The Washington Diplomat / November 2008
By Larry Luxner
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, when 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 said he's fortunate to have traveled to all 50 states, but added that "unless you get out of Washington, you really don't see this diversity or beauty."
Nancy G. Brinker, chief of protocol at the State Department, said 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?'" Brinker explained at a recent Heritage Foundation event. "Every ambassador sends cables home, and it's important that what's communicated is an accurate representation of their view of America."
What Brinker found was that ambassadors are most interested in five broad subject areas: the economy, health-care, science and technology, security and energy.
"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," she explained.
Since starting her current job in September 2007, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has arranged more than 60 such "outreach events," including a barbeque for deputy chiefs of mission at Blair House and a dinner for 20 ambassadors at her home.
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; 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 department's first out-of-state tour brought 45 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. Embassy 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 brought ambassadors to California, where the agenda included stops at the Ronald Reagan Library, the 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 excursion, 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 ambassador here since April, went on both of those trips, and said her California and Minnesota adventures were "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 meetnigs with CEOs of leading companies."
In mid-October, the diplomats spent two days in New York to observe the country's troubled financial system with trips to the New York Stock Exchange and JP Morgan headquarters, followed by a relaxing few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And next 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 opportunity 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, 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."