FSO Kip Whittington: The Color of Diplomacy (via War on The Rocks)

Kip Whittington is a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State who has served in the Middle East and Latin America. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.
Below excerpted from War on the Rocks:

Professional Reflections: The U.S. Foreign Service of Today

I recall day one of my A-100 Foreign Service orientation class, a moment of true excitement and anxiety for any new Foreign Service officer preparing to embark on a journey to an unknown destination. For me, it was a career that would scratch the itch for public service and the fascination with foreign cultures, politics, and cuisine. But as I took a seat and searched the room, I noticed my class consisted of two black officers, including myself, out of 75 (my wife’s class had one, seven years prior). Weeks later, I was pleased to see the subsequent orientation class with substantially more people of color, but I soon learned the majority were hired through fellowship programs designed to increase diversity at the State Department. A monumental step, but I wondered: Why the glaring distinction with non-fellowship hires? It is such a stark one that minority officers are often assumed to be fellows, as if that is the only way racial and ethnic minorities can enter the field. The perception will likely not change soon, as only 7 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service is represented by employees who identify as black, a mere 1 percent increase since 2002.

In 2020, the U.S. diplomatic corps, regrettably, does not represent the true diversity and talent of the United States. And it shows.

It shows every time a visa applicant asks to speak to a “real American” at the interview window, as an Asian-American colleague experienced. The interviewee demanded he speak to a supervisor, looking over my colleague’s shoulder for the “pale, male, and Yale” American who surely must have been around the corner. My colleague granted the request, inviting the consul to the window. The consul was Afghan-American. I relished the satisfaction of imagining the applicant’s facial expression in that moment. But now, six years after the encounter, knowing only 6 percent of Foreign Service employees are of Asian descent, I ponder what assumptions remain about U.S. citizens in the minds of those we interact with abroad.

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U.S. Ambassadors in the News: Iceland, United Kingdom, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, South Korea

ICELAND

UNITED KINGDOM

ESWATINI (SWAZILAND)

ZIMBABWE

SOUTH KOREA

 

Nominee For Peru Ambassadorship Lisa Kenna Gets a Late Thunderbolt

 

Via Politico:
Lisa Kenna, Pompeo’s executive secretary — a gatekeeper of sorts to his office — told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she was unaware of the substance of Giuliani’s outreach at the time, but now knows it was an effort to discredit Yovanovitch. Giuliani made calls and delivered documents to Pompeo that came from Ukrainian figures viewed as corrupt by the State Department.
“At the time, I did not know what the documents were about. It’s deeply disturbing,” said Kenna, who is being vetted by the committee for the ambassadorship to Peru.
Ms. Kenna’s prepared testimony for the SFRC is available to read here.

Chigozie Okocha: The Slow Burning Car That is the Black and Brown Experience in the State Department

By Chigozie Okocha
(The author is a second-tour Foreign Service Officer, currently serving as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad, India).

 

In response to the killing of George Floyd and tense protests in the United States, a white colleague graciously reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to lead a discussion on the racial tension that I or other black and brown colleagues may be experiencing in the State Department.  I assumed it was an appeal to support in organizing a space for me to vent my frustrations, if I chose to do so.  I recognize that the idea with this type of forum is to encourage further discussion around issues particularly affecting officials that look like me to freely unpack and process through subtle hostilities and/or overt discriminatory practices we witness within the State Department.  I respectfully declined.
I declined not because I am against such a proposition, quite the contrary.  I do believe holding open and honest interventions about racial issues and unconscious bias, interwoven with office politics, could prove fruitful (and probably should be instituted in most office spaces).  Such fora could potentially help victims of these office transgressions express themselves in ways that they have never done before, to colleagues who may occupy a significant amount of time and space in their daily lives.
I declined because as I was experiencing mental burnout from processing racial tension in the United States, I was not convinced this request satisfied the cost-benefit analysis.  And now that I have taken a bit longer to reflect on the proposition, I feel fully cemented in my decision.  Holding such a forum is not for me, and here is why.
All officers who work for the State Department upon entry into the Foreign Service go through a six-week orientation, in which one day is dedicated to acknowledging the institution’s white-washed history.  The State Department, like most other institutions whether public or private, had its history imbued with racist measures embedded in its brick and mortar – from biased recruitment and testing to the “Negro Circuit,” or as former Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. explains, a label that describes a process by which assignments for African American Ambassadors were limited to only smaller less-influential posts.  The State Department in its inception was not for black and brown applicants.
In its defense, the State Department has made strides to uproot its previously held racist policies, including a concerted effort through fellowship programs and advocacy/affinity groups.  But naturally, that uprooting leaves residue scattered everywhere, which can be hard to see.  The decision makers who take up senior leadership positions in the State Department are still predominately white.  And for many black or brown junior and mid-level officers, stories abound of racial bias or prejudicial slights and insults that would considerably dampen the mood at any weekend social gathering.
It’s this elephant in the room I am reminded of that makes me think, “what would a forum for such discussions serve, if not only to put these officers on display so they may relive their possibly potent traumatic experiences, for your recreation?”  As onlookers drive past and stare intriguingly at the burning car, only to then continue on toward their intended destination, the consequence of inaction is institutionalized apathy.  You might be thinking, “well these sessions help us learn, and they encourage us to devise a path forward,” to which I echo an activist who asked “what extensive course are you learning and why haven’t you passed yet?”
From junior officers to ambassadors, the stories of racism or inequities in hiring practices, promotions, and assignments that former or current black and brown State Department officials have experienced are already public and accessible.  The statistics underscoring inequalities are also public and accessible.  Better yet, there are countless articles on the web that offer direct testimony on how underlying racial biases have permeated the workplace and everyday life.  What else is there to learn?
A CALL TO ACTION . . .

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Tex Harris: What happens when crucial facts are ignored by your superiors? (Via ADST)

 

Via ADST

The tension between Harris and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires came to a head with the discovery of a file on the planned Yacyretá Dam project, a hydroelectric dam to be constructed between several South American countries with EXIM [Export-Import Bank of the United States] financing for the involvement of an American company. However, Harris quickly noted something unusual about the Argentine manufacturer listed in the file he had borrowed. It had deep connections to the government regime, information that had not been shared with Washington.

In this “Moment,” Tex Harris describes the difficulties and the risk to his personal career he faced in spreading awareness of the dangers of U.S. involvement in the Yacyretá Dam project, highlighting the barriers to morality he occasionally encountered within the bureaucracy.

F. Allen “Tex” Harris’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 10, 1999.

Read Tex Harris’s full oral history HERE (pdf).

Defying superiors: So Bill Hallman [the political counselor] came into my little airless office, like an overgrown closet, and he sat down and he talked about responsibility and team play and all the other kinds of things that we had to understand in the Foreign Service, that there was a responsibility to doing things in a collective way and that, even though we may feel strongly about something as an individual, we had to put things into perspective and [accept] the judgment of senior people and other visions and other ideas, and blend in. We had this long philosophical discussion. Bill was a wonderful, very thoughtful and conscientious Catholic probably trained in a Jesuit school. He was very intelligent and a fine Officer. So we had this very, very theoretical discussion about responsibility in the Foreign Service to be a member of the team and to fit your ideas into the fabric of an embassy’s reporting. Then, like a bombshell, he pulled out my letters and said that the DCM and he had requested me to withdraw these letters and not to send them in the pouch, that they shouldn’t go up as an official-informal with information that was as pertinent and as potentially disruptive to a major multimillion-dollar arrangement. It should be done in a considered way by the embassy. Well, I don’t get angry, I really don’t get angry, but I was really upset. I didn’t lose it, but I was really upset, and I told Bill absolutely not, I had considered this, and if the embassy wanted to send up a detailed telegram, it would get there certainly before the classified pouch got there. These were marked “confidential,” and these official-informal letters would come after the fact, and the embassy would send a telegram out in the next day or so, next day or two, and still put its considered view, and I refused to withdraw the letters and they should go in the pouch. So we talked for another half an hour, and then when it was all over, Bill then said to me, “I guess I’ve done one thing. At least we’ve missed the closing of the pouch for this day,” . . . it bought him some more time. This was before e-mails. This was when telephone calls were big deals, and the main thing was either pouch or cable. So Hallman left. I felt I had just been hit with about a three-hundred-pound stone. I went down kind of reeling to the “cobra,” to the pouch room, where you put your messages in the communications center. The guy was there and I said, “I’ve got to get these in the pouch. They were taken out by the DCM, but now I want to send them back.” He said, “I’m sorry. I can’t. We’ve closed the pouch.” So probably my greatest negotiation as a diplomat was to convince the communicator to open the pouch. After some conversation about the importance of this, he decided that he would open the pouch, which meant he had to redo all the seals and redo all the paperwork. He did it and put these two letters back in the pouch and closed them up. I didn’t say anything further to Hallman. I didn’t tell him that I had gotten them in the pouch. I just went back to my office with a feeling of satisfaction that I had overcome what had been a significantly bad event.

Facing the music: I got what was probably the worst efficiency report ever written on any individual. It was absolutely incredible: “not a team player, his own sense of values and priorities,” and so forth, and I got a fairly rigorous and tough but in a sense fair from his perspective [review] from the political counselor. There was a certain amount of negotiation involved in that. But the DCM, who was a very skillful writer, Max Chaplin, wrote a review that was absolutely an epitaph, just carved in stone. When this got back to Washington, I was identified for selection out. My tour was going to be a three-year tour, and the Argentine government had come to the ambassador, Castro, and said that they were going to PNG me [make me persona non grata], and Castro talked them out of that on the theory that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and if you send Harris back, then Derian will send someone else down here who may be even taller and worse than Harris. So Castro talked them out of that, and they didn’t PNG me, but things became so difficult in the embassy after this Yacyretá business. . . .

It was quite clear that my career was in deep trouble with this efficiency report. I had sent a copy of it to Derian and to Mark and asked them if there was anything they could put in the file to balance it off, and he put a very good—I think Mark may have signed it, Patt may have been out—and it was a very well done praise of the work I had done and the contribution I had made to American foreign policy. So the review board—after having been low ranked, I went to the review board—essentially gave me a censure. It wasn’t an official reprimand or anything where I lost pay or things like that, but essentially wrote me a letter of censure that I had to become a better team player, and of course I had been low-ranked. Now, I was the guy who had invented the grievance system. I had been there at the beginning with other people, and here was an efficiency report that was absolutely defective, but I was so emotionally unable, psychologically unable, to deal with the ramifications of going through all this pain that was associated with the report and my being identified for selection out, and all these other painful moments, that I ran away from it, which is a very standard psychological behavior of diverting from things that are difficult and hard and painful. It’s the way the body protects itself. So for year after year after year I couldn’t get promoted, because they’d open up the file and here was this low ranking, this selection-out procedure in the file, and this horrific report, and I was facing [the] time in class [deadline].

 

Ex-FSO Tianna Spears: Dear @StateDept, “Hello there, it’s me again”

 

Tianna Spears:
“You held discussions and town halls. As the paint dries, Juneteenth receives recognition, and Confederate statues are destroyed, remember that this is just the beginning.
You ask people of color and Black employees to share their suffering and experiences that were repeatedly dismissed and ignored. There is trauma, mental illness, stolen dreams, nightmares, and whispers that travel around the world in household effects. This isn’t the case just for Foreign Service members that are people of color, but the entire organization.
As employees that are people of color come forward and speak their truth, have you provided paid counseling/ therapy and tangible resources to continue these conversations? You ask my fellow colleagues to do the work for you once again.
You retraumatize.”
Related post: You ask, what is it like to be Black in America? A former @StateDept employee tells her story

US Embassy Brazil: Ambassador Chapman Takes “Precautions” After July 4th Lunch With Bolsonaro

 

Amb. Charles Ray: How U.S. Border Agents Mistreat Black American Diplomats

From Ambassador Charles Ray, Former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe and Cambodia
Via WIDA/Diplomatic Diary:
The young woman asked why I was coming to Hawaii. “I’m attending a conference,” I answered. More questions followed: Where was I coming from? What kind of work did I do? Where was I born? This interrogation, which was far from over, is familiar to many visitors to the United States going through immigration every day.
This border agent at the Honolulu airport, however, was firing a barrage of questions at an American citizen holding a diplomatic passport with the notation, “The bearer of this passport is the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.” I had been a Foreign Service officer since 1982, and as an African-American, mistreatment by border agents was no novelty to me. Although I was welcomed home on many occasions, I also encountered disrespect and rudeness much too often. Still, I was completely unprepared for what came next in my interaction with the young woman in Hawaii. As she proceeded to stamp my passport, I inquired politely why she had asked so many questions whose answers she could see in the passport. “I just wanted to make sure you spoke English,” she said suspiciously and sent me on my way. No apology. No “Welcome home,” either.
Read in full here.

 

 

US Embassy Beirut: Lebanese Judge Bans Media Orgs From Interviewing/Hosting Amb Dorothy Shea

 

U.S. Consulate Nuuk Reopens With Sung Choi as First Consul in Greenland Since 1953

On June 10, 2020, the U.S. Consulate in Nuuk, Greenland reopened for the first time since 1953. Via US Embassy Copenhagen:
Sung W. Choi, Consul
U.S. Consulate, Nuuk, Greenland
Sung Choi is the State Department’s first Consul in Nuuk since 1953.  He previously served at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen focused on Greenland-related matters and Danish domestic politics, beginning 2018.  Sung served 2014-2017 in Seoul, South Korea, as the State Department’s primary analyst of political and economic developments in North Korea and on inter-Korean relations; 2010-2012 as a China Desk Officer focused on human rights and Sino-European relations; and 2009 in Shenyang, China as a Vice Consul.  He has received the State Department’s Award for Heroism.
Sung earned an A.B. from Dartmouth College, a M.P.H. from Columbia University, and a J.D. from William & Mary School of Law.  He worked as a corporate lawyer in New York prior to joining the State Department.  Sung is married to Sarah Stephens, and they have two daughters.