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: 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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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.

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.

When diplomacy befriends technology

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Alec Ross, former senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, talks about the role of modern technology in achieving diplomatic objectives, empowering citizens around the world, and reconciling Internet freedom with U.S. government surveillance.

The best of my show’s first season

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” we take a look at some of the best moments of our first season — with appearances by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and other guests.

How money in domestic politics affects U.S. diplomacy

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” talks about presidential leadership in the conduct of diplomacy, and how the United States can maintain its primacy in world affairs.

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.