A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Diplomacy Isn’t Just For Diplomats

Protests over a film that insults the Prophet Mohammed are still ongoing, but it’s already clear that American diplomats and their families will bear a huge professional and personal burden as a result of the attacks on our embassies and consulates around the world. The Foreign Service community is still mourning the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, and his colleagues, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and that huge loss, along with the security breeches at posts around the world are likely to have huge implications for Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) and their families.

The State Department has already announced the evacuation of non-essential personnel and family members from at least two posts in the Muslim World and I’m sure that more will soon follow. We had similar evacuations prior to my arrival in Macedonia and while I was the Desk Officer for Chad in the aftermath of a coup attempt there in 2005, and these evacuations are extremely tough on families, especially those with school-age children.It’s obviously difficult for FSO’s who remain at post while their families go back to Washington or alternate locations but it’s also really hard on spouses and children, who may have their school year disrupted. Foreign Service kids are used to having to be the “new kid” at different schools around the world every few years but when they leave post on an evacuation, it’s especially tricky because they often have no idea when or if they’ll be returning to their old post, where their school and friends are.

The Ambassador or Chief of Mission at each post decides which employees are considered essential or non-essential and their decisions can result in hurt feelings or worse. And those decisions often have long lasting implications for how the post will function moving forward, even after everyone returns to post. I’ve seen occasions where FSO’s who are asked to leave post during crises lose the respect of their colleagues and can’t ever really recover.

In the wake of the attacks, security will also get tighter everywhere, which makes it harder for FSO’s to do their jobs but also creates a bunker mentality in which officers get caught off from the reality of the country they’re living in. Diplomats are the foot soldiers of American foreign policy – they implement the policies of the officials we elect.

But an equally important but unofficial role they play is serving as cultural ambassadors. When FSO’s and their family members make friends with locals, especially in countries where residents have limited exposure to Americans, they give locals a different perspective on our country. Making those kind of connections will be even more difficult post-Libya.

This weekend, I talked to Rick Steves, the travel guru, about the unrest in the Middle East and he underscored the importance of travel as a means of bridging cultural divides. It might sound like a cliché, but it’s true: Americans needs to travel because our diplomats can’t do all the heavy lifting for us, security restrictions or not.

Americans aren’t going to rush out to Libya or Yemen, at least not now, but we need to continue to travel to places like Egypt, Tunisia and every other reasonably safe destination in the Muslim World. If we travel to these places, meet people and let them see that most of us are respectful, humble and interested in hearing their viewpoints and learning about their countries, it really will contribute to mutual understanding and make people less likely to be swayed by videos they see on YouTube or things from hear from hard, right-wing radicals.

In the face of these attacks, we can either recoil and turn further inward or redouble our efforts to rebuild ties with the Muslim World. Our diplomats can’t do all the work, so it’s up to all of us to be citizen diplomats.

The reality is that ignorance here at home helps fuel the popularity of violent, dangerous ignoramuses abroad. We can’t all travel to the Middle East but we can learn more about the region, share those findings with neighbors and friends and create a country where no one would think to burn a Koran or denigrate the Prophet Mohammed, or any other holy book or revered figure.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by ClaraDon on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Queue Jumpers and Diplomatic Parking Scofflaws

The line of cars waiting to cross the border was, in fact, no line at all. It was an unruly scrum of cars, wide at the back end yet narrowing into a single line near the immigration booth, with battered old Yugos and brand new BMWs jockeying ahead, inch-by-inch, for supremacy.

We were waiting to enter Macedonia – Greek Macedonia, from Macedonia – Macedonian Macedonia, as in The Republic of Macedonia, or for Greeks, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And as I sat in the logjam, wondering how to cut the line, I thought back to what Blake, my social sponsor at the American Embassy in Skopje, had said about the border.

“You don’t have to wait like all the other slobs,” he boasted. “As diplomats, we have the right to go right to the front of the line.”

And according to Blake there were other vehicular perks as well: park wherever you want, drive as fast as you like and zoom right through toll booths all over the country. But what Blake didn’t explain was how to cut the line at the border, and I didn’t ask, because at the time, it sounded like a very arrogant and stupid thing to do. Why would I cut the line at the border? Only a complete ass would do that, I thought. I didn’t join the Foreign Service because I wanted to be a scofflaw or line cutter, and the idea of drawing attention to myself by conspicuously cutting a line was not appealing. But I’m also highly impatient, and when I first traveled down to the Greek/Macedonian border and saw how long the line was, and how slowly it was moving, I quickly reconsidered my options. The time I’d save would be worth the momentary embarrassment.

But there were only two lanes open at the border, one heading in each direction, and there were scores of cars everywhere. On my first attempt at being a diplomatic line cutter, I was out of my depth and had no idea how to physically do it. So I sat in line like everyone else, plotting my next move.

After a few minutes, I saw a late model Mercedes Benz with tinted windows and diplomatic plates speed past the queue, then stop right before a large concrete median. A man hopped out of the passenger seat, said something to the Greek immigration officer in the booth and then, another Greek official came by and halted progress in the line and waived the diplomatic vehicle up to the booth to be serviced next. A-ha, I thought. So that’s how you do it.

But that was a beautiful new Mercedes Benz that commanded respect. I was driving a 1994 Nissan Altima with all four hubcaps missing, and a side view mirror that was held together with duck tape. I had the diplomatic plates, but I looked more like the assistant manager at Sanford & Son than a legit embassy official.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go, but when I tried it, a couple of cars started honking at me, making me feel like the bum that I was. I looked straight ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the other drivers, and when I parked in front of the median and arrived, on foot, at the booth, the Greek official took a look at my car, then exhaled deeply, rolled his eyes and took a drag on his cigarette.

It appeared as though he planned to accommodate me, but unlike the previous VIP, there was clearly no rush for a low level official driving a junky old car like mine. Over the course of the next two years, I became far more adept at cutting lines at the various borders but I never felt very good about it. Not bad enough to stop the practice, mind you, just a little guilty.

The public has a general perception of diplomats as scofflaws who invoke diplomatic immunity at any opportunity to cover their asses. I think this perception stems from the bad press foreign diplomats in the U.S. get each year due to unpaid parking tickets, particularly in New York, where some foreign diplomats who work at the United Nations tend to park wherever they damn well please.

Last year, the Freakonomics blog posted the following table of outstanding parking tickets for NYC and D.C.-based diplomats.

New York

Egypt – $1,929,142
Kuwait – $1,266,901
Nigeria – $1,019,998
Indonesia – $692,200
Brazil – $608,733

Washington, D.C.

Russia – $27,200
Yemen – $24,600
Cameroon – $19,520
France – $19,520
Mauritania – $8,070

And the Daily Telegraph posted their own league table for diplomatic scofflaws in Great Britain.

China, 257 fines outstanding, £27,690 owing
Afghanistan, 245 fines outstanding, £25,820 owing
Turkey, 253 fines outstanding, £25,590 owing
Saudi Arabia, 169 fines outstanding, £15,440 owing
Cyprus, 140 fines outstanding, £14,500 owing
Pakistan, 128 fines outstanding, £13,120 owing
France, 120 fines outstanding, £11,900 owing
Ghana, 107 fines outstanding, £10,760 owing
Uzbekistan, 102 fines outstanding, £9,680 owing
Malaysia, 89 fines outstanding, £8,950 owing
Ukraine, 86 fines outstanding, £8,260 owing
Russia, 71 fines outstanding, £7,920 owing

In 2006, a study by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, economists at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that diplomats from the world’s most corrupt countries were also the most likely to be parking scofflaws. I think there’s some truth to that.

I think my social sponsor in Skopje, Blake, was the only Foreign Service Officer I knew who parked their car wherever they pleased. At all three overseas missions I served at, we received very clear messages from each front office specifically warning us against this kind of boorish behavior.

I’m biased but I think that American diplomats are among the world’s best behaved. Not because we’re the most virtuous, but because, as Americans, all eyes are on us overseas, waiting for us to slip up. The stereotype is that we’re arrogant and ignorant of other cultures, so we need to work a little harder to overcome that.

I did my part in the posts I served at – Skopje, Port of Spain and Budapest – by parking on the sidewalks, just like everyone else and cutting the lines at the borders in the nicest way possible.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo via Alan Cleaver on Flickr]

Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

TSA causes two international incidents by searching Indian diplomats

It seems we common folk aren’t the only ones who find TSA‘s security checks intrusive. Transportation Security Administration officials have recently caused not one but two international incidents with India by searching diplomats.

India’s ambassador to the U.S. Meera Shankar got frisked at an airport on December 4. She was pulled out of the line because she had brown skin and was wearing a sari in a random search. When she revealed she was a diplomat, security officials were unimpressed and frisked her anyway.

Now it turns out this wasn’t the first incident, the BBC reports. Two weeks ago India’s UN envoy, Hardeep Puri , who is Sikh, was asked to remove his turban. Sikh men think it is immodest to remove their turbans in public. Once again, the diplomat mentioned his special status and was ignored. He was taken into a holding room so the turban could be checked for whatever it was the TSA thought he was hiding in there.

Hey, at least they didn’t have to go through a body scanner like Baywatch actress Donna D’Errico.

Russia’s ties with Cuba

Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, completed a four-nation tour of Latin America late last week with a final stop in Cuba. The relations between the two countries appear to be strained and, at present, intense; however, Russia, like China, has an interest in drilling for oil off Cuba’s shores and is seeking further military cooperation from the advantageously positioned Castro-ruled nation.

Medvedev’s visit comes just over two weeks after Russia and Cuba signed important trade and economic agreements that signaled a strengthening of ties between the two nations. Russia was also the first nation to send aid for Cuba’s hurricane relief efforts.I find the recent talks between Venezuela, China, and Russia somewhat — if not outright — suspicious, and wouldn’t be surprised if the three socialist nations expressed a serious interest in bringing Cuba into the mix. Ever since Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, officially took the reigns in February, and Hurricanes Gustav and Paloma hit Cuba’s shores in August and November, the spotlight has slowly settled upon this world-famous cigar country. Cuba’s precarious relations with the United States and its recent strengthening of ties with China, Venezuela, and Russia signal a real and tenable threat to its democratic neighbors. Despite this, Raúl Castro remarked in an interview with actor/interviewer Sean Penn this fall that he would be open to reconsidering his nation’s relationship with the U.S. with President-elect Barack Obama come the new Year. What this means for American-Cuban relations following Obama’s inauguration is speculative at best.

To be certain, all eyes are on Cuba — yet most uncertain is what Cuba will do and how it will handle the outpouring of interest, diplomatic or otherwise, that it has received these recent months.