ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Paloma, for kicking us off.
We are here to swear-in Michael Schiffer as Assistant Administrator, the first Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator for Asia in over six years.
I’d like to welcome Michael’s partner Stephanie, who like Michael has quite the distinguished resume. For nearly five years, Stephanie served as the Finance and Economics Expert on the North Korea Panel of Experts at the United Nations Security Council. And now, she is a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center and is the Founder and CEO of her own consulting firm, Activus Coaching & Consulting.
I’d also like to welcome Michael's former spouse, Wendy Wasserman. Wendy has served in various public service roles and also spent time in the private sector as a communications expert. She is now the Director of Marketing and Communications at a foundational Washington D.C. establishment, Politics and Prose Bookstore. We always wish well of our guests, but it is not everyday that the future of civilization rests on their success, but in Wendy’s case that might well be true.
And while she is not here in person, Michael’s daughter, Josie, is joining us virtually from Scotland. Hoping to someday become a foreign policy expert like her father, Josie is studying International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Josie, if you study hard enough, you may be the first person ever to defeat your father in a foreign policy debate!
Also, joining us virtually is Michael’s mother, Selma, who is tuning in from her home in Vermont, and his older sister Suzi watching from New York City. Welcome to you all and thank you for joining us.
Since he was a kid, Michael knew he would end up in public service. No matter what other opportunities or interests pulled on him, Michael was always drawn back into the world of politics and policy. This sensibility has deep roots.
Michael’s father, Robert, and mother, Selma, were born in New York City and come from Eastern European Jewish families that had emigrated to America. Most of their extended family remained in Europe, however, and many were killed during the Holocaust.
When the war ended, Michael’s father, Robert, worked as a reporter for the New York Times, covering the displaced persons camps in Germany that were home to millions of Jewish refugees and others who had been forced from their homes by the Nazis. Seeing the great need of so many, Robert took a leave of absence from the Times and began volunteering in those camps to help people find homes.
Robert also proudly worked for Israel Bonds, served as a speechwriter for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, and was a part of the team that established what is now the United Nations Environment Program.
Michael’s mother, Selma, served as the executive director of an interfaith NGO and then as the executive director for the American Society for Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Outside of work, she was responsible for taking Michael to many marches and protests.
Robert and Selma’s activism jumpstarted Michael’s interest in public service and also allowed him to travel the world.
After Michael was born in New York and spent some time in Washington, Robert’s job brought the family to Geneva and then to Tokyo. It was in Tokyo that Michael truly began to turn his gaze Eastward, and also developed a great love for Hawaiʻi. Each summer, the family would travel to Maui on vacation, and since then, the Islands have become one of his favorite destinations. While Michael was writing his dissertation for his Ph.D. program at NYU, he and Wendy briefly moved to Hawaiʻi where they ran a bed and breakfast together.
On the Island of Kauai, they managed the Poipu Bed and Breakfast Inn. Michael still lists this experience on his resume and claims it was the only real job he’s ever had.
But very quickly, Michael moved to D.C. and became Senior National Security Advisor and later, Legislative Director, in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office. To keep up with the Senator's expansive knowledge on Asia-related issues, or in other words, to keep his job, Michael studied to become the office’s resident Asia expert.
As Michael was cultivating his expertise, he helped write and pass one of the most important pieces of legislation regarding Tibet. On September 30th, 2002 – 20 years ago last Friday – Senator Feinstein's Tibetan Policy Act was signed into law. This established the United State’s official policy towards Tibet, committing our government to protecting the official language and religious freedom of the Tibetan people pushing for a greater respect for their human rights. Michael was key in leading the research and negotiating with stakeholders in the Senate and in Tibet to get this bill passed.
In Senator Feinstein's office, one colleague remembers, “Michael was legendary for his wit and whip-smart explanation of technical policy and political issues.” And Senator Feinstein herself described Michael as “one of the most respected foreign policy hands in Washington.”
After spending nearly ten years in her office, Michael wanted to experience politics outside the D.C. bubble, so in 2006, he moved to Iowa just before the democratic presidential primaries started ramping up. Michael worked as a program officer for the Stanley Foundation where he published papers and conducted research on U.S. - China policy and the power dynamics in Southeast Asia. In his spare time, when he wasn’t reading about the Romans and the Greeks with a cup of coffee at his favorite diners, he was knocking on doors and caucusing for a junior Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
Under President Obama, Michael served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia at the Department of Defense for the first three years of the Administration.
Upon leaving the Department of Defense, he became a Senior Advisor and Counselor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his most recent position before coming here and one he held for more than ten years.
According to one of Michael’s colleagues, during this stint in the Senate, “he was simply prolific. He would take on responsibilities that normally require two or three staffers and did them alone with no fuss or stress. He was a jack of all trades.” Michael worked on nuclear nonproliferation, oversaw the massive National Defense Authorization Act each year, and helped draft legislation to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at the State Department and USAID.
And Michael was so well respected for his expertise on Asia-related issues that when he would travel to the continent with Senator Menendez, heads of state would say “hello Mr. Schiffer” before even acknowledging the Senator.
Michael’s appeal was rooted not only in his great expertise, but also in his honesty. One colleague said, “Michael isn’t always the loudest in the room, but he’s for sure the smartest in the room, and will always tell it like it is no matter what.”
Many colleagues and friends spoke of Michael’s track record of speaking truth to power, and I’m excited for him to continue doing that here at USAID as he officially becomes our newest Assistant Administrator for the Asia Bureau.
Michael’s confirmation process in the Senate was the quickest confirmation we’ve had of an Assistant Administrator at USAID during this Administration. And his confirmation came by unanimous consent of all 100 Senators onboard with no objections. What a testament to Michael’s ability to build relationships on both sides of the aisle. Michael’s counsel will be vital as we help countries through Asia grapple with some of the toughest global challenges imaginable, while capitalizing on the tremendous potential on the continent.
Take climate change for instance. Just last month, I returned from Pakistan, where devastating monsoons combined with glacier melt to submerge one-third of the country underwater. From the helicopter overlooking Sindh province – Pakistan’s poorest – you couldn’t see land, despite being 300 kilometers from the nearest ocean. Thirty-three million Pakistanis have been displaced by the flooding, and nearly 1,700 have been killed – a titanic disaster by any stretch.
But within that bleak picture, some of the buildings that are still standing and serving as shelters in some of the worst hit areas are state-of-the-art disaster-resilient schools USAID and the Pakistani government built after the last devastating flooding in 2010. If we are to protect people throughout the continent, 60 percent of whom live near a coast, then we need to marshal significantly more public and private sector investment in disaster-resilient infrastructure.
At the same time, we need to continue helping countries accelerate their transition to green energy, something we’ve had remarkable success within Asia. In Vietnam, for instance, thanks to our work with the private and public sector, the country’s solar energy production took off like a rocket. In 2017, there was only enough solar energy to power 500 households. Today, there’s enough to power 11 million – solar power now makes up a quarter of Vietnam's grid. That is exactly the kind of growth we’re looking to replicate across several Missions, as rising populations and quickly expanding economies are demanding more energy.
While battling climate change, nations throughout Asia are also grappling with inflation and food insecurity. Last month, we announced a $40 million commitment to provide farmers in Sri Lanka with fertilizer so they can return their country to its prior status as a net exporter of rice. This comes in addition to a $12 million commitment made earlier this summer to help provide emergency food assistance to the country after its most devastating economic crisis ever.
The region is also struggling to maintain protections for human rights and expand the reach of democracy and the rule of law. From Afghanistan to Burma, freedoms are under assault and rights – especially those of women – are being trampled. And once strong democracies seem fragile, as civic space shrinks, and independent media is suppressed.
At the same time, there are countries that have embraced greater freedoms and are working to strengthen democratic institutions. In the Maldives, the Administration of President Solih is rolling back repressive laws and investigating past human rights abuses, while kickstarting the tourism-dependent economy from its COVID-19 induced doldrums. And in Nepal, the country continues its process of democratic reform.
What is certain, amidst all this progress and peril, is that the future of the world will depend on the future of Asia. The world’s largest continent is also its most populous, with the largest combined regional economy and several of the planet’s fastest growing nations.
How those countries develop will determine the fates of billions of people, with ripple effects that stretch across our planet. Will these nations consolidate power within their nations and embrace rule by the few? Will they lash themselves to powers who promise them big, flashy infrastructure projects or cheap energy in exchange for pricey debt or an acquiescent foreign policy.
Or will governments expand freedoms, invest in public services, seek peace with their neighbors, and choose an independent path to prosperity?
Those questions are being asked in capitals throughout the Indo-Pacific and any nation that chooses to invest in the aspirations, welfare, and freedom of their people will have a friend in the United States.
Just last week, President Biden hosted the first-ever Pacific Island Country Summit here in Washington to ramp up our engagement with governments from the region. USAID is playing a major role in that deepening of ties – we are working with Congress to open a Pacific Regional Mission in Suva, Fiji by September of next year and will be soon sending a country representative to Papua New Guinea.
I know Michael, with three decades of expertise under his belt, will be at the center of our efforts to deepen ties throughout Asia, while encouraging nations to pursue a model of development that prizes the independence of their people and their governments.
Here at USAID, Michael is continuing to grow the Schiffer legacy in public service that was started so many years ago by his parents, adding to a long list of Schiffer family accomplishments that have made our country and our world a much better place.
I want to, again, thank those of you in Michael’s life, Stephanie, Wendy, Josie, Selma, and so many friends and colleagues who have helped to make Michael’s confirmation possible. Supporting one’s public service journey takes quite a bit of sacrifice and deserves recognition for everything you all have given so that Michael can be in this position today.
Michael, I know you have made your family proud beyond words and I can’t wait for them to see all that you will do, congratulations. And with that, it is now my pleasure to administer the oath of office.