There are many clubs on Nantucket, but few as exclusive as this.
Once you have served as a US Ambassador, the title is attached to your name in perpetuity and suggests an air of influence that few attain. Not surprisingly, Nantucket is home to an inordinate number of US Ambassadors during the summer months. Ambassadors like Rufus Gifford, whom this magazine profiled in 2015, and Matt Barzun, have found reprieve from the world stage by retreating to summer homes on the island.
There are essentially two paths to becoming an ambassador: One is that of a career diplomat and the other is by being a top fundraiser and donor to a presidential campaign. Once considered a largely ceremonial position, the appointment of ambassador has taken on a far more serious tone. As the highest ranking American official in their respective countries, ambassadors represent the president and serve American interests abroad. Moreover, in this age of terrorism, they are also highly visible targets for those intent on sending a message.
N Magazine recently met with five summer residents who served as ambassadors under either the Bush, Clinton or Obama administrations. Louis Susman, Elizabeth Bagley, James Nicholson, Nancy Soderberg and Timothy Broas are only a selection of the ambassadors with Nantucket ties, but they provide an inside look into this exclusive club.
Ambassador to the Court of St. James
From 2009 to 2013, Nantucket summer resident Louis Susman held what many consider the most coveted appointment in the United States Foreign Service: The Ambassadorship to the Court of St. James. “They tell me it’s the number one,” Susman says in his study on Washing Pond Road. “It’s all because of the ‘Special Relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom… It’s the hub that everything goes through.”
A former managing director and vice chairman of Citigroup, Susman was a prodigious fundraiser for the Democratic Party, earning himself the nickname of “Hoover” and “The Vacuum Cleaner” for sucking up donations for candidates ranging from John Kerry to Barack Obama. When President Obama offered him the Ambassadorship to the Court of St. James, Susman accepted before even asking his wife. “[The President] asked, ‘Don’t you want to think about it for a minute?’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘No, I don’t want you to change your mind.’”
The distinction of being Ambassador to the Court of St. James has been held by five US presidents and comes with much pomp and circumstance. Susman and his wife Marjorie delivered his credentials to the Queen by way of horse-drawn carriage and royal guard in an elaborate parade to Buckingham Palace. They lived in a twenty-room mansion on twelve-acres in Regent’s Park where they regularly hosted the Royal Family, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and many other dignitaries from around the world. With a thousand-person embassy and consulates in both Edinburgh and Northern Ireland at his disposal, Susman was the most powerful American official in the United Kingdom.
“There are two kinds of ambassadors,” Susman says. “There are the ambassadors that go and become more of a figurehead and then there are ambassadors that get right into the substance. I was lucky to be in the substance.” Indeed, there was plenty of substance during Susman’s tenure. His appointment came just as Julian Assange began revealing American secrets through Wikileaks, which later forced Assange to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He traveled to Afghanistan, and actively engaged the Muslim community within the United Kingdom to improve relations with the United States. As the highest-ranking American official in the United Kingdom, Susman received the same tri-weekly CIA briefings as the President. “Some things you wouldn’t want to know,” he says.
Four years into his tenure as ambassador, Susman received a phone call that he’ll never forget. At 3:30 in the morning, his houseman woke him up with Obama’s Situation Room on the line. “They told me to call 10 Downing Street and wake up the Prime Minister,” Susman remembers today. “We’d just killed Osama Bin Ladin.”
Looking today at the string of terrorist attacks to hit London, Susman says, “I think we’re all going to have to live with this for a long time because the ISIL issue is not just a battlefield — it’s a battlefield of religion, battlefield of thought, a battlefield of all kinds of things.” He adds, “If the public knew how many attacks [the British] were able to successfully thwart while I was there… it would send a chill up your spine.”
But Ambassador Susman’s concerns extend far beyond the threat of terrorism. “The world is messed up,” he says. “Whether you look at Europe and Southern Europe… you look at Africa and their terrible issues of poverty and corruption… when you look at the Middle East in turmoil forever… then you get to North Korea, which I think is the biggest potential problem facing us today. Then you go further into the South China sea… it’s all pretty messed up.”
Not to mention, Susman is concerned about the future of the United Kingdom. “I think Brexit will be a disaster for the United Kingdom,” he says. “It was a horrible mistake. For the United Kingdom, it has the potential of marginalizing the country… the cost of it is going to be large.” These are some of the topics Louis Susman ponders today from his summer home on Nantucket, where he’s been summering since 1969. Interestingly enough, Susman successor as Ambassador to the Court of St. James was yet another island summer resident, Matt Barzun. So while the United Kingdom might be more than three thousand miles away from Nantucket, it has a special relationship with the island that remains ever strong.
Ambassador to Portugal
When Elizabeth Bagley arrived in Portugal in September 1994, the odds were stacked against her. Not only was she the first female US Ambassador to Portugal, but she was also the youngest by thirty years and the first non-career diplomat appointed to the post. “I came in with my son at the age of one and my daughter clinging on to my skirt,” Bagley says today in her summer home on Eel Point Road. “My husband was 6’6” and he looked the part of ambassador and I looked the part of young mother. So it took some time for people to understand that I was the ambassador. I had to prove myself more than any male ambassador.”
Bagley set out to make her position clear from the beginning. During her first meeting with the Prime Minister, she had arranged an invitation to the Clinton White House, an offer that had never been extended to him while H.W. Bush was in office. “I wanted to bring something to the table to prove my worth,” she says. “I knew they were going to be looking at me with more suspicion because they really wanted George H.W. Bush to win.”
Bagley had pulled a number of strings to arrange the visit, so she was taken aback when the Prime Minister nonchalantly turned down her invitation. But Bagley doubled down and advised that it wouldn’t be politically expedient for him to refuse the invitation. Everyone in the room drew quiet, until finally he accepted.
This type of political maneuvering was nothing new for Elizabeth Bagley, whose first encounters with politics came at a young age while her father was campaigning to be a family court judge. Before taking her post as Ambassador to Portugal, she’d held a number of positions in all levels of government, including working for Senator Ted Kennedy, who became a long time friend and mentor. She and her late husband, Smith Bagley — heir to the RJR tobacco fortune — became legendary fundraisers for Democratic candidates, ultimately earning her the appointment to Portugal.
By the end of her tenure, Bagley was widely beloved by the Portuguese. She had flexed her political muscle to push through a Lajes Treaty on Cooperation Defense that Bagley says had been in negotiation for nearly a hundred years, and was subsequently able to secure long desired F-16s for the Portuguese Air Force. The Prime Minister came to admire Bagley so much that he awarded her the Grand Cross of Prince Henry the Navigator, the highest civilian honor in the country.
Most recently, Bagley was a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Had Clinton been elected, Bagley would have undoubtedly occupied a prestigious post in her administration. On top of her despair over Clinton’s defeat, Bagley is deeply worried about President Trump’s leadership. “I’m concerned that he doesn’t understand foreign policy,” Bagley says. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, which is really dangerous … I’m worried that this is a transactional foreign policy… He is decimating the State Department. I’m also worried about the militarization of foreign policy. There will be no soft power, there is only hard power. The importance of diplomacy cannot be underrated — and it is.”
Today, Bagley remains a fierce supporter of the Democratic Party. “I’m not looking to any presidential [candidates] right now,” she says. “What I’m trying to do is help the House and the Senate. We need twenty seats to flip the House to the Democrats, which is really important in terms of impeachments, subpoena power, and a lot of major issues.” And while she might consider the situation dire, Bagley is quick to say that “politics is the art of the possible… it is a question of getting to yes and having the will to come part way and compromise.”
Ambassador to the Vatican
James Nicholson presented his ambassadorial credentials to Pope John Paul II just two days after the September 11th attacks. Instead of following the traditional ceremony, Nicholson and the Pope put aside their prepared remarks and prayed together for the victims. Nicholson then briefed the Pope on the attacks, to which the leader of the Catholic Church responded, “Ambassador Nicholson, we have to stop these people from killing in the name of God.” Reflecting on that conversation today from his living room on Vestal Street, Nicholson says, “That was a very significant thing for the Pope to say… That ended up being very helpful to us — in invoking his moral authority and putting a coalition together to go into Afghanistan.”
Nicholson was appointed Ambassador to the Vatican in 2001 after serving as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee that helped elect George W. Bush. “When I think of Jim Nicholson, I think about one of the finest public servants I have ever known,” President Bush once said. Nicholson emerged from poverty in Iowa to attend West Point and received a number of decorations—including a Bronze Star — as an Airborne Ranger in Vietnam. He later earned a law degree from the University of Denver and a master’s degree from Columbia, before becoming a successful businessman. Then came his appointment to the Vatican.
As the Ambassador to the Vatican from 2001 to 2005, Nicholson pledged to pursue moral diplomacy and was dedicated to enhancing human dignity around the world. He spent his “diplomatic currency” on combating human trafficking, protecting freedom of religion, feeding the hungry, fighting international terrorism, and treating HIV and AIDS. “The Vatican itself is 146 acres, but they’re in commune with 1.2 billion Catholics,” Nicholson says. “So they’re tremendous conduits, which the United States use as resources.” His “moral diplomacy” so moved the Pope that Nicholson was eventually knighted for his many efforts.
Nicholson’s tenure as Ambassador to the Vatican coincided with a difficult time for the Catholic Church, particularly in the United States. In 2002, The Boston Globe began reporting on the church sex scandal that shook the church to its foundation. “The sovereign states have a lot of their internal issues, so that was a matter of concern that was problematic to my diplomatic partner, the Holy See,” says Nicholson who is a practicing Catholic. “But it was not an issue of ours at a diplomatic level. So while it came up often, it was not something of which I was involved.”
Nicholson’s tenure as ambassador ended in 2005 when President Bush appointed him head of Veterans Affairs. Since then, the physical location of the embassy has changed, but Nicholson says the role of Ambassador to the Vatican has never been more important. The relationship between President Trump and Pope Francis has been reportedly contentious. “But they had a very, very good meeting together in Rome,” says Nicholson, who supported Trump for president. “I have friends on the staff of our embassy there who tell me that the people at the Vatican were very pleased with the visit.”
Of Pope Francis, Nicholson says, “Overall I like him a great deal, but I don’t necessarily agree with him on some of the areas he’s chosen to opine — [particularly] about climate. For me, the science is too unsettled for a guy in his authority to come down the way he did.” Nicholson continues, “To me, it’s ironic because there are still over a billion people today who do not have electricity… These are the people he cares the most about, yet by supporting those who deny cheap electricity to those undeveloped countries, he’s denying the upward mobility that those people need.”
More globally speaking, Nicholson’s main concern is international terrorism. “These stateless terrorists represent a tremendous threat to the way of life that people in civilized societies have come to expect,” he says. “And it’s amplified by the fact that these people are willing to give their own lives in this disruptive behavior, which is a huge, huge moral problem. We need to be clever, consistent and persistent about the need for all countries to try to bring about a realignment so that religion is not a zero sum game.”
The intersection of religion and politics remains an ever-heated aspect of American society. And yet in Ambassador Nicholson’s experience, church and state — or in this case the Catholic Church and the United States—can not only coexist, but also work together for the betterment of the rest of the world.
Ambassador to the United Nations
As Ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton Administration, longtime summer resident Nancy Soderberg’s primary focus was on peacekeeping missions. Her appointment came after the Rwanda genocide in which inadequate numbers of troops were deployed. “Had we had more troops on the ground in Rwanda,” she says, “that could have been prevented.” With the tragic lessons learned from Rwanda and later with Somalia, Soderberg entered the UN committed to pursuing peacekeeping missions around the world.
“In terms of the most successful peacekeeping missions, I would probably say it was in Bosnia and Kosovo,” Soderberg says. “We saved a lot of lives in Kosovo… We stood up to Milosevic and basically he ended up not slaughtering a lot of Albanians in Kosovo.” She adds, “What’s powerful about representing the United States is that when the United States acts, it literally saves lives. It’s not you personally, it’s you representing the power of the United States, which is a real privilege and honor to be part of when you see it work.”
The United Nations deploys the second largest number of troops in the world. The United States is number one. As Ambassador to the United Nations, Soderberg was in the midst of two world powers that could bring about great change. Yet when it came to peacekeeping missions, she noticed an interesting trend. “I was very involved in the Irish peace process and saw firsthand the role of women in demanding peace because women are the ones who bear the brunt of conflict,” she says. “They lose their husbands, have to raise their kids alone, manage the households, and they’re the ones who saw first the possibility of peace in Northern Ireland.” With this in mind, Ambassador Soderberg also used her tenure to bring more women into peacekeeping roles.
Soderberg’s ascension to Ambassador to the United Nations was a high point in an already distinguished career in civil service. After serving as the Foreign Policy Director during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, Soderberg was appointed to Staff Director of the National Security Council. When Clinton appointed her as Alternative Representative to the United Nations as a Presidential Appointee, she was given the rank of Ambassador. For four years, Soderberg sat on the UN Security Council directly next to Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, who has recently been a central figure in the Trump/ Russia controversy. “He can switch between being a very sophisticated man of the world to a Soviet apparatchik within thirty seconds,” she says. “It’s fascinating to see him now representing Putin on the world stage.”
Today, Soderberg is concerned with the White House’s position on Russia. “I don’t understand President Trump’s view of Russia as our friend — they’re not,” Soderberg says. “They work against us in Syria, in cracking down on human rights, dissidence in their own societies, locking journalists up, killing their opponents. It’s a country that’s moving in the wrong direction on pretty much every level.”
Soderberg fears that the United States is swiftly losing its leadership role on the world stage, making it far more difficult to address issues such as terrorism, cyber-attacks, climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. “Every one of those issues is a world problem and we need the world to follow us,” she says. “If we don’t lead, they’re not going to follow. That’s the risk of the new approach that’s been taken… It’s perplexing that an administration thinks that they don’t have to engage on these issues and can just walk away and think that United States interests are going to be protected.”
But Soderberg isn’t just watching this unfold — she’s taking political action once again. At press time, she was preparing to announce her bid for Congress in Florida’s 6th Congressional District. “If I can win this seat, it will turn the House Democratic, and force compromise and negotiations on some of the key issues facing the United States,” she says. In particular, Soderberg is concerned with health care, the middle class, education, and the growing lack of civil discourse in Washington. “I’ve spent all my life worrying about democracy abroad,” she says. “I never in a million years thought I’d have to worry about it here at home.”
Ambassador to the Netherlands
A distinguished lawyer and top fundraiser for President Obama, Timothy Broas accepted his appointment as Ambassador to the Netherlands without hesitation. “I always wanted to serve my country,” says Broas, who has been summering on Nantucket since 1988. “I was very excited when the White House [sent me] to the Netherlands.” With his ambassadorship based in The Hague, Broas’s credentials as a lawyer made him particularly suited for his position. “We also have Dutch roots. Broas is a Dutch name,” he says. “So I think that might have had something to do with it, too.”
Serving from 2014 to 2016, Broas’s responsibilities covered a range of diplomatic activities. First and foremost, he was representing President Obama and working with the Dutch government on matters of diplomacy, business, politics and foreign relations. Another top priority for all ambassadors is “commercial diplomacy.” Broas sought to facilitate business between American and Dutch companies. “The Dutch are the world’s number one trading country — they’ve been traders for centuries — and we learned a lot from them as traders when our country was very young and just being formed.”
Ambassador Broas also devoted a significant amount of time and effort to enhancing relations between the US and Dutch militaries. He traveled extensively throughout the Netherlands and other parts of the world where the Dutch military is serving side by side with the US military. “The Dutch are one of the strongest supporters of our national security efforts around the globe. They are one of the founding members of NATO,” says Broas. “As a son of a US Marine, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the Dutch military and our defense attachés to do whatever I could do to promote strong relations.” As a result of his efforts, Broas was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award from the Secretary of the US Navy.
In addition to being the world’s foremost trading country, the Dutch are also the world’s premiere experts on water management. Ambassador Broas devoted significant time and effort working with the Dutch water management industry. “Because they are surrounded by water and most of the country is below sea level, the Dutch are very vulnerable to flooding and storms,” Broas explains. “They have done an amazing job of building dikes and dams and deltas and dunes to protect the country from flooding and climate change. The Dutch have been believers in climate change for a long time and it has factored into their planning. There’s no scientific debate in the Netherlands about climate change.”
Broas became involved in water management even before he arrived in the Netherlands, and consulted with the Dutch Special Water Envoy and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in connection with the post-Hurricane Sandy mitigation efforts in New York and New Jersey. “The Dutch water management experts are providing invaluable assistance to the post-Katrina, and post-Sandy remedial efforts,” Broas says. “They are an indispensable partner.”
Considering climate change as the greatest threat facing the United States, indeed facing the world, Broas took advantage of every opportunity to learn about how the Dutch are preparing for continued risings seas and more powerful storms. “When members of Congress and other government officials, state or federal, came to visit the Netherlands, we would show them the various Dutch projects and how they deal with water and their canal systems and their river systems,” Broas says. “I was always a believer in climate change, but spending almost three years over there, I really came to understand how significant and real a threat it is.”
In addition to these responsibilities and diplomatic tasks, Broas also enjoyed his role in cultural and sports diplomacy. “The Netherlands have some of the world’s finest museums all over the country,” Broas says. “Whether Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer or dozens of other great Dutch Masters, they have it all. I worked extensively with all the art organizations and museums.” Last but not least, Ambassador Broas devoted much time to “sports diplomacy.” He is an avid baseball fan — and the Dutch love baseball. He devoted whatever time he could spare to help the Dutch Baseball Federation enhance its relations with Major League Baseball (MLB). Even after retiring from his ambassadorship, he continues to work with the Dutch Kingdom’s leagues in the Netherlands and Curacao to promote awareness in the United States of the enormous talent that the Kingdom produces and brings to the MLB and other countries around the world.
Now retired from the Foreign Service, Broas points to the new administration’s position on climate change as one of his greatest concerns for the country today. By pulling out of the Paris Agreement, seeking to revitalize the coal industry, and reversing a number of Obama’s executive actions that targeted reducing auto emissions and carbon output, Broas is concerned that our country, one of the world’s largest polluters, is not exercising the necessary leadership to protect and preserve the planet.
“I’d have to say that climate change is the thing I put at the top of the list,” Broas says. “I have children and worry about their future and the future of my children’s children and beyond because if we don’t do something to stop or at least slow down climate change, this earth is not going to survive in the form we know and love.” He adds, “The low-lying areas will go first.” Low-lying areas like Nantucket.