conversation with Rockwell Schnabel
If diplomats are paid to see every glass as at least half full, Rockwell A. Schnabel was one who made sure he would never go thirsty.
To Schnabel, a part-time Wood River Valley resident who served as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union from 2001 to 2005, the world is an oyster—albeit one with grains of sand irritating the flesh here and there. Where some people see poverty, he sees opportunities for economies to grow and flourish. Where some see threats of rising economic foes, he sees the potential for partnerships.
On vacations in Idaho
Schnabel is particularly bullish about the potential of free global trade and commercial innovation to make the world a better place, to raise the standard of living for people of all tiers, from Idaho to Indonesia. "What is incredibly positive in the world today is that we have a global economy that is working on all cylinders," he said. "There are a lot of very positive things going on."
Schnabel—who with his wife, Marna, maintains a comfortable, quiet vacation house in Ketchum—has had an inside view of the workings of the world’s governments and economies that few can boast. He was born in The Netherlands, where he attended the prestigious Trinity College. After launching a successful business career in the United States, he served for three years as the U.S. ambassador to Finland under President Ronald Reagan. He served in the two highest positions in the U.S. Department of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush. In late September 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress approved him as President George W. Bush’s nominee as the nation’s chief envoy to the European Union—the economic alliance of European nations he would ultimately characterize as "the next superpower."
On the media
"I think there is too much opinion giving, on both sides, by the way. … I would like to see more emphasis on some of the great things going on in the world—some of the positive."
With his combed gray hair and neatly pressed business attire, Schnabel looks every part the diplomat he once was, and the business leader he still is. He speaks with purpose and a heavy dose of gravity, yet he doesn’t hesitate to enjoy a casual laugh. He likes to ski. He likes to entertain. His friends, in Ketchum and elsewhere, know him as "Rock."
Today, Schnabel is the chairman of The Sage Group, a merchant banking firm based in Los Angeles, where he resides most of the time. He is also active with several political think tanks, and sits on the governing boards of a group of select companies: one in Europe, one in Singapore, and one in India. "It sometimes seems like too much," Schnabel said, but it seems that for him too much is just enough.
On the global economy
He spends a few holidays and most of the summer in Ketchum, a place he reveres for the solitude and small-town charm. He is a longtime supporter of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, and has been involved with the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. He was a featured speaker at the conference in August 2005, when he was promoting his recently released book, The Next Superpower? The Rise of Europe and Its Challenge to the United States. "What I like about Ketchum is I can walk around and run into people on the street corners and in the stores. In L.A., where I know lots of people and have lots of kids, I go out and I don’t run into anybody."
Although Schnabel is unabashedly American, his views on just about everything—from commerce and foreign relations to politics and the environment—are shaped by his acute understanding of Europe. Much of that insight comes from his four years in Brussels, Belgium, the headquarters of the U.S. Mission to the European Union. Brussels was his home base for networking with the business and political leaders of the E.U. member states, which now number 25. "It was an incredible job," he said. "But it was not easy because early on there were problems the Europeans didn’t like. Kyoto, steel tariffs, the Iraq issue. People think that these are cushy jobs. … Perhaps, in the past, that was true. But today it is a full-time, difficult job."
The "Kyoto" Schnabel is referring to is the Kyoto Protocol, a widely accepted global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that President George W. Bush declined to support. And, of course, the "Iraq issue" is the Iraq war, which was launched about midway through Schnabel’s tenure as ambassador to the E.U., much to the chagrin of many Europeans.
On Iraq, Schnabel chooses his words carefully, and prefers to characterize the war as just one front in the war on terrorism, what he deems to be the most important issue facing the United States today. "The issue of terrorism is not in one country. The extremist views of terrorists who want to undermine our country is not something that is easy to address," he said. "We have to be vigilant. Terrorism really is the No. 1 issue. I think the next election will reflect that."
Like many aspects of life, Schnabel sees the war on terrorism partially in economic terms. "People need confidence and security to operate and consume. Fear can slow economic development."
Schnabel is clearly a supporter of President George W. Bush, his former boss, but isn’t afraid to advocate, ever so subtly, that diplomacy should have an up-front position in the foreign-policy playbook. "I was relatively straight-forward and outspoken in my job. … There is a need for humility. It is important to be humble," he said. "If you come from arrogance, it is much more difficult than to come from humility."
He believes that President
Bush perhaps started out with too much power and strength, but has made
adjustments, and "things today on the leadership level are in good
In the E.U., he sees an economic force that might one day equal the United States. Nonetheless, he likes to view the rise of Europe as an opportunity to find commonalities that might benefit both continents in the face of developing economic powers in Asia. "Regardless of the differences that exist—such as the war in Iraq, Kyoto, the death penalty—in essence, we must work together."
Schnabel is a staunch supporter of free trade, despite arguments by some pundits that it has prompted the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the United States. Global competition to sell products is omnipresent, he said. "You can’t stop it. … We need to be clever to compete with the world."
He calls his book about the E.U. a "labor of love," a project that has a true purpose but not a personal agenda. "There was nothing political about this thing," he said. "It’s the story of why the E.U. is important. It affects all of our lives on a daily basis." Proceeds from the book go the U.S. State Department, which doles them out once a year to a beneficiary who promotes United States-E.U. relations.
Politically, Schnabel leans to the right. He has worked for three Republican presidents and is hopeful that another can win the White House in 2008. Early in the race, he is supporting former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "He has got his soul in this thing. … I find him very appealing."
In discussing Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, Schnabel demonstrates why he was such a successful diplomat. "I think she is clearly liked intensely and disliked intensely by a lot of people," he said. "I, personally, do not believe in a lot of the things she stands for."
As for Idaho, Schnabel calls it "a way of life," a place where the pressure is less and one can truly appreciate his surroundings. He envisions a positive future for the state, in part because of its roots in agriculture. "I think that agriculture is going to become more important. … I think that the days of cheap agricultural products are almost over."
And, though it might seem strange to some Idahoans, a strong economy in Europe means a stronger economy in Idaho, he said.
In the end, the optimism never wanes. He is hopeful the war in Iraq will provide an open, democratic society in which successful businesses can bring relative prosperity. He is confident the United States will meet the newfound challenges of the global economy. And he even has high hopes for the Middle East, a region where he believes a pattern witnessed in other parts of the world—of closed societies opening up to yield peace and higher standards of living—will eventually take hold. "I have to believe that ultimately the good of the people will win out," he said. "We saw it in Russia. We saw it in Eastern Europe. Freedom benefits people."