The Meridian Ball is a big deal in a town of big events. This annual soiree for D.C. insiders started 50 years ago and will take place on Oct. 12 this year, with Meridian’s Global Leadership Summit occurring earlier that day. The evening will begin with ambassador-hosted dinners, followed by dessert and dancing at Meridian House, a historic architectural gem designed by the architect of the Jefferson Memorial (see related story).
The social importance of the ball reflects how the Meridian International Center has become a key connector in the nation’s capital. This nonprofit focuses on developing global leadership by creating opportunities for emerging and established leaders, from both the public and private sectors, to collaborate, learn from each other and exchange ideas.
Founded in 1960, Meridian today has a $35 million budget, over 100 employees and a three-acre campus that helps it promote its diverse leadership and education programs.
No matter who sits in the White House, Meridian continues to work with the government, particularly the State Department, and business leaders to foster public-private partnerships that promote innovation, economic growth and inclusion in an interconnected world.
It advances this mission through a growing variety of exchanges, trainings, forums and cultural diplomacy. A look at recent Meridian-hosted events illustrates the center’s wide reach. In July, over 20 African women entrepreneurs came to Meridian to showcase products ranging from medicinal ointments to leather bags. In August, Meridian welcomed five hip hop artists from Uzbekistan as part of its Next Level musical exchange program. That month, the center also hosted its annual reception to celebrate embassy social secretaries, and in September, it fêted new ambassadors who recently presented their credentials.
Meridian also organizes an array of discussions that touch on hot-button issues. Recent talks have tackled the state of the World Trade Organization; U.S.-Canada relations under President Trump; and economic prospects in Argentina and Colombia, featuring each nation’s ambassador.
This October, Meridian officially launches its Center for Diplomatic Engagement, part of a series of programs to help D.C.-based diplomats glean insights into Congress, the administration and media. Speakers frequently include top representatives from both Democratic and Republican parties.
As polarization increasingly divides Washington — and America — Meridian strives to provide a neutral forum for collaboration around the world and across sectors.
The venerated lions of politics such as former Vice President Joe Biden and the late Republican Sen. John McCain often lamented what seems to be the passing of the old guard, namely politicians who respect their counterparts across the aisle, despite disagreements. Civility may appear to be a thing of the past in today’s rancorous, hostile political climate, but it still exists.
The president and CEO of Meridian, Ambassador Stuart Holliday, is among the old-school type. He worked under President George W. Bush, assisting him with personnel appointments to the State Department and Defense Department, among other government agencies. Holliday also worked for the State Department, and from 2003 to 2005, he served as U.S. ambassador for special political affairs at the United Nations. Prior to that, he served in the Navy, including Operation Desert Storm. Holliday took over as head of Meridian from former U.S. Ambassador Walter Cutler in 2006.
From his resume, you can tell Holliday is a Republican, but it’s doubtful he wants to be labeled at all. He even co-hosted “No Labels Radio” on SiriusXM back when Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and now U.S. ambassador to Russia, worked on the show.
Holliday brings his bipartisan philosophy to bear in his work for Meridian. He took a moment to share his insights on leadership, Meridian’s global programs and this year’s big 50th anniversary ball with The Diplomat, along with a short trip down memory lane.
The Washington Diplomat: Tell us a bit about the history of Meridian, its origins and how it became a force in the nation’s capital.
Stuart Holliday: Meridian was created in 1960, a time when the United States sought to engage leaders around the world to help strengthen connections and build relationships with them.
Meridian House was originally purchased for its current use by the Ford Foundation.
Over 55 years, Meridian has developed into a major diplomacy and leadership institution in the nation’s capital working to educate and connect decision-makers and international leadership program participants, so they can collaborate on effective solutions to global challenges.
From its early days, Meridian has gathered Washington’s diplomatic, government and business communities, as well as local civic leaders through programs, cultural exhibitions and, of course, the legendary Meridian Ball.
The Diplomat: How has your approach and/or perspective evolved as a leader since taking over at Meridian?
Holliday: I’ve learned quite a few things during my tenure at Meridian. First, you can’t do anything by yourself. It really takes a talented board and staff to achieve organizational goals. People are the most important resource we have, and I’m fortunate to have a great team.
I’ve also learned to take a longer view of issues relating to U.S. foreign policy and global engagement. While policies change and new leaders are elected, there are some fundamental aspects to American international engagement that remain. Person-to-person interaction and bringing people together from different countries and cultures is an enduring and effective mechanism to promote shared security and prosperity.
The Diplomat: What accomplishments are you proudest of so far in your tenure?
Holliday: I’m proud that we have modernized and strengthened the institution while preserving the traditions that make it so special and unique in Washington. We have kept the same mission while including new partners and expanding our networks.
The development of Meridian’s philanthropic councils is an example of that. We have terrific Corporate Council members as well as individual members of our Global Leadership Council and Rising Leaders Council, all of whom support our work through their financial contributions and engagement in events and programming that help advance diplomacy, global leadership and cross-sector engagement.
Bringing in fresh approaches and new technology has also helped Meridian continue to progress.
I’m equally proud of our work with the city of Washington and adding value to the local community.
The State Department continues to be a vital partner of the organization, with which we have consistently worked across changing administrations. I’m pleased that we’ve been able to work through some very difficult times that have challenged budgets for international diplomatic programs and remain the nation’s leading implementing center for the International Visitor Leadership Program.
The Diplomat: How does Meridian decide which projects to work on?
Holliday: Meridian evaluates what issues and regions may be most relevant today and tomorrow to strengthen international cooperation. Our issue areas range from national security, energy and the environment to economic development and entrepreneurship, among many others.
We also work on many projects with the State Department where our priorities reflect the direction of our foreign policy. While we do not advocate for any particular policy, we look for areas where there may be gaps in perception between the United States and another country and use our leadership, convening and cultural programs to help bridge those gaps and drive understanding.
The Diplomat: Meridian’s top five project topics last year were media and journalism; security and defense; civic engagement; energy and the environment; and entrepreneurship. Can you talk about project highlights around the world for each topic?
Holliday: Cybersecurity cooperation has become a major issue where we need to work with our partners to defend U.S. interests.
We did a major joint effort with Mexico on water and the environment, which resulted in stronger cooperation between leaders in these fields on both sides of the border.
Entrepreneurship is a major focus through our work with the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative — a former White House initiative now housed within the State Department — where we bring 250 entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States for experiential learning and capacity-building workshops, training and mentorships.
The African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program is another example of how our work connects entrepreneurs across the continent by bringing them to the U.S. to experience American culture and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are increasingly central to promoting economic growth.
Supporting a strong, independent media has been a longstanding program area here at Meridian, and we do this through our leadership programs, as well as through media and television cooperatives working with the Foreign Press Center.
Energy is essential to economic development and is important to both our public and private sector partners, and it’s a key issue area for programming driven by the Meridian Corporate Council.
The Diplomat: Meridian’s objective is “advancing effective global leadership.” What do you find are the major challenges associated with trying to achieve this?
Holliday: The first challenge is defining what we mean by global leadership. We have a very specific theory of change: Leaders are more effective when they have a global view, share ideas and understand culture and context — the ability to collaborate across cultures, the ability to understand how to engage their stakeholders internationally and the ability to understand geopolitical risks and opportunities. There are many leadership organizations, but ours is unique in seeking to jointly serve U.S. and international leadership needs, as well as bringing different sectors together such as the diplomatic corps, the government, business and those who influence policy.
The other major challenge is to point out that for the United States to be an effective leader in the world, we must be globally engaged. Too often people see a binary choice between national interests and global affairs. It is important to educate people about how interconnected the global economy is, as well as how our security depends on alliances and international cooperation.
The Diplomat: The Meridian Ball will celebrate its 50th anniversary this October. Can you take us back to the beginnings of the ball and give us your perspective on why it has become a coveted invitation in Washington?
Holliday: The Meridian Ball was created to engage the international diplomatic community with government, business and civic leaders across Washington, for the benefit of advancing Meridian’s mission.
In the 1960s, embassy entertaining was limited to Hill contacts or business associations not on a social level with the rest of the city. Washington has changed significantly in those 50 years, including the development of a vibrant corporate community, but Meridian’s ball has maintained the same model of embassy-hosted dinners followed by the ball. I have noticed others seeking to replicate this format, but there is no substitute for the original.
The Diplomat: The Meridian Global Leadership Summit occurs earlier in the day of the ball. Can you share some of this year’s highlights?
Holliday: The Meridian Global Leadership Summit is our flagship thought leadership event and our leading annual convening of diplomatic, business and government leaders in a neutral, nonpartisan forum to exchange ideas and collaborate on solutions to global challenges and opportunities. This year will focus on the increasing influence of digital technology and innovation and how it affects foreign policy and international business across related issues such as cybersecurity and the regulatory environment. Technology today underpins every aspect of our lives.
This year some of our key presenters will be United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz; Tim Hwang, CEO of FiscalNote; and Molly Kinder, senior advisor on Work, Workers and Technology at New America.
The Diplomat: Let’s get a little personal for the last question. You’re a child of diplomats, and you’ve worked in the upper echelons of government, including diplomacy. What memories and takeaways stand out most in your mind over the years?
Holliday: There are so many memories. I remember Paris as a child and being proud when the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon came to visit.
I got to spend time in countries like Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, where I began to understand those cultures and what drives them.
I remember serving in the Navy during Operation Desert Storm and working at NATO during a turbulent period when the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Working in the White House for President [George W.] Bush was an honor and a vantage point that was truly unique in helping shape the government by recruiting good people. I distinctly remember being in the West Wing on Sept. 11, 2001, and having to evacuate along with my staff.
Working as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Security Council under John Negroponte and then Jack Danforth was another memorable experience. Nothing focuses your mind like sitting in a chair that says United States of America in front of it and voting for your country.
Finally, I have many memories from my time at Meridian, including hosting and interacting with thousands of world leaders and several secretaries of state here, along with hundreds of events that were each memorable in their own way. This includes [jazz legend] Dave Brubeck’s last public concert, having Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice open our cultural exhibition with young Iranian artists, visits by Prime Minister José María Aznar of Spain, the crown prince of Denmark and the foreign ministers of the EU, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, China and many other countries. I also have very fond memories of working for three outstanding chairmen who are truly remarkable individuals: [former U.S.] Ambassador Jim Jones, [former Michigan] Gov. Jim Blanchard and [former Commerce] Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, all of whom made my job easier.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.