Nina Hachigian while US ambassador to ASEAN after an introductory speech

Ambassador Hachigian Serves as First Deputy Mayor of International Affairs in LA


LOS ANGELES – Nina Lusine Hachigian is not only one of a handful of US ambassadors of Armenian ancestry, but also a trailblazer in Los Angeles municipal history as the first deputy mayor of international affairs.

She was appointed to this new position by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in August 2017 and began work the next month. Hachigian said, “To me, it is a very logical position for a city like Los Angeles that is very global in nature. We have huge diaspora populations here, the fourth busiest airport [of the world], and the largest port in the Western hemisphere [by cargo], and our citizens are interacting on a daily basis with entities and individuals in other countries.” Los Angeles consequently has one of the largest consular corps in the world, with over 100 members if career and honorary consuls are included.

Hachigian was moving back to Los Angeles after a posting in Jakarta, Indonesia, under the Obama administration, and had not decided what she was going to do next. She said she had known Garcetti for a long time, as he was her representative while he was on the Los Angeles City Council. She had involved him in some of her work while she held positions in think tanks. So when she returned, she wrote a note asking whether he needed anything, and his staff ended up creating this position. She ventured that Garcetti already was thinking about taking such a step and she happened to come around at the right time.

Hachigian immediately hired her team, including people who worked in the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Department of Commerce and the US Trade Representative’s office, and others who had worked for the city. She clearly enjoys her work, and exclaimed: “It has been absolutely fantastic. It is a great position and I love it very much.” Comparing her new position to that of an ambassador, she said, “in some ways it is not that different from thinking about foreign policy at a national level in the sense that it is still interacting with my foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what we can do together.”

Nina Hachigian with Mayor Eric Garcetti on a trip to Asia last August

LA in the World

There are three main areas of focus: trade and investment; protocol and policy concerning international relations; and the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics. Hachigian helps businesses in Los Angeles export and tries to attract foreign investment. Her office collaborates closely with the mayor’s Office of Economic Development on this.

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Her office works on the protocol of foreign visits as well as the policy side of what messages should be conveyed. It operates in an interdepartmental fashion, coordinating with all the different deputy mayors and many departments on international issues.

The City of Los Angeles is a member of a number of international city networks and participates in a variety of conferences and meetings. One big network is called C40, which is a group of over 90 megacities working to reduce climate emissions, and Garcetti is its vice chair.

Hachigian said that Los Angeles is in general “as a city measuring our progress according to the sustainable development goals, which is a kind of global development effort among nation states to reach certain goals by 2030, like reducing hunger, maternal mortality and carbon emissions.” There are 17 such goals and Los Angeles, Hachigian said, does a very in-depth analysis of how to promote those goals and track its progress “to be a good global citizen.”

Another international network in which Los Angeles participates is called the 100 Resilient Cities, which is concerned with how cities can create infrastructure and processes to bounce back resiliently from disasters. A third one is the Strong Cities Network, which is about inclusive security and opposition to violent extremism.

Hachigian accompanies Mayor Garcetti on many of his trips abroad. For example, last year they went to Asia on a trade mission coordinated by Hachigian’s office.

The third aspect of Hachigian’s job concerns preparing for the 2028 summer Olympic and Paralympic games in Los Angeles. A group called LA28 is producing the games but her office is the main liaison to them. Perhaps more importantly, Hachigian pointed out, “The Olympics themselves and the Paralympics are wonderful but we want to think about what we want to leave behind.” This time Los Angeles has sufficient facilities, both existing and under construction, to host the games, but, she said, there are other things that the city wants to do anyway, like completely renovate the airport and make sure that it is connected by rail. The goal will be to make sure that these projects will be completed in time for the games.

Nina Hachigian (photo: Aram Arkun)

In addition, Hachigian revealed that for the first time, the International Olympic Committee has given the city money up front to start a youth sports program. Consequently, for the next ten years the city will increase the offerings in its recreation and parks facilities and make sure that those who cannot pay are still able to pay as a sort of “pre-legacy” of the games.

One of her favorite city programs is called the MaYA — the Mayor’s Young Ambassador – Initiative, in which very low-income students are sent abroad for the first time. The mayor’s office has started a program, called the College Promise program, to have the first year of community college be free. For the students in this program, going on an overseas trip is beyond their means, so Hachigian’s office worked with foreign consular officials and governments to provide such an opportunity. American Airlines agreed to offer the flights for free. So far, trips have been arranged to Mexico, Egypt and Japan, and Vietnam will be the fourth destination in the summer of 2019.

Mayor’s Young Ambassador Initiative trip to Egypt

Hachigian explained why she likes this program so much: “If you have had the opportunity to travel, you know how incredibly eye-opening it is and how it gives you a perspective on your own life that you really cannot get any other way. You get exposure to the way other people are living and realize that whatever you were born into is not the only way to be, that humans choose to live in all kinds of different ways with all kinds of different cultures and customs, so to give a chance to students who would not otherwise have a chance to have that kind of experience, I think, is really powerful.”

Among the projects that Hachigian wants to carry out in the future is a study of why Los Angeles does not have as many think tanks and nongovernmental organizations dealing with international affairs as other cities with comparable size and global connections. The research will be done pro bono with the Boston Consulting Group.

A second project would be to create an international initiative concerning moving to gender equity. Hachigian pointed out: “Over half of the commissioners the mayor appoints are women, which has never before happened in the city of Los Angeles. We have dramatically increased the number of girls who are playing in parks. Over half of the deputy mayors are women and his chief of staff. We have even increased the number of female firefighters, police officers and computer programmers, so these are women in non-traditional roles. A woman runs our airport and a woman runs our department of transportation. So we have done it and there is a playbook for how to do it.” Hachigian would like to be able to share this experience and learn from other cities as well.

Career in International Relations

Hachigian embarked upon her career in international relations armed with an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a law degree from Stanford University. She said, “Law school definitely gave me the skill to figure out what the real problem is – what is at the crux, at the heart, of the matter. But I think it has been just my years of experience in developing projects with foreign counterparts and of course my work as an ambassador that have been helpful for this role.”

When asked to define her approach or school of international relations, Hachigian replied, “Every practitioner is either a liberal realist or a realist liberal. All practitioners realize that yes, power matters, but it is not the only thing that matters. Relationships matter, kinds of government matter, international organizations matter, international norms matter in the outcome, so it is neither one nor the other.”

She worked as a special assistant at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration from 1998 to 1999, went to an international affairs fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy from 2000 to 2007. Afterwards she worked at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a public policy research and advocacy organization, as a senior vice president and senior fellow until 2014. CAP was founded by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and Obama’s Presidential Transition director.

Hachigian participated in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012 as codirector of Asia policy and, in 2014, was appointed by his administration as ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), based in Jakarta, Indonesia, in which position she continued to serve until January 2017.

Hachigian said that since she was only the second US ambassador to ASEAN, she had to make sure the mission was the right size, hire the right people, and continue to help build the mission. She started the US ASEAN Women’s Leadership Academy and launched an economic initiative called US-ASEAN Connect. She also helped increase the size of the Young Southeast Asian Leader Initiative to over 100,000 members. She said she was proud of all these achievements, while getting to work with President Obama at the annual ASEAN summit where the heads of state meet “was an incredibly high honor.”

US President Barack Obama talks with U.S ASEAN Ambassador Nina Hachigian on the second day of the ASEAN summit on November 13, 2014 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. (photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images AsiaPac)

She helped created Women Ambassadors Serving American (WASA) at the start of 2017, has called for greater numbers of women in leadership positions, and has been outspoken against sexual harassment. In November 2017, during the start of the Me Too movement, she coauthored an open letter with former State Department official Jenna Ben-Yehuda that was signed by 223 women in national security for the US, declaring that the signatories either experienced or knew someone who experienced sexual harassment and assault. The letter calls for leadership to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable, stronger reporting, external independent data collection, mandatory training for all employees and mandatory exit interviews of all women leaving federal service.

US Women Ambassadors, with Nina Hachigian seated, sixth from left (courtesy Facebook page of Women Ambassadors Serving America)

Hachigian has been a frequent author, contributor to or editor of reports and articles published in Foreign Affairs, Washington Quarterly, Democracy, and Survival, and by the RAND Corporation, as well as opinion pieces appearing in major newspapers. She has appeared as a guest on various news shows.

She coauthored The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise (Simon & Schuster, 2008). The introduction to this volume singles out the cooperation of China, Russia, Japan, the European Union, India and the United States on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Cadarache, France as a model for the future. It states that these powers want what the US wants: “a stable, peaceful, prosperous world organized around nation-states. No fundamental, intractable dispute divides us. None are ideological adversaries. This book argues that rather than worrying about these powers’ relative gains, the United States should focus on renewing itself, and take advantage of this moment to work with them to solve humanity’s pressing problems. The pure zero-sum days of great power relations are behind us.”

Six years later, Hachigian served as editor of another book, Debating China: The U.S. – China Relationship in Ten Conversations (Oxford University Press, 2014), in which she pairs Chinese and American scholars in dialogues. She and Chinese security expert Dr. Yuan Peng contributed their own chapter, titled Global Roles and Responsibilities. Despite distrust between the two countries, no author believed confrontation between these two major powers was inevitable. In agreement with the approach evinced in Hachigian’s prior book, Hachigian writes, “None sees a relationship that is necessarily zero-sum – quite the opposite. The United States and China can both provide fulfilling lives for their people, at the same time, and can even help one another reach that essential goal” (p. xvi).

Today Hachigian continues to deal with US-China relations in Los Angeles, which has a big trading relationship with China. The Chinese are the second largest group of foreign tourists to LA and invest in real estate in the city. There are many Chinese official delegations visiting to learn about city management and also much cultural exchange. She said that it is a complicated relationship that cannot be easily and concisely summed up.

Hachigian said, “On the one hand, we disagree on a lot of important matters like our values and the importance of the rule of law. I saw that when I was an ambassador in Southeast Asia. O the other hand, we have to cooperate with them, especially on the major issue of climate change, in order to make sure we don’t feel the worst aspects of global warming. So I would say that the Trump Administration is not wrong in some aspects…on the stealing of intellectual property, the forced technology transfer, the restrictions on American investors and a whole bunch of other problems. I don’t always know if they have the full strategy figured out about how they are going to change those things and at the same time be able to cooperate on things that we have to cooperate on, like climate change. Of course in their case, they don’t believe in climate change, which is convenient, but for the rest of us, we need to worry about those things.”

Hachigian has been outspoken and critical of the Trump Administration’s approach to foreign policy. Prior to assuming her Los Angeles position, she wrote in Foreign Affairs at the end of April 2017 that the Administration “lacks a sound policy process.” She said, “My broad concerns are, first, that because of process deficiencies, the United States will accidentally or purposefully take actions that cause or worsen a major crisis, and next, that American global leadership is falling off a cliff.”

On the other hand, she praised Mayor Garcetti, declaring “He is a voice for what I think of as true American values of integrity and inclusion, and pushing for individual rights, respecting and promoting the rule of law and promoting human rights.” With a different approach being followed on the federal level, Hachigian explained what can be done locally, stating, “We maintain our values. We are not going to align with approaches that are hostile and exclusionary and don’t treat our allies well. There are limits as to what a city can do but to the degree that we can be the voice of cooperation and welcoming, we want to be that voice.” She stressed in a Washington Post article in November 2017 that “We don’t have a separate foreign policy. We have initiatives and city-to-city cooperation.”

 Armenian Involvement

Hachigian is half German and half Armenian, with her paternal grandparents originally from Musa Dagh. She has relatives that she knows about in Lebanon. Her father grew up in New Jersey and she grew up in New York. She said that she and her family would attend St. Vartan Cathedral in New York City, and after she was around 12 years old, St. James Armenian Church in Westchester County, New York. Hachigian still can speak a little Armenian.

She went to church every Sunday and was in the choir. In high school she became cochair of the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) chapter. She said, “My dad [Dr. Jack Hachigian] was always very involved in the Armenian Church and community, so I was as well…I grew up visiting my Armenian grandmother and the community where my dad grew up in Paterson, New Jersey.” Her relationship to that grandmother was so important to her that decades later she mentioned in her May 2014 nomination hearing for ambassador at the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that she was wearing her Armenian grandmother’s locket and that the latter had fled persecution to come to the United States.

Hachigian went to Armenia in 1988 right before the great earthquake with an ACYOA group. She was in college and documented the protests that were happening. She took a lot of photographs and wrote She can speak just a little article in a Rochester newspaper. She said, “I plan to go again, hopefully this year, and take my children and husband.”

Hachigian noted that Mayor Garcetti represented Little Armenia when he was a city council member, so “he has a special place in his heart for the Armenians.” He speaks at the Armenian Genocide commemoration ceremonies every ear and attends various galas and celebratory events, as does Hachigian.

He also has met with various officials of the Republic of Armenia. In November 2017, Garcetti met with the Armenian minister of defense in Los Angeles while the latter was on his way to a peacekeeping conference and discussed the Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Hachigian said that she hopes that the new consul-general of the Republic of Armenia, Ambassador Armen Baibourtian, will help develop some projects that can be done with the city. She said, “Since my shop didn’t exist [earlier] and he is new, in terms of the mayor’s office there is not a formal project yet, but obviously there are all kinds of cooperation that go on in general between the Armenian community here and Armenia.” She said that while she does not know how many Armenians there are in Los Angeles, there is a significant number.

Hachigian added that Los Angeles has a sister city relationship with Yerevan and usually the big anniversaries of a given sister city relationship are celebrated.

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