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#SPA80for80: Ambassador Kenneth Merten, SPA/MPA ’86

Kenneth Merten

Kenneth Merten was inspired for a career in diplomacy by a strong interest in the world beyond our borders.

He studied abroad in France and Austria to gain language skills and experience living overseas, preparing to make an impact on an international scale.

When the devastating earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, Merten, who was then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, sprang into action. As ambassador, he faced a host of challenges. A deadly cholera outbreak, a controversial presidential election, widespread poverty, and seemingly endless piles of rubble, just to name a few. However, by the time he left Haiti in July 2012, he believed Haiti was well on its way to recovery. Haiti has attracted significant foreign investment and its poverty rate has fallen.

Ambassador Merten said that Port-au-Prince looked like Hiroshima after a nuclear bomb has been dropped on it. Nothing could even move to deliver medical treatment until the U.S. military was able to open the airport, only 36 hours after the earthquake.

While still in Haiti, Merten explained, “[When] people come down here, they see there are still areas where there is unmoved rubble or buildings that are collapsed, and it still looks bad. But for those of us who have been here since [the earthquake], there has actually been a lot of improvement.” Just a year after the disaster, the court system was up and running; one third of the homeless population had a place to live; and over 1.2 million cubic meters of rubble were cleared by the U.S. In the time since with that groundwork laid, construction has been underway on permanent infrastructure.

While the United States has been dedicated to assisting Haiti, relying on foreign aid is not a long-term solution. Ambassador Merten stressed the importance of empowering Haitians by encouraging self-sufficiency and rebuilding a nation with an educated population of workers to sustain a stable economy.

Ambassador Merten was awarded the 2011 Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy for his extraordinary leadership in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

He was appointed as Ambassador to Croatia in 2012. A significant part of his work is relating to working with Croatia to take full advantage of European Union membership, which it achieved in Summer 2013. Croatia serves as a model to Southeastern Europe of a country that has overcome great adversity, as the first country involved in the war that broke up Yugoslavia to join the EU. It underwent a decade-long reform process successfully, and is now a contributing member to both NATO and the European Union. Among other things, the U.S. mission partners with their Croatian counterparts to help train regional law enforcement officials and prosecutors to help stop things like organized crime, terrorism, and drug smuggling.

A lot has changed since Ambassador Merten entered diplomacy, when international phone calls were rare because they were just too expensive. Still, he has helped the United States to ensure that Haiti and Croatia build strong foundations for a brighter future. He has continued his dedicated service, inspiring a new generation of AU students to make a mark on humanity around the world.


“My time at the School of Public Affairs was invaluable to me. With an undergraduate degree in international relations, an MPA from American University’s SPA was the perfect complement. Of course, being in Washington to gain first-hand experience in public administration proved to be an additional asset in preparing me for a career in the Foreign Service.”