From Victoria University to Washington D.C.

Meet James Clad, an alumnus who’s a lawyer, war correspondent, academic, former New Zealand (NZ) diplomat, is fluent in four languages and has spent the last 25 years based in Washington D.C. predominately as a senior United States (US) defence official.

James Clad

Reading James Clad’s resume, you’d be forgiven for thinking it represents the work and life of more than one person. When he wasn’t working as a New Zealand diplomat in Indonesia,  living in Ethiopian villages with the Peace Corps,  working as a journalist in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Kashmir, Iran and China, or donning his academic hat at Oxford, Harvard and Georgetown universities, James Clad MNZM was serving as a senior Pentagon defence official under the 2004-08 Bush administration.

Last month, James Clad added another position to the list—senior advisor at global intelligence firm, Arcanum Global.

James says he chose a high-flying career to put him at the frontline of world history-shaping events. It seems he succeeded. In past years, he has helped craft New Zealand’s initial response to the 1979-80 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ crisis. He witnessed the Iran/Iraq war during the 1980s first hand and then, a few years later, he entered the then Hermit Kingdom of Bhutan to interview the King about his opening the nation to the world. In 1999, he was in East Timor when violence exploded over an independence referendum. In 2003, he went into Iraq with the first contingents of the Anglo-American occupation in Baghdad. And that is by no means the full list.

A dual citizen of New Zealand (NZ) and the United States (US), he also found himself in an interesting position when, while still at the Pentagon, he worked to revise the NZ/US defence relationship. His work helped heal the rift in the ANZUS relationship, which followed New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance in the mid-1980s. This work was formally acknowledged when James was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2011.

Since taking up residence in Washington D.C., James has managed foreign military financing and military education budgets, negotiated armed services support and logistic agreements, led Ballistic Missile Defence negotiations, and crafted US defence policy in Asia.

For those who know James, the trajectory of his career—across disciplines, war zones and political lines—comes as no surprise. Here is a man who sees the world in front of him as an opportunity to be grabbed.

Even as a knowledge-hungry history student at Victoria he knew he “wanted to be in the world, and close up to it”.

Later in life, as a Georgetown University professor, he advised his students not to plan life too far in advance. “Don’t micromanage your future. Be opportunistic in an agreeable but focused way,” he says.

While James is well used to rubbing shoulders with the US and other countries’ foreign policy elite, he still “comes home” to New Zealand. This in particular, means calling on close friends from his halcyon student days on the Kelburn campus.

“I realise we tend retrospectively to imbue our university years with a golden glow, but they really were superb years,” he says.

“We lived what we thought was a clever, frivolous life. Each year’s three terms passed in a lazy progression of socialising, with eclectic reading quite outside specific course lists that we might, or might not, try to chase down in Rankine Brown library.”

He speaks of esoteric conversations peppered by socialist ideals, wearing tweed jackets and moleskin trousers and dropping in on any lectures of interest (especially Shakespeare). He recalls capping week and many, drunken black tie balls. Above all, he remembers being well read and politically minded so that “we already possessed a feeling that we were walking in paths sharply divergent from those of our parents”.

Although busy with his new role at Arcanum Global, James has other projects on the go. There’s that book on the 2003 Anglo-American occupation of Iraq he’d like to finish, and he’s looking forward to short lecturing stints in Sofia, Hanoi and some Chinese cities later on this year. He’d like to do the same thing at Victoria.

He talks of “discovering, even ascending” into later middle-age. Perhaps, this “discovery” is, as his family hopes, keeping out of war zones for a little while longer.