Near the end of each year I like to do a countdown of the greatest hits of the past 12 months as a way of pondering and celebrating prior efforts before jumping into the new projects ahead. I always enjoy assembling the Top Ten list, but 2013 posed a couple of special difficulties. First, this 175th year of American diplomatic engagement in the territory of Aotearoa has been one of the busiest and most exciting periods in that long history of relations between our two societies, which makes choosing just ten highlights very difficult. Second, this will be my final year-end musing as Ambassador, which makes the enterprise bittersweet.

A few of our featured icons.

A few of the American icons featured at our 2013 Independence Day receptions.

Among the impactful efforts that would easily have made the list in prior years but got edged out this time around were our exuberant, super-hero themed American Independence Day events, the visit of Attorney General Eric Holder in May, deployment of NASA’s SOFIA airborne telescope in Christchurch, our joyous tour of Samoa with the Harlem Gospel Choir, Dancing Earth’s inaugural trip, commemorations of the 70th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt‘s visit to New Zealand …

… the launch of the American Ambassador Award for Best Social Impact at the inaugural Film Raro Festival, the Arizona Diamondback baseball clinic in Eden Park run by superstar Paul Goldschmidt, the launch of Hawaiian Airlines service between Auckland and Honolulu, bringing the NASA Space Apps Challenge to Auckland University of Technology, and, of course, celebrating the 175th anniversary of the opening of the first American consulate in 1838 in the Bay of Islands.

Click for image source. Hawaiian soars above Oahu en route to New Zealand.

Hawaiian soars above Oahu en route to New Zealand.

Despite the overwhelming temptation, I decided against a Top Forty-Seven List because that just would not have had the right resonance. So, after a great deal of thought, anguish, and revision, what follows is my Top Ten countdown for the very special year now rapidly drawing to a close:

10.  Benjamin Franklin Salons

This year we launched a new program to assemble small groups of experts to share perspectives with each other, brainstorm, discuss common ground, and deepen understanding on particular issues of importance. Named after one of my American heroes, Benjamin Franklin, the series is among our most dynamic and impactful projects of the past four years. Thus far I’ve hosted salons on topics such as oceans health, civil society capacity-building in Pacific island nations, intellectual property, and social entrepreneurship.

Click for source.Benjamin Franklin’s legacy endures in this statue in Paris

Benjamin Franklin’s legacy endures in this statue in Paris.

Usually held at the Residence in Wellington or the Consul General’s home in Auckland, each salon brings together 12 to 15 experts and interested persons from a great diversity of perspectives and positions for an extended lunch discussion. For example, our oceans health salon included not only scientists and environmentalists but commercial fishing executives, journalists, and a poet. All of the salons have been interesting, dynamic, useful, and – despite the weighty topics – much fun.

I think that Ben would be pleased. One of history’s greatest polymaths and America’s first Ambassador, Franklin was dispatched to Paris to persuade the French king to recognize the young American nation and assist us in our Revolution. Denied access to the French court for an extended period, Franklin began regularly hosting salons that brought together French scientists, writers, philosophers, clergy, and politicians to discuss the big issues facing the two countries, thus building understanding that greatly benefited both societies. In my view, he invented public diplomacy and saved our Revolution.

9.  Our new Digital Studio

Another highlight of the year was the opening of our new Digital Studio in what had been the Embassy’s library for the past 40 years. Fully outfitted with alternate sets, full-wall green screen, and high-grade digital equipment, the space is now being heavily utilized for content creation for our social media platforms as well as taping interviews and features for other uses, livestreaming, multilocation hangouts and collaborations, audio/video podcasts, graphics, and more.

Interviewing CEO of Genovation Cars Andrew Saul in the Studio

CEO of Genovation Cars Andrew Saul is interviewed in our Studio.

Creating the facility was the most impactful manifestation this year of our commitment to developing and employing new diplomatic tools and approaches. As I’ve discussed before, we have positioned Embassy Wellington as a bit of an idea lab for 21st Century Statecraft because embracing change allows us to engage with Kiwis, Samoans, and others in a more expansive way, to have more meaningful conversations, and to be more effective in our work.

Thus far, dozens of visitors and local luminaries have shared their observations and ideas in front of the cameras, including Minister of Women’s Affairs the Hon. Jo Goodhew, NASA astronaut Marsha Ivins, Victory University Wellington Student Association President Rory McCourt, community resilience expert Daniel Aldrich, Lise Edwards of Gender Allies, visiting think tank and corporate leaders, and many of our Fulbright Scholars and IVLP alumni. And we’re just getting started.

8.  First Nations International Visitor Leadership Program

Although the study tour won’t actually occur until 2014, I have to include on the 2013 Top Ten list an exciting exchange program that we developed and planned over the course of this year. We will be sending six young Maori entrepreneurs and business leaders to the U.S. for three weeks next March to meet with American Indian and Alaskan Native business leaders and to experience firsthand the diversity and richness of American first peoples’ cultures, tribal structures, and economic enterprises.

Click for image source.Solar Project at Ho-Chunk Incorporated in Nebraska.

Among the planned stops on the itinerary are the extensive green energy and other enterprises of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska.

Organized within the framework of the International Visitor Leadership Program, one of my favorite State Department exchanges, the itinerary will include visits to energy projects in Arizona and New Mexico, tech and investment companies in Washington State, a diversified international economic development enterprise in Nebraska, and large-scale commercial fishing operations in Alaska, all owned and operated by first peoples tribes. The study tour will end in Washington, DC with policy discussions at various agencies and the Embassy of Tribal Nations.

Our travelers will be Ngarimu Blair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, Toa Greening of Te Huarahi Tika Trust, Gina Rangi of Tuaropaki Trust, Paki Rawiri of Tainui, Lisa Tumahai of Ngāi  Tahu, and Jamie Tuuta of Te Tumu Paeroa. My hope is that they will return to New Zealand with valuable new relationships, business networks, and ideas that will help expand, deepen, and enrich the relationship between our two societies and among the first peoples of our two countries. If successful, I hope that this will be just the first of an ongoing series of similar networking projects.

7.  Connecting Young Leaders Conference

It should be no surprise that our annual Connecting Young Leaders (CYL) Conference hits the list again this year. You just cannot beat the extraordinary energy, enthusiasm, excitement, and intellectual ruckus when we bring my student advisers from New Zealand’s various universities together for a long weekend of networking, policy discussions, and leadership training. I plan my year around Connecting Young Leaders, and it is always one of the most instructive and valuable events that I attend.

With several of my student advisers at the opening reception.

With several of my student advisers at the opening reception.

This year’s conference was the biggest and best to-date, with more than 80 of New Zealand’s top students and more than a dozen impressive speakers and workshop leaders convening at the University of Otago in Dunedin. The program included particularly dynamic break-out sessions on topics such as youth involvement in local government, establishing and running a charitable organization, sustainable development, the role of media in effecting change, and protecting heritage and cultural values.

As I’ve said before, perhaps what makes me happiest about my time as Ambassador is how well our student programs have put down deep, vibrant, authentic roots and spread to other Embassies. You can’t genuinely understand and embrace a society without engaging its youth, and I’m delighted that we have now firmly focused our attention on the future rather than just the past or present. It’s an investment that will greatly enrich both of our societies. I very much look forward to reading about CYL conferences for many years to come.

6.  Pacific Armies Conclaves (PACC & PAMS)

The United States and New Zealand have a long and distinguished history of working together to make the world a more stable, secure, and free place. Over the past four years we have together reinvigorated our security cooperation by conducting humanitarian and disaster relief exercises, restarting regular strategic dialogues, and celebrating touchstones of our shared history such as last year’s 70th anniversary of the arrival of American military forces in New Zealand during World War II and this year’s 70th anniversary of key exercises by U.S. Marines here before determinative battles in the Pacific islands.

New Zealand Defense Minister Coleman welcomes General Odierno to New Zealand.

Defence Minister Coleman welcomes General Odierno to New Zealand.

In 2013, we jointly hosted in Auckland both the 8th biennial Pacific Armies Chiefs Conference (PACC) and the 37th annual Pacific Armies Management Seminar (PAMS), with an agenda focused on collaboration in peacekeeping operations in a United Nations context. The chiefs of army and other senior officers from 32 nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans region attended, including U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno and Commanding General of the U.S. Army in the Pacific General Vincent Brooks.

The American and Kiwi military co-hosts led multilateral discussions with our regional counter-parts on issues of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, training for unit interoperability, and coordinating and expediting operational and tactical logistics during emergency situations. There was a full and productive exchange of perspectives, dynamic brainstorming, and the networking that seeds life-saving collaboration. PACC and PAMS were unequivocal successes, demonstrating the wisdom and value of our renewed security engagement.

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Please stay tuned. I’ll continue the countdown in a couple days.

DH Sig