Diplomats in the Trenches: Profiles of U.S. Foreign Service Officers

dit-amazonMost Americans, like ordinary people everywhere, don’t relate to diplomacy — to the extent they think about it at all, they view it as something that happens in a stratosphere of officialdom, far out of their reach. They also believe that it has little to do with their lives.

I reached this conclusion after more than a decade of research focused on the practice, impact and perceptions of diplomacy in the 21st century, conducted in dozens of countries. My second conclusion, having to do with reality, is markedly different from the first, which is about perception. Despite the oddity and impracticality of the diplomatic protocol, etiquette and grandstanding, the substance of diplomacy does have a direct impact on the lives of real people.

By “real people” I mean all of us, as we go about our business and deal with normal everyday things, hoping for the safety and well-being that can help us lead a decent life and fulfill our potential.

We live in a globalized and interconnected world, and whether we realize it or not, we are affected by events, forces, trends and people far beyond our national borders. What happens in other countries, and how our diplomats deal with it, has an impact on our security, prosperity, health, privacy, ability to travel and much more…

Diplomats in the trenches: From ‘observing and reporting’ to ‘advocacy and lobbying’

Lindwall1Working saved David Lindwall’s life — literally. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti in January 2010, when a catastrophic earthquake flattened his house. He felt very lucky to be in the quake-resistant embassy building when the earth shook.

His colleague Victoria DeLong, however, wasn’t that lucky — she was killed when her house collapsed. Overall, hundreds of thousands of people and a quarter-million buildings perished. DeLong, who was the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, spent 27 of her 57 years in the Foreign Service.

For American diplomats serving abroad, natural disasters, along with terrorist attacks, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies and even murder, are part of their way of life. Yet many, including Lindwall, are drawn to dangerous postings more often than to plush ones. After Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Lindwall went to Iraq. He cut short his next assignment as consul-general in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to serve in Afghanistan, where he is currently the deputy chief of mission.

“Even though not every officer has had such experiences, dealing with disasters is very much a part of the Foreign Service life,” Lindwall said. “After my house in Haiti collapsed, I slept with the Marines that first night. The second night, the Marines brought a cod, a pillow and a blanket into my office. I slept there for about six weeks…”
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: Wearing flip-flops more often than suits

SenAnjalina Sen is a diplomat of a peculiar kind. She finds diplomatic receptions “a bit more onerous than sleeping in a bamboo hut for a week.” It makes sense, then, that she has spent her nine years in the Foreign Service so far working mostly on refugee issues.

“We do a lot of business at receptions, but the field work I do is phenomenal,” she said. “Talking to refugees about their experience, their hopes and dreams, and figuring out how to bring that up with our policy — that’s what gets me really excited. I’m often in refugee camps, so I spend a lot of time in flip flops. I don’t like wearing a suit.”

The daughter of a Canadian mother and an Indian father, Sen grew up in Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. After working on Wall Street, she made what seemed a natural career choice for someone with her cosmopolitan upbringing. Soon after joining the Foreign Service, she found herself in the middle of the now-infamous passport crisis of 2007, when new entry requirements for Americans traveling to Canada and other countries in the Western Hemisphere caused a huge flood of passport applications, overwhelming the State Department. In a very unusual move, Sen and most of her entry-level colleagues were assigned to an emergency task force to help ease the load.

“We didn’t have enough computers and had to hand-adjudicate passport applications,” she said. “But it was a great bonding experience, and I’m still really close with the people I was on that task force with…”
 
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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…

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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…”

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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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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.