In October 2013, President Obama nominated Boston lawyer Robert Barber to succeed Luis Arreaga as US Ambassador to Iceland—a choice that drew surprisingly intense scrutiny and criticism from the media, in the United States and elsewhere.
An industrious fundraiser for Obama’s two presidential campaigns, and a neophyte to the increasingly complex world of foreign relations, Barber was criticised not only by members of the US Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee but also by prominent comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for his perceived inexperience and status as a “political appointee” (a term frequently used in US politics to describe officials who are granted senior-level government positions less for their outstanding qualifications and experience, more for their political fundraising efforts and connections).
Barber and several other concurrent ambassadorial nominees created a widespread public perception that US ambassadorships were up for sale, shedding light on the sometimes controversial ways the American government goes about selecting occupants for its top diplomatic posts. Furthermore, a contentious political climate in Washington DC caused Barber’s confirmation to be delayed for over a year, leaving Iceland without a permanent representative from the US for a substantial period of time. This delay caused personnel shifts within the US Embassy that prevented the staff from operating at full capacity.
After arriving to Iceland in January, Ambassador Barber has hit the ground running to make up for lost time. A gracious and relentless optimist, he is determined to work hard at strengthening commercial and diplomatic ties between Iceland and the United States throughout his tenure in Iceland.
Doing his homework
Barber does not shy away from addressing the controversy surrounding his appointment and assuring the public that it’s his credentials and experiences, not just his fundraising efforts, that got him the job.
He cites his prolific career as a business law attorney as one of his best professional qualifications to serve in this position. He believes that his decades of experience helping businesses get started and develop their entrepreneurial principles have given him the ability to connect people and institutions with similar economic interests and goals.
Furthermore, he did not sit idle during his lengthy confirmation process—he was hard at work studying Icelandic politics and culture, making connections in Washington, and preparing for the rigors of the US Foreign Service.
One of his biggest jobs as US Ambassador is to promote commercial partnerships between America and Iceland, and his interactions with Icelanders so far have made him optimistic about the future relationship between both countries. “Every experience has been terrific. I’m in awe of this country and of the people that I’ve met,” he explains. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve done so far, and am very much anticipating meeting Icelanders where they are and getting to know as many folks as I can while I’m here. That’s just great fun for me as well as just part of the job.”
Of all the things he has researched since coming to Iceland, Barber has developed a particular interest in Iceland’s renewable energy capabilities. “I’m completely fascinated with many things about Iceland, but on the commercial side, with Iceland’s position in the renewable energy sector and the knowledge and expertise that folks here have… [I’m] interested in any effort in which I can engage that helps to bring to the rest of the world that capability that is, in many ways, unique to Iceland,” he says.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Ambassador Barber has also taken on the formidable task of learning Icelandic, which resulted in a YouTube video of him showcasing his burgeoning linguistic skills. “There’s an excellent Icelandic instructor who works with the US government to teach the language,” he explains, “and it’s a required course for a number of the Foreign Service officers who come to Iceland.” In the video, which was released back in January, Barber expresses in Icelandic how excited and honoured he feels to be the next US Ambassador to Iceland, while introducing (in English) his personal and professional background, his wife and three grown boys, and his love for the Boston Red Sox baseball team.
He hopes to continue honing his Icelandic abilities throughout his tenure in Iceland: “My desire, frankly, is to become more capable in Icelandic certainly than I am right now. I’m lucky to be surrounded by Icelandic-speaking folks within the embassy group, who use every opportunity to try to coach me and enlighten me not just about language, but about a whole range of things Icelandic.”
Becoming Rob Barber
Barber has humble roots in Charleston, South Carolina, and attributes the bulk of his success to his mother and the tremendous example of diligence and persistence she set for him. “My mother was to me an extraordinary person, and… in the times that I’m discussing her with others, there seems to be universal agreement on that. So it’s not just me,” he says with a smile. “She was a very strong woman, a very capable person who went back to college after she had four children… she became a single parent, who worked and did a four-year college course in three years, double majored in English and History, graduated with honors, and then commenced a secondary school teaching career. She is the person who had the greatest single impact on me and my life.”
.” When asked about his most memorable experience in Iceland so far, his softer side shine through his response. “The folks at Iceland Search and Rescue had undertaken a very comprehensive effort to locate a missing American in the fall of 2013 and a whole lot of people spent hundreds and hundreds of hours, risking their own lives and safety in the effort, before the weather really prevented further search,” he explains, his voice cracking slightly. “But then in the spring of 2014, they found the remains of this American who had gone missing and brought him back, and one of the things that I really wanted was to thank them because it’s that kind of effort that to me reflects the best in humanity… so we brought them a plaque as some token of appreciation. It was an extraordinary experience.”
Looking to the future
For a brief moment last year, Iceland made headlines in the US and across the world when the small island nation’s ambassadorial nominee was caught up in a fierce, yet crucial discussion about how American policy-makers select their country’s representation abroad.
However, Ambassador Barber maintains that his reward for his campaign efforts was seeing Obama elected and counteracts his criticism by looking ahead and remaining positive and grateful for his opportunities. “What I felt at every stage along the way—and I said it at my confirmation hearing—I am one lucky guy,” he says. “I am privileged to live the life that I have lived. I am utterly honored to be nominated to this position, and to serve in it. It’s an experience of a lifetime, and I’m a very fortunate guy to be able to do this.”