A few years ago, Afghanistan’s Said Tayeb Jawad — on an official visit to Anchorage, Alaska — found himself with some spare time between meetings, so he took a stroll along the city’s busiest shopping street. Since it was snowing and he was cold, the shivering diplomat ducked into an upscale boutique selling furs.
“The owner realized that I didn’t look local, so he asked me what I was doing in Alaska,” Jawad recalled. “When I told him that I was the Afghan ambassador to the United States, he insisted that I accept his most expensive fur hat as a gift. It was amazing.”
Jawad was equally moved a few months ago during a visit to New Mexico, where a group of schoolchildren presented him with desperately needed school supplies for poor kids in Afghanistan.
“When I go to places like that, there’s a very personal connection for Americans,” he said. “They put a face with Afghanistan, they hear our struggle, and see what an Afghan looks like.”
Jawad added that he’s fortunate to have traveled to all 50 states, pointing out that “unless you get out of Washington, you really don’t see this diversity or beauty.”
Nancy Brinker, U.S. chief of protocol at the State Department, agrees that all ambassadors should have the chance Jawad did to experience America beyond the Beltway.
“We polled 180 foreign ambassadors serving in Washington and asked them: ‘What do you want to learn? What issues concern you the most? And who do you want to meet?’”
What Brinker found was that ambassadors are most interested in five broad subject areas: the economy, health care, science and technology, security and energy — and they wanted to know more about the United States and its diverse people.
“So we extended our mission by creating an outreach division, giving ambassadors the opportunity to explore more of America and connect them with America’s foremost leaders — beyond anyone they’d meet in traditional diplomatic circles,” Brinker ex-plained at a recent Heritage Foundation event titled “Experiencing America: Public Diplomacy at Its Best.”
“Every ambassador sends cables home, and it’s important that what’s communicated is an accurate representation of their view of America,” said Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary whose work in breast cancer research as founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization has made her an internationally recognized figure. (Time magazine named Brinker in its 2008 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.)
Brinker has been applying that savvy to her current government posting since taking over as protocol chief in September 2007, arranging more than 60 “outreach events” for foreign diplomats, including a barbeque for deputy chiefs of mission at Blair House and a dinner for 20 ambassadors at her home. In addition, dozens of ambassadors have traveled to both national conven-tions as well as to California and Florida.
So far, the program seems to be working well, said Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“A lot of the ambassadors who come to Washington are either the top diplomats in their countries, or politicians who will go onto bigger things,” said Hill, the Bush administration’s lead negotiator on North Korea. “Often, 10 years later, that person’s name will pop up again as prime minister or president. So reaching these people is a very important task, and it’s often not fulfilled.”
Too often, said Hill, “when you call these ambassadors into the State Department, you’re complaining about something.” To lighten things up, the veteran diplomat decided that instead of giving one of his standard briefings on the North Korean nuclear threat, he’d take some of his newly arrived Asian colleagues to a Washington Nationals baseball game.
“During the game, one foul ball was picked up by the ambassador of New Zealand, and another by the ambassador of Papua New Guinea,” recalled the diehard Boston Red Sox fan. “I explained the infield fly rule, and we discussed the concept of sacrifice in baseball. When those ambassadors left, they not only learned more about baseball, but a lot more about the United States. I think it made a real impression on them.”
So have a number of long-distance junkets for foreign diplomats, who pay for their own transportation and lodging, while the meals are usually sponsored by the host organization — which is why these trips can be put together at relatively little cost to taxpayers.
Brinker said her office’s first out-of-state tour brought more than 100 ambassadors and their spouses to the Sunshine State, where they visited the Port Authority of Miami, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and, of course, Disney World.
“Kennedy Space Center reminded me of the good, peaceful days of Afghanistan, when I walked very casually to the U.S. Em-bassy in Kabul to watch [live TV footage of] Neil Armstrong landing on the moon,” Jawad recalled with obvious nostalgia. “Now you cannot go to embassies unless you’re on official business or you have an appointment.”
Added Hill: “Rarely is anyone out there indifferent to the United States. We find that the people who know us best, like us best.”
A second trip took ambassadors to California, where the agenda included stops at the Ronald Reagan Library, UCLA Medical Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The diplomats also visited the corporate headquarters of Hewlett-Packard and Google.
Yet another out-of-the-Beltway ex–cursion, this one to Minnesota, coincided with the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and afforded ambassadors the chance to met with CEOs of Minneapolis-based Best Buy Inc. and Medtronic Inc. — and to enjoy breakfast at a farmhouse belonging to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatia’s former foreign affairs minister who’s been ambassador here since April, went on both of those trips and called her California and Minnesota adventures “absolutely wonderful.”
“These trips are very useful for the work we do. I think this is a practice the State Department should continue doing,” said the ambassador, who was posted to Croatia’s embassy in Ottawa for three years earlier in her diplomatic career. “I’m sure a lot of important business deals come out of these meetings with CEOs of leading companies.”
And those business contacts couldn’t come at a more crucial time given today’s tumultuous global economy. In fact, in mid-October, the diplomats spent two days in New York observing the country’s beleaguered financial system firsthand — with trips to the New York Stock Exchange and JP Morgan headquarters, followed by a more relaxing few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in January, ambassadors will travel to Texas, where among other things they’re scheduled to visit top-ranked medical institutions in Dallas and Houston.
“Response to these trips has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Brinker. “We very much want to see these programs continue, and to be institutionalized — and not just within the Department of Protocol. We think ambassadors should be offered an op-portunity to visit cities and regions without the media being there. These include private visits to people’s homes, so they’re not the kinds of highly structured events we see in Washington.”
Asked whether the program will outlive the Bush administration, which appointed her to the position a year ago, Brinker said she certainly hopes so.
“We have a budgetary allowance in our department to do these sorts of things, but we need more full-time employees to actually do the work,” she said. “I’m also hoping the next president will put in someone who has served overseas, someone who’s been a diplomat. I think that’s very important.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.