Political ambassadorships hold at 30%

The middle of the summer is a good time to review the balance of political appointees vs. career diplomats in ambassadorial posts around the world. Not surprisingly, the familiar 30-percent quota for political appointments of the last several decades remains largely intact.

Actually, for some people, continuing the tradition of awarding presidential campaign contributors with embassies may be surprising, given President Obama’s promise to change the way Washington works during the 2008 election. However, as I wrote a year ago, reality set in soon after Obama took office. According to a list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats’ union, of all ambassadors Obama has nominated so far, about 40 percent are political appointees.

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.

British leader flies to DC commercially

British Prime Minister David Cameron surprised many this week by traveling to Washington for his first official White House visit since taking office on a commercial British Airways flight, instead of taking a dedicated plane, to save money. Now some Americans are wondering if U.S. officials could follow suit.

Having traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — over the last decade, I can see how commercial flying would save the State Department millions of dollars a year. However, it would also guarantee a logistical nightmare.

Foreign Service school adds 100 classrooms

Historically, the State Department hasn’t been a big champion of education and training — it has relied mostly on diplomats learning their craft on the job, and taking time for a course at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Va., was long deemed almost futile.

The introductory A-100 class every new diplomats is required to take, has been shortened several times over the past two decades, and is now only five weeks long. Given that many Americans join the Foreign Service with no significant knowledge, background or experience in foreign affairs, it’s hard to understand how they can be prepared to represent the United States abroad in five weeks, before they arrive at their first posts.

Clinton mentions my last day at State

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned my departure from the Washington Times during a press conference today. Here is part of the official transcript:

MR. CROWLEY: On his last day of covering the State Department, Nick Kralev of The Washington Times.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, Nick.

QUESTION: Hello.

SECRETARY CLINTON: We should sing Auld Lang Syne or something. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, thank you very much even without doing it.

Travel companies teach customer-service lessons

One of the biggest misconceptions about the travel industry is that it offers the worst customer service around. In fact, in the last couple of years, airline and hotel companies have achieved significant improvements, and it would be wise for other businesses to watch and learn.

Regular readers of this column can testify that I’m no apologist for the travel sector — I try to point out both good and bad practices, though the criticism may sometimes outweigh the praise. But I get angry when I read or hear in the media that airlines are synonymous with bad customer service…

Cuts to State Dept. budget ignite interparty row

A dispute over the State Department budget has pitted the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, against a fellow Democrat and head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and the Obama administration.

Mr. Conrad led an effort to slash President Obama’s $58 billion international affairs request for 2011 by $4 billion, a cut his committee approved last week. Despite protests from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and all her living predecessors, the senator stood his ground on Wednesday.

State plans new public diplomacy posts

The State Department plans to create seven new senior positions to ensure that a public-diplomacy perspective is always “incorporated” in policy-making around the world, as well as to respond quickly to negative coverage of the United States in foreign media.

In an ambitious strategy that goes beyond any previous efforts to reach out to other countries, the Obama administration “seeks to become woven into the fabric of the daily lives of people” there, its top public-diplomacy official said Wednesday. “We must do a better job of listening, learn how people in other countries and cultures listen to us, understand their desires and aspirations, and provide them with information and services of value to them,” said Judith A. McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Paradise so close, yet so far

Do you sometimes find yourself unjustifiably envied by friends or colleagues for taking a business trip to a place known as “paradise on Earth”? Do you try to explain to them that you don’t really have time to enjoy it, or have you given that up?

“Tough life” is a sarcastic exclamation I often hear before traveling overseas, and to some extent I understand it. As often happens, at the beginning of the summer several friends asked me about my upcoming trips with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Two of our planned destinations were the Greek island of Corfu and the Thai resort town of Phuket. No wonder people think I lead a charmed life. Although I have no reason to complain, the reality is very different…

Top hotel benefits suddenly denied

An automatic upgrade to a hotel’s executive floor, including free access to its executive lounge, is one of the most cherished benefits of top elite status with large chains, such as Hilton and Starwood. So what do you do when it’s denied to you?

I tried to find the right answer to that question in Bangkok last week, but, of course, it depends on the reason for the denial — perhaps a lounge closure due to renovation or cost-saving by reducing staff — so I wanted to make sure I understood it well before complaining too much and asking for an alternative benefit during my one-night stay. Many hotel programs used to offer free upgrades and lounge access to their gold members, but in the last year or so, they have limited them to the highest elite level…