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: ‘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: 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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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.

Running the world’s largest embassy

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Stephen Beecroft, talks about the challenges for U.S. diplomacy in the country amid continuing violence and political dysfunction.

German envoy seeks to ‘rebuild trust’

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” the German ambassador to the United States, Peter Ammon, talks about his country’s diplomatic priorities, rebuilding trust with Washington following the NSA spying revelations, and the West’s relationship with Russia.

Once expelled, gay diplomat thrives in Foreign Service

How has life for gay diplomats changed in recent years? On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” meet Jan Krc, the public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna who was once expelled from the Foreign Service for being gay.

Politics’ role in U.S.-Canada diplomacy

Do politicians make good diplomats? On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” meet the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, a longtime politician who was most recently premier of the province of Manitoba.