Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Any American, any problem, any time’

Sundwall1Gavin Sundwall stood beside the grave, a Bible in hand, and read John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life…” Two taxi drivers, who had become the deceased woman’s chauffeurs during the last years of her life, shared memories of her and shed tears. They sprinkled the woman’s ashes over the graves of her two husbands, which were just a few feet apart.

The impromptu ceremony at the Corozal American Cemetery outside Panama City in the summer of 1998 was over. Sundwall, a first-tour Foreign Service officer, had never met the elderly American woman when she was alive, even though she had lived in Panama for decades. He saw her for the first time when he went to the morgue to identify her body after she had died from natural causes. That was no unusual duty for him as a consular officer, but the funeral he organized was certainly not in his job description.

“I informed her family back in the U.S. of her death, but they didn’t want to come down and have anything to do with her burial, although they sent money,” Sundwall recalled. “They told us that her last wishes had been to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled over the graves of her two husbands. All her friends were elderly and didn’t want to come. So who else would have done it if I hadn’t?”

That same year marked the first time Sundwall was in a Panamanian jail. Two Satanist killers sat across from him. Fortunately for him, he was just visiting the criminals, who were U.S. citizens, to make sure they were being treated humanely, and to relay any messages to their families back home…

>> READ THE FULL STORY ON THE HUFFINGTON POST

Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy isn’t about being nice to people’

KimYuri Kim never thought this would happen. It was a cold February day in 2008, and she was sitting in North Korea’s largest concert hall, listening to a performance by the New York Philharmonic — not far from where she was born in South Korea.

A political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kim had no apparent reason to be accompanying the renowned American orchestra to the world’s most isolated country, which would have been more suitable for a public diplomacy officer. But it was precisely her task on that unprecedented trip.

She was an aide to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, who was leading high-stakes talks with Pyongyang aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The concert tour was a “carrot,” which Washington hoped — though it didn’t admit publicly — would improve the North’s cooperation in the tough talks. Kim had actually negotiated the visit with the communist government, traveling to Pyongyang on two previous occasions with the philharmonic’s leadership.

“They didn’t want to send Chris, because that would have been too high level, so they sent me,” she said. “I helped develop the program and negotiate the terms of the visit…”

>> READ THE FULL STORY ON THE HUFFINGTON POST

Asia still ‘distant third’ in U.S. priorities, ex-Obama official says

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks about Asia’s “distant third” place in the U.S. diplomatic priorities, the obstructionism of North Korea’s young leader, and China’s global influence.

U.S. calls on China to lift flight limits

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” the chief U.S. aviation negotiator, Krishna Urs, talks about Open Skies agreements and other international airline accords, their impact on the flying public, and what diplomacy and travel have in common.

Corporate travel’s lack of innovation

Why have corporate travel managers become so prone to inertia and averse to innovation in recent years? Why are numerous companies spending millions of dollars more on travel than necessary? Is it time for the travel manager’s job description to change? I’ve been trying to find answers to these questions since I dedicated myself to travel education and training this summer, through my Kralev International advisory services.

But it was a post by Scott Gillespie, who writes a blog on procurement and corporate travel management, that prompted me to air my thoughts in public. Although my arguments aren’t quite what he had in mind, I was happy to see that others share my concerns about corporate complacency…

EU diplo corps gets messy before launch

If anyone had any doubts that putting together the European Union’s new diplomatic service would be an utterly messy task, that is now an undisputed fact. A high-profile ambassadorial list released this week provoked publicly aired quarrels rather uncharacteristic of diplomats, and it raised questions about the future effectiveness of the EU corps.

The long-anticipated list, unveiled by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels, was apparently based not on merit, but on what Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called “esoteric considerations.” What are those? A quick look at the list shows that the most important ambassadorships are going to diplomats from the oldest EU members in the West — China was given to the Germans, Japan to the Austrians and South Africa to the Dutch.

Clinton pulls off diplomatic rarity in Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week accomplished a diplomatic feat that her immediate predecessors tried but failed repeatedly to pull off: visiting South Korea, but skipping Japan and China on the same trip. It may sound immaterial, but defying protocol is a tricky thing in diplomacy, especially in Asia.

For years, I’ve been very amused when the State Department would send us in the traveling press corps a note about the secretary plans to visit just South Korea or just China or just Japan. Every time, I’d smirk and bet that he or she would end up going to all three countries — and I was right. That had become a tradition — the Japanese in particular considered it an affront to be ignored by their staunchest ally in favor of Seoul or Beijing.

Round-the-world fare mysteries revealed

Trying to figure out how airlines determine fares is utterly futile, but that doesn’t necessarily dampen my curiosity. On a recent visit to the Star Alliance headquarters in Frankfurt, I sought insights into how the global group sets its popular round-the-world fares.

I always enjoy dropping by the alliance’s modest office — not only because it’s an easy walk from the airport terminal, but also because just about everything it does is unique and pioneering in the industry. With 27 member-carriers, one would think it’s a grand operation, so I was surprised that fewer than 80 people work there…

Airlines cut back on first-class service

If you ever wanted to sit in first or business class but couldn’t afford it — and upgrading wasn’t an option — your time may have arrived. While airlines await the return of paying “premium” passengers, some of them are letting lower-class fliers occupy plush lie-flat seats.

On Australia’s Qantas Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa, you can now sit in first class even if you hold a ticket for business — no miles or other upgrade instruments are necessary. Qantas also allows coach customers in the business cabin. The two carriers still offer standard three-cabin service on most of their international networks…

U.S. flights likely to Tokyo Haneda

Here is some good news for those of you seeking an alternative to Tokyo’s vast and faraway Narita International Airport: The Japanese government will likely soon allow nonstop flights between the United States and the city’s much smaller and nearby Haneda Airport.

There is, of course, some not-so-good news. Unless U.S. negotiators manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat, those flights will arrive and depart only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. — which means that takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports may have to occur in the middle of the night, too. Access to Haneda is one of the issues being discussed between the United States and Japan as part of ongoing negotiations of an Open Skies Agreement…