Can Condi Come Over For Coffee... And Bilateral Talks?
We’ve blogged in the past on various aspects of life and work in the Foreign Service. Today we’re going to continue in that vein and discuss a matter near to every FSO’s heart: visits.
We’re not talking about Aunt Petunia or that girl you met at Madam's Organ
three weeks before you left for post. We’re talking about US government visits; when government officials come to town, FSOs often do much of the heavy lifting, to use a Foreign Service cliche.
There are essentially three main types of visit that a post can have. It is a virtual certainty that an FSO will encounter some, if not all, of these in their career. I’ll list them in order, from least ulcer-causing to most.
1. Codels (pronounced co-dells): Congressional delegations. This includes Senators, Congressmen (collectively referred to as "members") and associated staff- occassionally the staff comes alone- called a Staffdel or No-del.
2. SecState: The Secretary of State, also known as "S."
3. POTUS: President of the United States of America. The big cheese. Could also include the VP, or FLOTUS, the First Lady of the United States.
The amount of stress, effort and exhilaration one experiences varies greatly depending on the visit, but typically an FSO (and whoever else is pressed into service to work on the visit) will feel a mixture of all three of these emotions, and then some. Depending on the size of the post, a codel may be an all-hands-on-deck affair, to say nothing of an S or POTUS visit. A large post, however, could get codels on a monthly basis, and may have a cadre of local staff who do much of the logistical work.
S and POTUS visits, on the other hand, are generally much more involved affairs, POTUS exponentially more so than S. These visits have an advance team that decamps to your post prior to the arrival date. In the case of POTUS, there are often several advance teams, each advancing one another, prior to the big day. In the case of S, there may only be one advance team, although often there is a security advance team as well. POTUS advances on the other hand, tend to come in waves... Pre-pre-advance, pre-advance, advance.
These visits are hard work, and by nature, often ruffle feathers, both in the Embassy and in the host government- not to mention the entire host nation from time to time. Just like in university faculty disputes, feathers are often the most ruffled over the most mundane things: who gets to open the door to the limousine, where the van containing the myriad extra staff ("strap hangers") gets parked, who stands where, etc. Relationships you’ve spent months building are often strained, if not broken, over the silliest things.
And that’s when everything goes as planned.
Sometimes you work your tail off, call in all kinds of favors, and a crisis takes place on the other side of the world, a truce needs signing somewhere, or something else happens, and, for reasons completely beyond your control, the visit on which you’ve been working 75 hours a week for the last three weeks gets cancelled. In the worst cases there is a catastrophre at home- Secretary Powell was on the road on Septembr 11th in Latin America (I forget which country). For this reason even the shortest of high level visits demand exquisite attention to detail.
Sometimes, it is the other way around you are in the crisis area, or the prime minister of your host country just died, and the "principals" rearrange their schedules to visit you. That weekend fishing trip you were planning? Sorry, POTUS is on his way -- time to change plans- picture Rome when the Pope passed away. You might have 48 hours (or less) to get something together. Visits like that aren’t actually that bad, because, even though you might not sleep for 48 hours or so, the period of maximum effort is actually quite brief. Ifo you are lucky there might be a "meet and greet" or "rope line" opportunity for pictures.
So, are there any positives to these visits? In a word, yes. For one thing, the visit of a President or Secretary of State to any country can have a profound impact on bilateral relations between the US and that country, particularly if the country is one that POTUS or S hasn’t visited in a while. It gives the country’s leaders a chance to develop a relationship with American leaders, and it gives them a chance to voice their opinions on bilateral issues, as it affords us the same opportunity. (An aside pertaining to previous posts: unless that country is part of the Visa Waiver Program, visas are likely to be on the list of bilateral issues their side wants to discuss.)
Additionally, your mission [that's another name for an embassy and consulate or group of cinsulates in a country. - ed] has a chance to highlight to the top levels of American government what it believes. Is the security situation at your embassy not acceptable? Is the chancery (main embassy building) in need of serious upgrades? A high level visit can generate momentum to fix it. Is there some crucial part of the two countries' bilateral relationship that your post feels is overlooked by Washington? If you have your act together, a POTUS or S visit could be the time to get it on the principal's agenda.
Then there are the stories, which are of no consequence to the foreign policy of the United States, but are nonetheless an inevitable function of Foreign Service life. An FSO may be able to dine out on some of the madcap tales of POTUS or S visits – the ones that you can tell your friends who don’t have a security clearance. Sooner or later, every FSO, Specialist and DS agent accrues a raft of stories relating to these visits. Stories of near misses, of last second saves, of the truly random things that crop up in these visits, and of memorable quotes, are all commonplace. Sometimes, FSOs sit in on meetings between the principals and their counterparts, and see high diplomacy as it is made, before it hits CNN. You can see what really happened, as opposed to what the media reports or how both sides try to spin the event. You can see the true relationship between the players: do they like each other? Respect one another? Hate each other? Trust one another?
I once worked on a SecState visit which was so demanding that I lost ten pounds (and I’m not exactly overweight to begin with). The local government was obstinate and officious, the meetings ran late (as they often do), and there were all kinds of small headaches. Nonetheless, the staff of the embassy (a relatively small post, which doesn’t see very many official visitors) pulled together and worked day and night to organize the visit, and in the end, things worked very well (with one or two minor hitches). The Secretary was pleased with the visit and was able to make significant progress in several key areas, including a major initiative pertaining to one of the big issues of the day. The sense of teamwork and camaraderie developed by the embassy staff gave a significant boost to the previously poor morale at post. This is the kind of effect, both wide- and small scale, that a big visit can have on an embassy, on the host country, and on our foreign policy.