When Stuart Holliday took the reins of the Meridian International Center just over seven years ago, the organization was well established in Washington, but falling short of its potential.
Founded in 1960 on a spacious and elegant piece of real estate just off of 16th Street, NW, not far from U Street, Meridian has long made good on its mission of serving as a cultural hub for Washington’s international community, as well as a place where future global leaders are groomed.
But Holliday, the son of U.S. diplomats and a former U.S. ambassador for special political affairs at the United Nations, thought Meridian could do better. Last month, as Meridian prepared for its annual Meridian Ball and Global Leadership Summit in October, Holliday sat down with The Diplomat to talk about the center’s ambitious plans for the future.
“Our mission is critical — strengthening international collaboration and understanding — but there are so many opportunities to apply that,” Holliday said during an expansive interview in his sun-splashed Meridian office. “Taking this jewel and, you know, fulfilling its potential was a great opportunity for me, and it aligns with my background as the son of a diplomat who grew up with an international background.
Holliday arrived at Meridian armed with a wealth of international management experience. Prior to his appointment as CEO and president of Meridian — a job he landed vis-à-vis an executive search by the institution — Holliday had served as an assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs and as principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. He also worked in the early days of the George W. Bush White House, where he advised the president on appointments to the State Department, Defense Department, Veterans Department, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Peace Corps, FEMA, NASA, USAID and various ambassadorships.
Holliday said his tenure at the State Department allowed him to wear two hats. “One was a policy hat — when I was at the U.N. working on the Security Council — and one was a diplomatic hat, and it was a great fit,” he said. “It’s helped me understand better how we can serve as a resource of the State Department having worked at the State Department.”
State’s longstanding relationship with Meridian made Holliday a natural fit for the job because he understood the organization’s mission and he had some ideas for how to expand it. Holliday said that today’s challenging global environment calls for strong leadership skills, and Meridian provides that to thousands of aspiring government leaders from around the world every year.
“We’ve had a long relationship with the State Department in terms of Meridian’s identity and our role with respect to public diplomacy and exchange,” Holliday explained. “The landscape has changed in terms of the need for more leadership collaboration to include the private sector more, and to look at what we would call an exchange.
“In the old days, it was really about building goodwill,” Holliday said about Meridian’s early mission. “What I’ve tried to do at Meridian is first, include the private sector more in programs, create public-private partnerships where we can, help support bridging the State Department and private sector in terms of expanding the impact of their programs, and take advantage of our relationships with our corporate council, which we’ve developed.”
In addition to partnerships that connect U.S. and foreign governments with the private sector, Meridian works with the State Department and America’s embassies worldwide to forge international partnerships through leadership and cultural exchanges. To date, Meridian has conducted exchange programs for more than 65,000 foreign professionals over the last 50 years and organized cultural exhibitions for 357 host venues in 44 U.S. states and 55 countries.
Events hosted by the Meridian run the gamut (also see “With Flurry of New Programs, Meridian Moves With the Times” in the October 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat). In recent months, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a talk on U.S.-India relations; Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats discussed anti-poaching efforts; Meridian arranged four “Capitol Hill Day” job-shadowing sessions for 78 undergraduate students representing 14 countries; ambassadors explored the importance of culinary diplomacy; and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities awarded Meridian a $20,000 Sister Cities International Arts Grant to deepen ties between D.C. and Ankara, Turkey.
But under Holliday, Meridian has honed its focus on cultivating leadership skills. Last year, the center introduced its Global Leadership Summit, held alongside its widely anticipated Meridian Ball.
The summit drew corporate heavyweights such as David M. Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, Jay L. Johnson of General Dynamics, and ambassadors from India, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Gambia and the United Arab Emirates. This year’s summit will feature Ambassadors Ashok Mirpuri of Singapore and Eduardo Medina Mora of Mexico; as well as Shaygan Kheradpir, chief operations and technology officer of Barclays; Chairman and CEO of the Corporate Executive Board Co. Tom Monahan; Tomicah S. Tillemann of the State Department; Peter Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker Architecture Prize; and Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton.
The summit is part of Meridian’s Global Leadership Project, which brings U.S. and international experts together to examine perceptions of U.S. global leadership and the key factors and issues that drive these perceptions. The annual release of Meridian’s U.S. Global Leadership Track, a joint project with Gallup, provides a continuing assessment of how the world views American leadership (also see “Gallup and Meridian Examine World Views of U.S. Leadership” in the April 2013 edition of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
Leadership events in recent years have highlighted current U.S. initiatives and broader efforts by the international community on key issues, including global health and food security; disaster response; energy and the environment; economic growth and development; innovation and technology; and women’s leadership.
“We have put together a curriculum that includes subjects like culture, political risks, public diplomacy, government relations, stability, innovation — really looking at how people now need to engage stakeholders around the world to move their agendas forward,” Holliday said.
The Meridian CEO said the organization isn’t trying to compete with numerous international graduate programs in town, but to offer something different that supports more formal educational programs.
“We don’t seek to be a school,” Holliday said. “We’re not trying to compete with universities, but we’re trying to offer our own program that can be built in and expand and support higher education programs. It’s about practical information as well as theory.”
Holliday said Meridian’s reputation as an even-handed, nonpartisan organization in a town filled with groups pushing overt political agendas is a breath of fresh air.
“Meridian fulfills a need in Washington for a neutral, nonpartisan — both domestically and globally — convening forum,” he said. “More perspectives make better policy. We’re trying to be different. There are many think tanks in Washington. We want to create content, but it’s not about advocacy. Our content really is more of a way to gain insight into global trends and issues, as well as to educate and inform.”
One of the ways Meridian spreads its influence around the globe is through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Since its launch in the 1940s, the program has given leaders from all over the world a chance to exchange knowledge and ideas in their professional fields.
The program invites more than 4,000 distinguished visitors to the United States every year and is funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. For half a century, Meridian has been one of the State Department’s principal partners in implementing program, now administering roughly 40 percent of all IVLP projects annually.
Each visitor meets with professional counterparts in Washington and other communities across the country. Because most projects include travel to three or four cities, visitors are also able to sample America’s geographic diversity and gain insights into its culture and society.
In a typical year at Meridian, programming teams carefully design and implement IVLP projects for more than 1,500 international visitors. Project themes vary widely but generally focus on issues of importance to the United States, the visitor’s country or the world. During an IVLP project, most visitors spend three weeks in the United States, meeting with experts in their fields of interest from both the public and private sectors, attending cultural events, and enjoying the hospitality of American families. Many participants visit U.S. schools and may also contribute their time to a volunteer activity along the way.
“The International Visitor Leadership Program is the cornerstone of Meridian,” Holliday explained. “It is the main program to bring emerging leaders from around the world to the United States for three weeks — a week in Washington and two weeks out in other cities — to help them understand the United States and to build partnerships and lasting cooperation that can help the United States, but also help strengthen African entrepreneurs or help deal with trafficking persons or women’s economic development in Burma.”
Burmese religious and civil society leaders, for instance, visited D.C. in August as part of the program, which has also attracted luminaries from around the world. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair are just two of the many international dignitaries who are IVLP graduates.
Holliday said the global leadership skills taught at Meridian are increasingly in demand.
“The demand for more global skills has increased,” he said. “Even in small- and medium-size businesses and states — economic development organizations at the state and city level — there has been an explosion of global economic cooperation. Frankly, shared risk has driven this demand up almost for everyone who comes out to have more of a global point of view. And traditional institutions are not able to solve big problems on their own.
“Among governments, international financial institutions and companies, there is this sense we all have to pitch in and take care of the economic needs of the people,” Holliday continued. “In a sense it’s a challenge for almost every citizen to view themselves as a leader in their own right — to try to develop some ownership of the shared future they will have.”
While Meridian is working to groom the world’s next leaders, it is also succeeding at bridging political divides through culture. The center regularly hosts art exhibitions that showcase other countries and the issues they are facing. The 2009 exhibition “Metropolis Now! A Selection of Chinese Contemporary Art” was a smash hit in Washington, enticing thousands of visitors to the Meridian, including China’s ambassador in Washington.
The exhibit — which revealed the challenges and opportunities of China’s rapidly urbanizing landscape — was born out of a memorandum of understanding between Meridian and China that has brought other artistic displays to D.C., including a recent one on fan paintings (also see “Much Fanfare at Meridian” in the July 2013 edition of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
Meridian recently signed another MOU with the United Arab Emirates to organize an exhibit of contemporary artworks depicting traditional Emirati culture. Last month, the center also hosted a series of concerts by five emerging jazz musicians from Ankara as part of its U.S.-Turkish Jazz Exchange.
“Culture is central to Meridian’s identity,” Holliday said. “It’s not just art, but the way Meridian uses art as a catalyst to help understand other cultures.
“In the case of the United States, we’ve been commissioned by some of our embassies to create historical narratives about the bilateral relationships with those countries in pictures,” he added. “They’re not only beautiful but tell a story. In the case of other embassies like the UAE or China or India, it’s helping them tell their story in a way that creates common ground.”
Holliday rejected the notion that Meridian soft scrubs the exhibitions to blunt any political statements they may — or may not — make.
“We’re very careful that we don’t,” he said. “We’re very careful no one has a veto over what we share and what we do. We’re not looking simply to promote one country’s viewpoint of how they want to be seen. That’s not what we do and we’re very clear about that.”
Holliday said the exhibitions provide another opportunity for dialogue, sometimes with countries that have little other common ground.
“Going back to ping pong diplomacy or wrestling diplomacy, culture is viewed as a way to have a dialogue even when things are just very difficult on the economic or security side,” he said.
Not everything Meridian tackles is serious, though. The Meridian Ball is a prime example of how the center uses its elegant space — including the Meridian House and White-Meyer House — to bring the city’s elite together. Holliday said the Meridian Ball started as a fundraiser for buildings and programs but has evolved into a pinnacle of the fall social calendar. Now in its 45th year, it remains one of the few events that features intimate dinners at embassies and ambassador residences around town (followed by desserts and dancing at the Meridian).
“It still is a fundraiser, but it’s also one of Washington’s major events bringing together the diplomatic corps, U.S. government leaders and the private sector,” Holliday said of the ball, slated for Oct. 18. “It has a special place on the calendar and we wanted to build on that and add a substantive element to it.”
That element is the Global Leadership Summit, hosted over lunch, that allows for a deeper dialogue than is possible at a glitzy ball. The summit is held in partnership with Gallup and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
“We didn’t want to have a long event with a lot of speeches, for example, at the ball,” Holliday said. “But we wanted to highlight our thought leadership so we created a summit that focuses on a couple of things.
“One is with our terrific partner the Gallup organization, so we released a survey about how countries feel about their leadership in a number of different areas,” he said. “We bring together government and private sector leaders to talk about how we cooperate and respond to what citizens want from their leaders.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.