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John Rakolta Jr.: Making an Impact as a U.S. Diplomat in Tense Middle East

By Crain’s Content Studio

Key Takeaways

  • U.S. power in the world – economic, military, and cultural – is “massive. We have all this hard power, but we don’t always use it well.”
  • A diplomat should help open doors rather than resort to lecturing or threatening sanctions on other nations. That approach made UAE a closer partner after it had been miffed about not being consulted on the prior administration’s U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.
  • What you think you know about other people and other countries may be way off base. Keeping an open mind changed Rakolta’s view of Donald Trump and the image of the U.S. and China around the world.
  • Seek to improve and normalize relations with other nations; the Middle East is filled with failed states – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya – that have failed to do so.

 John Rakolta Jr., longtime chairman of Detroit-based construction firm Walbridge and an active Republican, didn’t know Donald Trump in the early run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. He favored candidate Marco Rubio then and had been a longtime supporter and fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012.

In an interview by Detroit Regional Chamber President and Chief Executive Sandy K. Baruah at the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference Wednesday, Sept. 21, Rakolta said he initially resisted when approached to chair Trump’s Michigan campaign after Rubio dropped out.

He only knew Trump as “The Apprentice” reality TV star, and he worried about Trump bashing Detroit’s auto companies for making cars and parts in Mexico. But when he met Trump in person, he was impressed that Trump was “respectful” and asked good, penetrating questions, then thanked Rakolta for explaining automotive trade issues to him. When Trump asked later for his thoughts on a vice-presidential candidate, Rakolta advised picking a person with strong Republic Party ties and someone who would be “loyal” when political fortune turned sour. Trump later confided that he was considering Mike Pence, long before it was announced.

Upon being named ambassador to the UAE after Trump’s election, Rakolta learned quickly that people with big names and U.S. cabinet posts were less important than others, such as Trump son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who suggested that he help the UAE by having the U.S. become a big supporter of the upcoming World’s Fair in the UAE.

UAE leaders opened up to Rakolta’s how-can-I-help approach to U.S. relations at a time when China was emerging as American’s main rival on the international stage.

“Everybody likes China’s money, but nobody wants to be like China,” Rakolta said during the morning session, “Coffee and Conversation: A Diplomat’s View of America from Abroad.”

This article was written by Crain’s Content Studio for the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference.