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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The diplomatic doldrums

FPThe Republican-led House Appropriations Committee approved on July 24 an $8 billion cut for 2014 in the roughly $50 billion current international affairs budget. That same day, the House authorized a $5 billion reduction in the defense budget of over $600 billion — the latest reminder that many Republicans, and certainly some Democrats, don’t much value diplomacy or foreign aid. Why is that the case?

As it happens, I spent most of the spring interviewing congressional staffers and analyzing their bosses’ — and their own — attitudes toward diplomacy, the Foreign Service, and the State Department for a recently released study commissioned by the American Foreign Service Association. The study — based on interviews with 28 staffers, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate — concluded that those attitudes have improved in the past decade, but a high level of distrust remains between Foggy Bottom and members of both parties on Capitol Hill…
 
>> READ THE FULL STORY IN FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE

Sink or swim

FP
Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.

Even though he is considered a good officer in general, the young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic and has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant — let alone $2 million of taxpayers’ money. He has minimal knowledge of democracy promotion, institution-building, or grant-making, but he is expected to identify suitable NGOs in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East…
 
>> READ THE FULL STORY IN FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE

‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.

Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.

It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance…

UAE mixes aviation and foreign policy

As U.S. and other NATO troops continue to die in Afghanistan, one of the main questions being asked in foreign policy circles is this: How committed are Arab governments to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban? The United Arab Emirates showed last week that fighting violent extremism is less important than its commercial airlines’ well-being.

Most governments around the world help their carriers in various ways, not only out of national pride, but because a strong airline has a positive impact on a country’s economy. One of the missions of every U.S. embassy is to promote trade and commerce that benefit American companies. That has become an organic part of modern diplomacy.

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.

Western carriers return to Iraq

Iraq may not be among Western travelers’ most desired destinations quite yet, but some of the world’s leading airlines have decided that flying to the war-ravaged country can be profitable, so they are returning there after a 20-year absence.

Although two of Europe’s major carriers — Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines — have been serving Iraq since 2008, their re-entry in that market was viewed as only moderately significant at the time, and none of their peers followed suit. Austrian chose Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, which was never nearly as violent as the rest of the country…

Hotels steps away from airport gates

It’s puzzling why in the United States, one of the most lucrative travel markets in the world, the concept of airport transit hotels is so foreign. There are signs that may be changing, but current plans seem more like baby steps than bold decision-making.

A recent trip to Asia reminded me of the lack of entrepreneurial thinking exhibited by many U.S. airport operators. Readers of this column may remember my praise for terminals in Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this year. Beyond design, comfort and cleanliness, having such a time- and hassle-saving convenience as a hotel under the same roof as your departure gate…

Award blocks still irk United fliers

There is rarely a single specific issue a reporter writes about that provokes huge interest from its first mention, and then continues to do so for months on end. For loyal customers of United Airlines, however, the carrier’s blocking of “award” seats made available by its partners in the global Star Alliance is not just any issue.

That was evident as soon as this column exposed the previously secret practice in September, as hundreds of members of United’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, complained either to me or the airline. Although I haven’t dedicated a column to the issue since early December, I continue to receive e-mail messages about it. I also try to answer some questions in a thread on FlyerTalk…