of our doubling exports to Australia and expanding our trade relations. We brought the Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty into force and negotiated important space and cyber agreements. During the Fukushima near nuclear meltdown, we dealt with unprecedented circumstances to get water cannons from Western Australia onto Australian Air Force cargo planes in time to cool down one of the reactors in Japan. That was great cooperation between two countries handling an urgent problem first and figuring out who pays for what later.
Q: Were there any major surprises, things you didn’t anticipate before taking the job?
A: I didn’t anticipate just how high profile an American ambassador is. I didn’t anticipate that going for a jog meant two security people in front, two in back, and an armored car driving along your side. You’re always in the public eye, which was a challenge for our family and our teenage kids. I also didn’t anticipate just how challenging the job would be. To do the job right, it’s a tremendous amount of work that starts at 5 in the morning and often goes past midnight. I wasn’t bored for a minute.
Q: Much has been written about how the U.S. is perceived around the world. What did you learn in that regard during your time as ambassador?
A: As I told congressional delegations that came through, our friends watch us very carefully. Their fortunes depend largely on U.S. leadership. I don’t know that we always appreciate that— how important they are to us and how knowledgeable they are about what we do. Our friends were nervous about U.S. leadership in the period before we arrived, what with the global financial crisis and security leadership in the Iraq War that was very unpopular. We’re seeing our stock rise with countries around the world, which is very satisfying. When I first arrived there was 64 percent support for the U.S. alliance, and by the time I left it was 83 percent.
Q: Four of your fellow alums are current ambassadors: Robert Beecroft ’88 (Iraq and Egypt), Daniel Clune ’74 (Laos), John Phillips ’69 (Italy), and Frankie Reed ’79 (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu). Is there a sense of pride in terms of what your group has achieved?
A: I do think there’s a real sense of shared pride there. I think it’s also a reflection on our Boalt training. It’s always been a pluralistic law school in part because it’s a public law school, and also because Berkeley prides itself on drawing from around the world. It has a very diverse population, which helps produce lawyers that have more global perspective, greater interest in strengthening and building relationships around the world, and more facility to do that. I thank my stars that I was able to attend Berkeley for law school. It has made possible everything that has happened since.