Diplomats in the trenches: ‘You can’t learn diplomacy through osmosis’

HammerMichael Hammer was nine years into his Foreign Service career in 1997, when he did advance work on President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vancouver, Canada, for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Once the president’s party arrived, Glyn Davies, a fellow Foreign Service officer who was the executive secretary of the National Security Council (NSC) at the time, approached Hammer with a special task. Clinton wanted to go out to dinner with a group of friends, and Davies wondered if Hammer, who had been in the city for about 10 days, could help. Even though Hammer was a mid-level political officer, he had no problem making a dinner reservation. “I had in essence a 30-minute bus ride to make arrangements, but I did manage to find a restaurant close by, and everybody ended up having a good evening out,” he recalled.

About a year later, when it was time to bid on available positions for his next assignment, Hammer was interested in a job in the NSC’s Europe office and sent his résumé to Davies. “Glyn came back and said, ‘I don’t necessarily see a match for the Europe job, but there is a vacancy in our press shop at the NSC.’ I was pretty stunned,” Hammer said.

That job changed his career. It got him started in press work, and eventually led to his appointment as the first NSC spokesman in the Obama White House, and later as assistant secretary of state for public affairs. From there, he became ambassador to Chile in 2014. He said he doesn’t believe any of that would have happened had he not arranged that dinner for Clinton in Vancouver. “If someone comes to you, and you are able to do little things right, you might be given bigger opportunities,” he said. “People don’t necessarily focus on whether you are the best note-taker or cable-writer, but if you have a good head on your shoulders, and you can solve problems, then perhaps you’ll be given other opportunities…”
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: Getting ‘beaten up’ for ‘doing things right’

BlaserVirginia Blaser, a newly minted American diplomat, was the duty officer at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid one weekend in 1993 when a call came in from two Midwest teachers who had brought a group of teenage students to Spain on their first trip abroad.

A boy from the group was nowhere to be found, and the teachers wanted the embassy’s help to locate him before word about his disappearance reached his parents back home. Blaser alerted the police but couldn’t just sit and wait for something to happen.

“I remember thinking that the child might be out there hurt or scared,” she recalled. “So my husband and I literally walked the streets for two days, hoping that we’d find him just by sheer luck, but of course we didn’t. Eventually, we got a call from the police saying that they had been driving along a highway outside the city and found him — traumatized, dehydrated and sunburned.”

Now a senior Foreign Service officer and deputy chief of mission in Tanzania, Blaser has also served in Uganda, Mauritius, El Salvador, Britain and Belgium, while managing to raise four children. She started out as a consular officer, eager to help fellow Americans abroad. “It may not be a big deal for you when you see hundreds of people a year, but it is a big deal for a little lady from Des Moines who has never traveled overseas and has had her bags grabbed and has been pushed around,” Blaser said. “I love to be the one who can solve her problems…”
 
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The State Department’s diversity problem

FPBy Nicholas Kralev
Foreign Policy Magazine
May 22, 2016

When Naomi Walcott joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 2005, she was “delighted” to find a new class of officers that was diverse “in every possible meaning of the word: age, religion, ethnic and educational background.” To a lesser extent, she also found a diverse group at her first overseas post in Honduras. But when Walcott, a Japanese-American, arrived at the embassy in Tokyo in 2008, she was shocked to find a predominantly white male U.S. staff. “I was one of very few female officers,” she said. “I went through a bit of an existential crisis of wondering if this job was really for me, and whether there was a place for me in this organization.”

After over a decade into what the State Department says has been a dedicated effort to make the Foreign Service “look more like America,” it has found itself on the defensive in recent days, following criticism by Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, about the lack of diversity among America’s diplomats and the rest of the foreign policy workforce. “In the halls of power, in the faces of our national security leaders, America is still not truly reflected,” Rice said in a commencement address at Florida International University in Miami on May 11, borrowing former Sen. Bob Graham’s description of the career services as “white, male and Yale”…
 
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Do presidents trust the Foreign Service?

FPPresident Barack Obama followed tradition at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly this week by engaging in perhaps the most intense diplomacy this year, juggling everything from the Syria crisis to development aid. At his side were mainly politically appointed aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Benjamin Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. But most of the people working behind the scenes to make it all happen are career diplomats, also known as Foreign Service officers — a group of about 8,000 Americans who, along with about 5,000 technical staff, serve in 275 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world.

Over the years, the Obama White House has been criticized as being too controlling on foreign policy, running an overly tight ship, and keeping these professionals at the State Department — the Foreign Service’s home agency in Washington — at arm’s length when it comes to the issues the administration most cares about. Critics cite the Iran nuclear negotiations and the secret talks with Cuba as recent examples of diplomacy where more professionals could have been included at earlier stages. Does that suggest a lack of trust?…
 
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Is U.S.-India diplomatic strain over?

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, talks about the complex U.S.-India relationship, and about attitudes toward Russia in Central Asia.

Mapping out path in Foreign Service

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, Philip Reeker, former ambassador to Macedonia and incoming consul-general in Milan, talks about the wide variety of tasks professional diplomats perform, and creating a successful Foreign Service career.

U.S. diplomats’ influence at home

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, we discuss the role career diplomats play in making U.S. foreign policy, and why presidents tend to distrust the Foreign Service, with James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Avis Bohlen, former assistant secretary of state for arms control.

Exploring U.S.-Iran reconciliation

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, author and Iran expert Barbara Slavin talks about the prospect of a long-term nuclear deal with Tehran, the possibility for U.S.-Iran reconciliation, and the likelihood of American diplomatic presence in Iran.

Can Washington ever please Moscow?

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” two experts discuss the successes and failures of U.S. diplomacy with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the need for Washington to be more strategic in its dealings with Moscow.