Is diplomacy a real profession?

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” American Foreign Service Association President Susan Johnson talks about the varying value the U.S. places on diplomacy, investing in a professional diplomatic service, and the State Department’s “struggle” to explain to Americans what it does.

Where are my ex-secretaries of state?

I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.

I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.

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.

Gay diplomats get key benefits

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued an order Thursday granting diplomatic passports, access to medical care and U.S. government jobs overseas to same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats.

The State Department released a statement by Mrs. Clinton, who worked from home after a bad fall late Wednesday in which she fractured an elbow. She is expected to have surgery within days, spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Thursday’s order marks a significant change in policy, and officials said it goes into effect immediately. The State Department will now cover the moving expenses of domestic partners of gay Foreign Service members on their way to a new assignment, as well as the cost of any emergency evacuation.

Candid Clinton off script overseas

BEIJING — So much for the “diplo-speak” U.S. officials usually offer on trips abroad. Newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton showed last week that she will not be constrained by diplomatic protocol or follow an official script and, so far, she seems to have the stature and celebrity to pull it off.

As she returns home Sunday from her first overseas trip since taking office, Mrs. Clinton leaves behind thousands of Asians thrilled to have met one of the world’s most famous and powerful women. At the same time, awaiting her in Washington are puzzled analysts, angry human rights activists and career diplomats not quite sure what to make of some of her comments.

Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Flying more than 22,000 miles in a week filled with dozens of official meetings, public events and media interviews didn’t seem to have taken a toll on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her much-publicized trip to Asia. How does she do it?

I’ve been asked the same question about three of Mrs. Clinton’s predecessors I’ve traveled with — Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and Madeleine K. Albright. My answer is always the same, but it’s not the queen-size pullout sofa in their plane’s private cabin, though having a real bed in the air certainly helps.

Powell: ‘I am on the president’s agenda’

Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there is no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even in the administration he serves.

They accuse him of leading a government agency that not only opposes President Bush’s foreign policy, but also tries to undermine it. His response came out in a single well-known barnyard expletive. Then, to emphasize the point, he added: “That’s quotable.”

“I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, [but] who are not,” Mr. Powell continued, sitting in his small inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department…

Political punch in a package of charm

Condoleezza Rice has rarely heard a question she doesn’t know how to answer, from queries about her tumultuous childhood in segregated Alabama to her success in the male world of superpower politics, nuclear weapons and arms control.

She meets me with the friendly smile and easy hospitality of a west-coaster, defying the image of someone anointed by Washington insiders to become the most powerful woman in the world in a year. The chief foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice is being tipped as a likely secretary of state or national security adviser should Bush win the White House.

As huge a task as this sounds, Rice’s own life story has the word “amazing” written all over it. At 45, she has been the first black woman in just about any job she’s taken on: from special assistant for national security affairs to President George Bush when she was only 34, to provost of California’s prestigious Stanford University (the Harvard of the west coast) where she managed a budget of nearly $2bn…

The new statesman

Vojislav Kostunica is still trying to recover from the “shock” he felt nearly four months ago when he finally realised that he was indeed the president of Yugoslavia. He was “thrilled and humbled”, he says, and had thought much about how he would “behave as president-elect” after his September 24 victory over Slobodan Milosevic, who disputed the results of the vote until he was forced out of power on October 6.

But since then, “things have been changing very quickly” for the soft-spoken and studious 56-year-old lawyer, who readily acknowledges his “lack of experience” in governing, and finds his new duties and unlikely celebrity rather overwhelming.

“This job is very difficult, but also very creative,” he says, “and I wouldn’t be in politics if the creativity were missing”. Although he remains entirely serious, it seems that he is wittily hinting at the total mess which he inherited in his country’s affairs — both domestic and foreign — from his predecessor and which necessarily will require quite a bit of “creativity” to overcome…

Turn, turn, turn

Arianna Huffington says that she’s had a “political conversion” — not from right to left, but “beyond right and left”. Disillusioned with the “degradation” of US politics, the outspoken Greek-born author and columnist has broken with her conservative past and, apparently, opened up to the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged. She denies she’s become a liberal, but believes that the political system can be changed “through a movement throughout the country, along the lines of the civil rights movement”.

She is also frustrated with the money flooding into US politics; ironic, some say, since her former husband, then-congressman Michael Huffington of California, spent nearly $30m on his unsuccessful senate run in 1994. But that campaign was an “eye-opener”, says Arianna, who is now a staunch supporter of Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign finance reform efforts…