Bridging the culture gap, diplomatically

Todd Huizinga '80


Winter 2011

More than the commencement ceremony, Todd Huizinga ’80 remembers the moment on the lawn afterward, when he thought, OK, what do I do now?

“I did what a lot of humanities majors did and still do,” he said. “I went to graduate school.”

Five years later he was back at Calvin, teaching German and working on finishing his doctorate in German literature.

Then, on a summer trip to visit his wife’s family in Frankfurt, Germany, he and she found themselves standing in front of the American consulate. They decided to go in and ask what kind of work, exactly, an American employee of the consulate might do.

“We talked to the number-two guy there,” Huizinga said, “and he told us what his job was. I thought, This is exactly what I would want to do. It’s turned out to be just like he said it would be.”

Now in his 20th year as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department, Huizinga began the fall in a place he’s worked before, but in a new position. He’s now the political counselor at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels.

It’s a mouthful of a title with a plateful of responsibilities. But it’s a position he’s been prepared for across postings that have ranged from Costa Rica and northern Mexico to Germany (three times), Ireland and Luxembourg.

“When I went into the Foreign Service, Germany was my thing, my main interest,” Huizinga said. “In the late ’90s, in Hamburg, I began to learn more about the European Union, which was then becoming more and more important. That led to a job working on European Union affairs in Washington, which led to one in Brussels at the U.S. Mission to the European Union. That’s when I became an EU expert. Now I’m back.

“This time, as political counselor, the minister counselor and I will be the principal advisers to the ambassador on political affairs. We’ll talk to members of the three main EU institutions—the parliament, the council and the commission—to get their take on issues and to present U.S. policy on the same issues. For example, a big one right now is our common interest in fighting international terrorism. Besides trying to enlist more on-the-ground help in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we’re working on agreements to share data that would help us better follow the flow of terrorist funds. That’s tricky, because we and the Europeans sometimes have different views on what data should be protected and how.”

And then there’s trying to find cooperative policies on the Middle East and international commerce and a host of other issues—all with members of cultures quite different from the American.

“It is hard,” Huizinga admitted. “But I’ll tell you, I have not been bored in a long time.”

Adding to the challenge, he said, is trying to be both humble and bold in living out his Christian faith in a foreign service made up of people of all faiths and no faith. “That’s made my work difficult at times, but it’s also been enriching. Foreign policy is all about morality. You’re trying to find and accomplish what God would want accomplished in this world. And it’s a gray world, where it’s really difficult to find the right answer. But I have that strong anchor of my faith, of what I know is right and why I’m here and who I’m ultimately serving.”