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D.C.-Based Ambassadors Visit the 'Other' Washington
The Washington Diplomat / August 2014

By Larry Luxner

SEATTLE — Starbucks coffee was born here. So was the Nordstrom department store chain, the world’s first gas station and the Boeing 747 jetliner — not to mention Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, Trident Seafoods and Costco.

That tradition of entrepreneurship has made Seattle, despite its rainy reputation, a haven for innovation and creativity. Add to that a sizzling economy, top-notch medical research institutions and a world-class port, and it’s no wonder this Pacific Northwest metropolis is attracting so much international attention.

In late June, D.C.-based ambassadors representing 29 countries ranging from Andorra to Zambia spent three days in Seattle as part of the State Department’s “Experience America” program. It was the first trip led by Peter Selfridge, the agency’s new chief of protocol, who began his job barely a month before, and it was the 10th such outing organized by the Obama administration (also see “Peter Selfridge, New Protocol Chief, Meets Diplomats at Mount Vernon” in the July 2014 issue of The Washington Diplomat and “Arkansas Odyssey” Ambassadors Experience the Natural State” in the January 2013 issue).

But due to a last-minute Oval Office meeting between President Obama and Israel’s departing president, Shimon Peres, Selfridge missed the first day of the June 25-28 program, which began with a breakfast panel on tourism at Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.

“This is one of the fastest-growing cities in America,” said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, as the ambassadors gazed at the metropolis from the Space Needle’s observation deck 500 feet in the sky. Norwalk noted that at least 20 construction cranes dot the Seattle skyline at any given moment.

“We have a renaissance going on along the waterfront, and over the next five to eight years, billions of dollars of investments will change the face of our city,” he said proudly. “Almost every industry and sector in Seattle is healthy.”

With a population of 3.6 million, the Seattle metropolitan area is home to more than half of all residents of the Evergreen State. Gary Locke, whose past jobs include governor of Washington, U.S. secretary of commerce and U.S. ambassador to China, addressed the visiting dignitaries during a lavish reception at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

“We think of this as the better Washington, and we hope you’ll learn that, quite frankly, not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C.,” said Locke, standing next to Selfridge under the wing of an early Boeing prototype plane. “What makes America great are the people who reside in the rest of the nation. To really understand America, it’s critical that you get outside that bubble and interact with real people and real companies.”

Stanley Roth, Boeing’s D.C.-based vice president of international government relations, added: “This is exactly the type of program we should have more of. We must end the artificial division between Washington and the rest of the country, and bring the diplomatic corps out to see all of the United States.”

Granted, none of the diplomats visiting Seattle were from heavy hitters such as Great Britain, France, Brazil or China — all countries whose embassies have the resources and contacts to arrange business trips to such places on a moment’s notice.

Rather, as a rule, these trips tend to attract smaller countries. This time around, the largest countries among them were Ambassadors Kyaw Myo Htut of Myanmar (population 53 million); Liberata Mulamula of Tanzania (49 million); Oliver Wonekha of Uganda (36 million); and Rachad Bouhlal of Morocco (33 million).

At the other end of the spectrum, nine of the 29 diplomats on the bus represented nations with fewer than 1 million inhabitants. Overall, the group included 11 African envoys and six Caribbean ones, as well as diplomats from three European mini-states: Luxembourg (population 550,000), Andorra (85,000) and Monaco (37,000).

In addition, nine wives accompanied their ambassador husbands; for them, the State Department came up with a “spouses’ program” that included a tour of Seattle’s Glassybaby Madrona glassblowing studio, a discussion on volunteerism at the Rainier Valley Boys and Girls Club and a “cultural experience dinner” at the Dale Chihuly Boathouse.

Seafood and fine wines were the topic of conversation at a diplomatic welcome lunch co-hosted by Seattle-based DeLille Cellars and Trident Seafoods.

As the ambassadors dined on sockeye salmon, roasted red pepper basil with Yukon gold potatoes and Yakima Valley asparagus, Trident Seafoods CEO Joe Bundrant explained how his father began the company in 1973 with a single boat — delivering freshly caught Alaskan crab to restaurants in a pickup truck.

Today, that company has more than 6,000 employees and annual revenues exceeding $1 billion. The privately held conglomerate harvests 1.1 billion pounds of salmon, flounder, tilapia, cod and other species from the Pacific Ocean each year.

“Last year, we shipped to 54 countries,” Bundrant said proudly, noting that 50 percent of Trident’s sales are to North America while the other half goes to Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Getting such a huge crop of top diplomats to visit their city — regardless of how big or small the countries are — was clearly a victory for Seattle’s movers and shakers.

“Welcome to the other Washington. It’s an honor to greet so many people from so many different countries,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, speaking at a dinner hosted by the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. “Creative people live here, and that attracts more creative people. That’s a strong element in creating a strong economy. Literally, 40 percent of all jobs in this state are related to international trade. That is why you are so important to us.”

The mayor, who took office in January, lauded Seattle’s “vibrant economy” as well as its long tradition of racial, religious and sexual tolerance.

“Voters here elected me mayor of Seattle,” said Murray, the city’s first openly gay top official. “There’s another event tonight for the spouses of the ambassadors, and my husband is speaking at that event. And that shouldn’t be lost on you folks.”

Yet it was, in some cases. Several African ambassadors were clearly uneasy with what they had just heard, and at least one of them was sure Murray had been joking. This reporter managed to convince the diplomat that yes, the mayor of Seattle is married to another man and that such a marriage is legal and binding, at least in the state of Washington.

The senior diplomat in this hodgepodge group of nationalities was Bayney Karran, who has been Guyana’s ambassador to the United States for nearly 11 years, a distinction that made him dean of the 29 diplomats in Seattle.

“In case you didn’t know, the word ‘dean’ is derived from a Latin root meaning ‘he who has no hair,’” joked Karran, who is bald. “I wish to compliment the organizers of the spouses’ program, which they have definitely found very enjoyable and stimulating. The spouses were deeply disappointed on a previous Experience America program to Chicago when they visited Oprah but were not each given a car. I told my wife this morning, ‘Just keep your fingers crossed, honey. Tomorrow, we’re going to Boeing.’”

Indeed they did, though they didn’t get any planes. Departing their downtown Fairmont Olympic Hotel at 6:40 a.m., the group traveled to Everett, Wash., for a private tour of the factory where Boeing builds its biggest jumbo jets, including the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Here, in the world’s largest building by volume (nearly 400,000 cubic feet in size), ambassadors were briefed by Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Yet nobody, not even the official State Department photographer hired for the trip, was allowed to take photos. As such, all cameras, laptops, cellphones and electronic devices had to be left on the bus to prevent any possibility that trade secrets might get leaked to Boeing’s arch-rival, Airbus.

For Boeing — which employs 81,300 people in Washington, making it the state’s largest private employer — that rivalry is no laughing matter.

“We need to ensure we can compete for the long term against Airbus,” said Raymond Conner, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “In my 37 years at Boeing, I’ve never seen such a fierce marketplace. The realities of our business require us to constantly renew and refresh our focus to ensure we can compete and win.”

Conner, speaking at the Trade Development Alliance dinner, publicly thanked Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov, noting that Kazakhstan’s Air Astana would take delivery of a new Boeing 767-300 the very next day and had contracted to buy a Dreamliner 787 in 2017.

Boeing’s presence is critical to the state — in 2012, Conner said, Boeing’s commercial airplane division pumped $70 billion into Washington’s economy. Similarly, the international market is critical to Boeing’s bottom line.

“Over the next 20 years, Chinese airlines alone will need 6,000 new airplanes worth $780 billion,” Conner pointed out. “Nearly half the world’s air traffic growth will be to, from or within the Asia-Pacific region. Today, nearly one in three of the 737s we build in Renton are delivered to our customers in China. The growth in each of these emerging markets is good news for Washington because the more airplanes we sell to China, the more work it creates for our factories here.”

For this reason, he said, Boeing bitterly opposes a proposal by some conservative lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to abolish the Export-Import Bank. Since 1934, the Ex-Im Bank has provided loans and guarantees to foreign firms that want to buy American products, ranging from jumbo jets to auto parts. But some House Republicans see the program as a form of corporate welfare to politically connected companies (like Boeing) and want to turn off the spigot when the bank’s charter expires on Sept. 30.

“I don’t understand why we’re even having this debate. Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost as a result of this,” Conner warned. “I would urge you all to communicate this to your congressmen and senators that this is one of the most critical things for the competitiveness of the United States. We cannot lose the Ex-Im Bank. It supports American companies and American jobs, and it makes money.”

The government-subsidized bank also supports foreign companies with loan guarantees not offered by traditional banks, so the tea party-driven cause célèbre to close it has diplomatic implications as well.

This was not the only political hot potato the ambassadors encountered in Seattle.

During their visit to Microsoft, diplomats didn’t meet Bill Gates — the world’s richest man — but they did get a first-hand look at cybercrime and the debate over intellectual property rights.

Patti Chrzan, senior director of global accounts and partnerships, told the visiting ambassadors that 400 million people are victimized by cybercrime annually, costing the world economy $113 billion a year. She showed them Microsoft’s top-secret Malware Lab as well as a world map dotted with lights showing the countries where PC virus infections are most prevalent.

“This is a very critical issue for my country,” said Ambassador Omar Arouna of Benin, where Internet cafés are fast becoming command centers for online scammers trained in neighboring Nigeria. “It puts a damper on our business environment. We are fighting that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Microsoft’s campus in Redmond is the world’s largest research and development campus, said Brad Smith, the company’s executive vice president and general counsel. “We spend over $10 billion a year on R&D at this facility,” he said, noting that Microsoft’s 125 buildings cover more than 55 million square feet. “Every day, we have 40,000 employees and 15,000 contractors who come to work here.”

That makes the Redmond campus bigger in size and more populated than Monaco (represented on the Seattle trip by the principality’s new envoy, Maguy Maccario Doyle).

“Of those employees, over a third have come here with a foreign passport. We have 27,000 people who are here on visas or green cards, and they come from 157 countries, speaking 50 languages,” said Smith.

For this reason, Microsoft, like many other tech companies, is lobbying hard for immigration reform, even though the chances of congressional action on the issue this year look all but dead. In May, the company announced it would open a huge new high-tech center in Vancouver — across the border in Canada, only 140 miles north of Redmond — so it can accommodate more foreign workers. The problem is that U.S. law limits the number of H-1B visas granted each year to foreign workers with specialized skills.

President Obama has been working to improve the H-1B program to attract more talent to the United States, recently announcing a proposal that would allow the spouses of visa-holders to work here as well. But the changes would do little to address the huge backlog of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers that tech companies say are in short supply.

Even though 65,000 such visas are awarded each year, and another 20,000 go to holders of advanced degrees from U.S. schools, “demand has reached the point where they are awarded by lottery — a record 172,500 applications were made for fiscal year 2015,” reports the Seattle Times. “For Microsoft, Canada’s more flexible policies make it a better base for international recruitment. The company also points to Vancouver’s smart and highly trained workforce.”

Smith said Microsoft plans to spend $600 million over the next year to build data centers — “the most capital-intensive investments our industry has ever made.” The company now has 100 data centers in 43 countries; the largest of them are so big that two Boeing jumbo jets could fit inside them. These centers, which house computer, telecommunications and other systems, are also part of a global effort to thwart American spying after the extent of NSA snooping around the world was leaked by Edward Snowden.

“A hugely important issue, especially given the political debates of the past year, is how people think about privacy when governments have access to information from individuals, or when companies have access to data from consumers,” Smith said. “We’re building out data centers so that all parts of the world will be able to say, ‘If you don’t want the NSA to have access to your data, we can make sure the U.S. government has no access.’ That’s an important criteria.”

John Beale, ambassador of the Caribbean island of Barbados, listened attentively at every stop and said he came away from Seattle deeply impressed with its culture of learning and innovation.

“I found the visit to Amazon.com absolutely amazing. They know how to use big data, and those things could stimulate plenty of interest within the tourism sector in Barbados,” he told us. “I liked Microsoft and Boeing too. Those three companies alone made the trip more than worthwhile.”

But the Seattle adventure wasn’t all politics and business.

The ambassadors also clearly enjoyed themselves — especially when touring the famous salmon fish ladder at Ballard Locks, visiting the very first Starbucks (it opened in 1971) and walking through an Air Force One jet from the 1960s on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Another highlight: dancing up a storm aboard the Lady Mary while cruising up Puget Sound to a traditional Alaskan salmon bake on Blake Island’s Tillicum Village.

At the Museum of Flight, Selfridge took a break from shaking hands and making speeches to try his hand at a flight simulator. Joining him for the exhilarating, sometimes frightening, ride was Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, ambassador of Oman.

“These trips are a great way to get to know the diplomatic corps, both personally and professionally, and to get away from the formal ceremonies of Washington and be able to have that one-on-one time, sitting next to chiefs of mission on the bus, learning what they’re interested in accomplishing while serving in D.C.,” Selfridge told us.

Some of these ambassadors have been on several Experience America trips, which are largely paid for by the embassies themselves rather than the State Department. Even so, the excursions must still be subsidized by large companies to defray meal, transportation and other local costs. Previous adventures have taken diplomats to such places as Arkansas, Alaska, Florida, Texas and Wyoming.

“This particular visit focused on the economic and strategic importance of Seattle, as an international trade and technological hub as well as a center for environmental and public health policy, to show the ambassadors this renowned corner of America up close,” Selfridge said. “Several ambassadors said later that they wanted to follow up with the people and places we visited.”

The 43-year-old State Department official added: “One of the challenges we have in putting these trips together is making them worthwhile to the ambassadors by providing them with real, substantive events and opening new doors with individuals and companies they might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with. We also have to pay close attention to how we use our time to maximize the benefits of these visits while minimizing disruptions to the ambassadors’ already packed schedules.”

So where’s the next trip? Selfridge wouldn’t say, but he promised it will take place before the holidays. “Our window is tight, and we have a lot of good options out there.”

Eliachim Molapi Sebatane, ambassador of the tiny African nation of Lesotho, can hardly wait. This was his fourth Experience America trip; he’s previously visited Los Angeles, Miami and Austin. “I’ve always enjoyed these trips very much, and Seattle was pleasant. I liked the people and was able to make contacts for future follow-up.”

Joining Sebatane on the diplomatic bus was Zambian Ambassador Palan Mulonda and his wife.

“I think Seattle is a very innovative place — one that needs to be showcased to the rest of the world,” he told us. “I had a chance to visit Boeing, the largest factory in the world. I’ve flown on several of their planes but never had an opportunity to see where those planes are put together.”

More importantly, Mulonda said, the trip afforded him a useful chance to meet, network and learn. “If we did it on our own, it would take us over two years to arrange everything, and it would be very costly for any single embassy to pursue such an initiative on its own. Experience America did it in three days. All we needed to do was fly into Seattle and everything else just flowed.”

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