“In This Country, They Never Make A Big Mistake”
Farewell interview with Ambassador Arnall
By Liesbeth Wytzes
The American Ambassador in the Netherlands, Roland Arnall, is suddenly returning to his home country. His son is seriously ill. Arnall does not like to leave, he really liked it here. “The Netherlands is a country with an amazing history.” But we should really learn to dare to get ahead of the pack, he says.
The American Ambassador has hardly settled in his job and he is already leaving the country again. Roland Arnall (68) was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands in March 2006. Last week, he returned to Los Angeles to be at his son’s sickbed.
But leaving quietly is not Arnall’s style. The morning of his departure he had organized a farewell breakfast at his residence for media friends. And a last interview with Elsevier. At the table –the Ambassador at one end of the long, oval-shaped table, and his wife at the other end- a wide range of issues come up: world politics of course, and the American elections. It is very clear that Dawn Arnall has a strong opinion of her own and does not always necessarily agree with her husband. It was quite exciting, Arnall jokes, which of us would eventually become the Ambassador, he or his equally capable wife. It is clear that Arnall adores his wife –this is his second marriage- and does not skip an opportunity to praise her. “When I became the Ambassador here, you got two for the price of one.”
For someone who has been in business his entire life – Arnall embodies the classic success story of newspaper boy becoming millionaire, although in his case it was flower salesman becoming billionaire- Arnall has adjusted amazingly to diplomatic life. He does not give you a peek into who he would vote for in the United States or in the Netherlands.
Arnall was appointed in 2006 as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. He had certainly planned on staying here for at least three years. He is not making the full term and he regrets that. “The reason why we are going back saddens me of course,” he says. “But we’ve had a very good time here. The first year you have to get used to everything, you have to settle in. The second year, you are really working. And now we are leaving.”
Arnall was married before and has a son and a daughter from that marriage. He has very close relations with his children, he says. His son Daniel (40) is a rabbi and in real estate in Los Angeles. Two years ago he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He recovered but now he has had a relapse and the prognosis is more difficult. “The second time it is just more difficult to treat this illness. We are on plan C,” says Arnall. He has good hopes and talks about new medication which are launched on the market all the time. But he also talks about his six-year old grandson. “In every way, a very special child.”
Arnall himself is very special too. He was born in Paris in 1939 from Jewish-Hungarian parents and with his tan and his mysterious looks, he seems more East European. He is witty, modest and very well-informed. Because Arnall’s mother hated his father’s Hungarian accent, the family learned to speak French without a trace of an accent. This came in especially handy during the occupation in the Second World War as it allowed the family to easily pretend to be French. After the war, Arnall was 17, the family moved to Canada and from there they moved to California, to Beverly Hills. Arnall started selling flowers in the street but he soon joined big business and made an incredible amount of money with his company Ameriquest. The company has now become controversial. It was one of the providers of subprime mortgages and was sued multiple times for inappropriate practices. Moreover, the collapse of the mortgages was the beginning of the credit crisis in which banks and financial institutions lost a lot of money.
Arnall was a political appointee, as is the case with 30 percent of the ambassadorial appointees from the United States. So he is not a career diplomat but he got the job from his friend, President George W. Bush, whose campaign he had financially supported. In the Netherlands, we tend to be a bit disparaging about this phenomenon but that is just how the American system works. Before September 11 Arnall used to be a Democrat and he does not talk about his current political preference.
Arnall is a true businessman. But, he says, I’ve always wanted to become an Ambassador. “My mother would have really liked that. She wanted me to become an attorney or a doctor.” The classical wishes of an immigrant. For someone who switched careers in his mid-sixties, one must admit that Arnall behaves like a born diplomat. He does not say much and gives you a mysterious look if he thinks you are asking a borderline question.
Did he think the transition from business to diplomacy was very big? “Oh no, I adapt very well. And don’t forget that it is easier for someone who is a political appointee. To a certain extent you feel free because your life does not depend on your job. If diplomacy is your career then you have to be a little more cautious.”
How would he reflect on the two years in the Netherlands? “The Netherlands is a very attractive country,” he says. “A good and carefully maintained country and I mean that as a compliment. I was here earlier, about twenty years ago, and when I became the Ambassador here I really felt honored. It is a country with an amazing history and amazing resources. It is fantastic to gain more in-depth knowledge about the world power you once have been. But you have one big problem and you have to take care of it.“
From a foreigner who arrived in the Netherlands in the tumultuous years after the murder of Theo van Gogh, one would expect a comment about integration. But he dismisses that. “Integration of minorities? No, no, that is something that will be solved in time. The issue of dual nationality really makes no sense. What does it matter? I was born in Paris and that makes me French to the French for as long as I live. If I want to go to France they would say: welcome home son. But I am one hundred percent American.”
No, the problem Arnall referred to is the Dutch (Calvinist-based) tendency not to stand out. “That is your biggest challenge, to do something about that. Otherwise you run the risk that you won’t sufficiently use your potential. It is also not necessary to be that modest. Yes, you might be a small country, although I prefer to call it medium-sized, but you take on more than your share in responsibilities. You participate in major issues in the world and you don’t shrink from playing a role in that.”
The Ambassador refers to the presence of Dutch troops in Afghanistan. And he has something more to say about that. “Look at your participation in Afghanistan: that was very carefully deliberated. Yes, it was quite a process at first. But particularly because there is so much debating and negotiating beforehand, I think the Netherlands cannot really make a real big mistake ever. And that too, is meant to be a compliment. In the United States we sometimes take decisions which are not that well-deliberated as in the Netherlands. Or we take a good decision but then execute it poorly. I think the United States could learn a lot from the Netherlands when it comes to debating and negotiating.”
That was why early 2007 Arnall had contacted Ben Bot (70) who was then still Minister of Foreign Affairs. He thought they should talk about the legal and human rights aspects of Guantanamo Bay, the American detention camp in Cuba where dozens of terrorist suspects are being held without a trial. Arnall thought the balanced Dutch view could help the cause. “The Dutch can really discuss something like that in a very steady way. And it was a real issue for us, for you, and for the rest of the world.” Did the meeting with Bot help the process? Arnall hesitates and then says in a very diplomatic way: “It was generally helpful.”
Arnall is most enthusiastic about the Diversity Dialogues, a program he launched, which allows representatives from different minority backgrounds to come together in a relaxed atmosphere and engage with one another. He had this program without seeking mega publicity – seeking press has never been Arnall’s main concern. But he thinks the Dialogues were a huge success and he also thinks that the next Ambassador will continue the program. “It was sometimes difficult to convince my bureaucracy of my plans,” he says, “but usually I managed to do that. I have met many young promising Muslims and I have seen the potential they have.”
The Ambassador was very impressed by Queen Beatrix who he met several times. Presenting his credentials was one of the highlights of his life. “Your Queen has only limited power because you are a constitutional monarchy. But she does have a lot of influence. I have seen Ministers getting ready to meet with her and preparing thoroughly because they knew she would grill them. She is an impressive personality and commands a great deal of respect.”
Arnall is going back to a country weighed down by an economic crisis and wondering about its position in the world and about the approach toward terrorism. But he is optimistic. “America is the best country in the world. When I was seventeen I decided to go there and if I was seventeen today I would do exactly the same. In which country in the world would you see an African-American man, a woman, and a Mormon run for presidency? That is only possible in America. Apparently the United States is ready for an African-American man or a woman in the White House and no, I don’t think that is the case because people are tired of Bush. After Vietnam everybody needed change but at the time you did not see what you see today and that is that so many young people are involved in politics. I think the United States is on a rebirth. And we are still an essential presence in the arena of world politics. “
He just shrugs his shoulders about remarks made by billionaire George Soros, who said at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January that this was the beginning of the end of American supremacy. “Soros is a very knowledgeable, successful and capable citizen of the world, but on this point I disagree with him. I know for sure that our country will recover from the current setbacks. We have to understand the new world order. We have to simply learn to deal with the new economies and here too: not to be afraid to be ahead of the pack!”
Has his two year stay in Europe changed Arnall? He thinks so. “I used to think that I was quite well-informed about what was going on in the world. But when I became an Ambassador I really studied it thoroughly. And then I discovered even more so what a complex and complicated world we are living in. The people in California sometimes have the tendency to turn away from reality. I have certainly noticed that the Netherlands is much better informed about the United States than is the case the other way round. The more you go West in America, the less people know about Europe. I am going back to California now but it is not that I will leave everything behind. I will always be interested in the Netherlands.”
Going back to the United States means indirectly also going back to the Ameriquest ordeal, the controversial company which made Arnall very rich. He withdrew from the company in 2005 and the company stopped issuing mortgages in 2007 and has mainly been sold now. His wife sits on the board of ACC-holding which meant that she had four conference calls a year.
What went wrong with Ameriquest? Arnall willingly answers the question and first explains why he started the company. “We offered homeownership to people who otherwise had no option on the real estate market because they did not have enough money or had poor credit or for whatever reason. Their only option was to go to financial institutions that were charging predatory interest rates. We offered them an alternative that was much cheaper.”
With his company, Arnall really hit a niche in the market. “In ten years time we grew from a couple hundred employees to almost 17,000 men and yes, in that period of rapid growth some people slipped through the checks and balances who did not act professionally. We threw all of them out. But I have to say, that I took this very personally at the time. Look, in the beginning, we were lending up to 75 percent of the value of the property and that was fine, certainly as long as the interest rates were low and the value of houses kept increasing. But, as the market became more competitive, lenders began increasing those percentages, in some cases up to 100 percent. And, if the prices of homes then drop, you have a problem. When the market moved away from the 75 percent, I should have started another company.
But, unfortunately, you do not have the wisdom of hindsight. No one thought this all could happen. And I think that what you are seeing today is a necessary correction.”
Arnall is convinced that he will live to be 120 but he is not in for another Ambassadorship. “No, it is time for a new crop.”