For young foreign diplomats living in Washington, D.C., the city provides so many opportunities for personal and professional growth that some workers succumb to what one described as “Washington syndrome.”
“The level of political discourse is so high that once you’ve been here and worked here, it would be difficult to find another place where your intellectual needs would be satisfied to such an extent as here,” said Malgorzata Hacus-Safianik, third secretary at the Polish Embassy.
As 2007 ushers in a new year of fresh diplomatic challenges, a selection of young, up-and-coming diplomats spoke with The Washington Diplomat about life in the nation’s capital, the issues that drive them, and the experience of representing their nation to the world.
Telmo Baltazar Political, Justice and Home Affairs Counselor Delegation of the European Commission
Telmo Baltazar describes the dynamic world of security issues across the Atlantic in geologic terms. “This is like when you have two big masses of land moving—it’s bound to create earthquakes and icebergs and all the rest,” he said. “So we have to be smart.”
He took his current posting at the European Union’s embassy in Washington in 2003 to engage with various U.S. government departments and “address issues before they become problems,” he said.
For example, as the United States acts to extend its security influence beyond its borders, Europe in turn has begun to issue tamper-resistant passports with biometric identifiers that will enable most Europeans to travel visa-free to the United States.
But problematic issues remain, such as the 10 EU member states whose citizens still need visas to come stateside. “Not all EU citizens are treated the same way by the United states,” Baltazar said. “And this creates an irritation.”
The visa quarrel is central to Baltazar’s broader diplomatic mission: to help the United States better understand the “union” in European Union—that it’s not just a free-trade area but a community, a process, and an emerging transnational society whose citizens cross borders and carry their political rights with them. “This is quite an achievement, if you think that 50 years ago or 60 years ago we were killing each other,” he said.
After working in Washington for nearly three years, Baltazar said the insights he has gained are invaluable. “After you live here and work here, you actually understand why certain things in the world are what they are,” he explained. “In other words, once you actually get a feeling, however superficial, of the political process in this country, you actually understand why certain decisions are made and then foresee how it will affect your interests and the interests of the institutions you represent.”
Ashraf Haidari First Secretary Embassy of Afghanistan
For Ashraf Haidari, 31, it’s been a tough road from Afghanistan to Washington. When he first tried to get a visa to come to Wabash College in Indiana, the United States didn’t recognize any Afghan government or passports. He had to wait and wait in Pakistan, risking the loss of his U.N. job in Kabul.
But he finally made it to Indiana, and then to Geneva, and eventually to the reopened Afghan Embassy in Washing-ton, where he’s focused on developing his native country and making sure that no one forgets the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan.
In his studies, he never strayed far from the subject of his homeland, where he and his family dodged warfare in the 1980s. “I tried, at a time when the world had forgotten about Afghanistan, to grab the attention of my faculty and peers on campus that there is a country that I come from, and that country suffered for a full decade fighting the Soviets on behalf of the West,” he said. “But at the end of the day, when the Soviets were gone, my country was abandoned.”
Haidari met Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, in 2004, and he was initially hired to do government and media relations work and “help develop the capacity” of the embassy, which suffered so much neglect during the Taliban years that even the embassy building itself was in disrepair.
With its relatively small staff, the embassy has provided Haidari with diverse responsibilities. He fervently urges the Afghan Diaspora to assist in the nation’s rebuilding, whether by donation or by going back and helping to build a new society directly. Haidari has also been an aggressive spokesman, getting articles placed about Afghanistan or himself in several newspapers and magazines (see Jan. 5, 2006, column of the Diplomatic Pouch).
“Afghanistan was and remains the main front in the war on terror,” he said, sticking to his message. “The situation in Afghanistan, the peace-building process in Afghanistan, the war on terror in Afghanistan, is key to American national security.”
Mary Kavanagh Counselor for Science, Technology and Education Delegation of the European Commission
Much of diplomacy focuses on security and trade. Science counselors such as Mary Kavanagh of the European Com-mission, however, hold a different view.
Their portfolios are immense—hydrogen power one day, stem-cell research the next. Kavanagh, a plant biologist by training, also monitors U.S. government activity, arranges visits for EU dignitaries, and spreads the word about all of the research opportunities available in Europe.
And as Americans tackle related matters on their end—pass a science and education budget, for example, or push “intelligent design” as an alternative to the teaching of evolution—Kavanagh has to translate these events for the understanding of EU officials.
She also works to inform Europeans and others in the United States of the opportunities back in Europe. Among the fruits of her efforts is the “European Researchers Abroad” Web site, a comprehensive source of information for the more than 100,000 European scientists now in the United States, ranging from students and post-doctorate researchers to folks who have been here for decades.
“They’re a huge resource for Europe,” Kavanagh said. However, they might be out of the loop and unaware of the opportunities in Europe. Some may have memories of their home nations as difficult places to live in, not to mention conduct research in. “Of course they retain this perception, and in many cases, things have changed considerably.”
Europe will continue to provide research opportunities well into the future, Kavanagh added, citing efforts to standardize the bloc’s higher education certification system and invest heavily across the European Union—on top of its efforts in individual countries. Moreover, the EU is developing the notion of a “European research area,” which is being billed as the “research and innovation equivalent of the ‘common market’ for goods and services.”
As she counsels others toward research, Irish-born Kavanagh has parlayed her own science background to shift her career out of the lab and into diplomacy. “It’s not a good thing if people start a research career, don’t really like it, certainly don’t see any option, [and] don’t realize that there are options,” she said. “And there are so many options.”
Magdalena Bogdziewicz Second Secretary Embassy of Poland
Magdalena Bogdziewicz is kept busy dealing with the House of Representatives and the many legislative aspects of the U.S. Congress, especially as the power shifts over to the Democrats this year.
Like many diplomats, Bogdziewicz is in the midst of a four-year tour, but she has found that U.S. congressional staffers and various bureaucrats experience a similarly fast turnover. “People change so often. In this respect, we are kind of old people. You get to know people after a couple of months. After a year or two, you find out they are gone, new people come,” she said. “It’s very easy because we are all aware of the fact people change jobs so fast here.”
As part of Poland’s eyes and ears on the Hill, Bogdziewicz keeps abreast of legislation affecting Poland and Europe in general, in addition to her responsibility area of Asia. The relevant issues can be anything from trade to North Korea to human rights to Iraq (where Poland has participated with troops of its own), to her nation’s goal of ending the requirement that Poles get a visa before visiting the United States.
A benefit of Washington work, she said, is the scope and vibrancy of the local think tank community. “Even in Brussels or Berlin, where other [nongovernmental organizations] are active, it’s not the case,” she said. “Here, you have Repub-licans, Democrats, people with different views and a real public debate going on.”
What’s more, Bogdziewicz has taken the extra step of traveling to the West Coast and back by car, an experience she strongly recommends. “If I were an American, I would move to Arizona or New Mexico,” she noted.
Dimitri P. Anghelakis Consul Embassy of Greece
Dimitri Anghelakis is running Greece’s Washington consulate, overseeing passport and visa issues, in addition to serving as the second secretary in his embassy’s political section.
The consular duties come at a critical time. Greece, like much of Europe, is upgrading its passports to the tamper-resistant, biometric kind, and the old ones won’t be valid after this year. The new ones also require applicants to be physically present at a consulate to get the process going. That means plenty of outreach to let Greeks in the United States know what they need to do.
“That’s been one of the greatest satisfactions for me, is seeing how so many Greek-Americans who not only integrate into American society but who become successful in every field,” he said.
Back home, Anghelakis pointed out that Greece has absorbed about 1 million immigrants, mostly Albanians, since 1990—about 10 percent of Greece’s population—with a minimum of anti-immigrant reaction.
But human trafficking, specifically for prostitution, remains a huge issue, and Greece has responded with policies including a plan for repatriation and public outreach to reduce demand. “Many people fail to understand, where sex trafficking is concerned, that going and buying sex essentially perpetuates the cycle of human trafficking,” Anghelakis said.
His diplomatic posting is providing plenty of education for the 29-year-old. “You can almost be passive in Washington and still you’ll be learning so many things on a daily basis,” he said. “All of our government has come here to visit since I’ve been here. Just to be present in those meetings, and to listen, and to be able to understand how the administration works, how Congress works, has been just a unique experience.”
About the Author
Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.