05 Feb

Who You Gonna Call – in Edinburgh?

Principal Officer Ellen Wong
Principal Officer Ellen Wong spoke to 150 American Students at the University of Edinburgh about life in the Foreign Service

I was actually born in Canada but I only lived there for six months so I am a naturalised American citizen. I think I first realised I was interested in international ‘things’ as a teenager. My dad was a university professor about to take a sabbatical and asked ‘do we as a family want to go to Michigan, California or Sweden?’  I said ‘Sweden!’ It was a great experience and got me interested in international ‘stuff’ for the rest of my life. When I got to university, I studied both German and Chinese and eventually chose German and politics as my major because the German department was really small and I was able to get a lot of personalised attention. Strangely enough, due to the vagaries of the State Department, I have never served in Germany.

Right after university I did a Fulbright for a year in Germany. I was on a teaching Fulbright where you teach at a school for a year and I recommend it. I was teaching 12 hours a week and otherwise I took courses at Frankfurt University. It was a great way of living in a country and I really got to know Germany.

After that I did some work in the private sector and then decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I went to grad school at Johns Hopkins University and studied international relations.  During my second year I realised I did not know what I wanted to do so I decided to take the Foreign Service exam.  I thought ‘there’s no risk in taking it. I’ll just see what happens!’ I passed it and took the oral exam and was able to start shortly after I finished grad school.

When you first start the Foreign Service you have what are called ‘directed assignments.’ There is a long list of posts (assignments) that are available for entry level officers. You select the ones you like but theoretically you could be sent anywhere in the world. My first posting was to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to do consular work. In Vietnam, consular work consists mostly of doing visas and among those are quite a lot of fiancé visas. If you have ever seen ‘90 Fiancé’ – that was us!

But the experience that most sticks in my mind happened about three months after I arrived at post. It was around Christmas time and I was in Vietnam but on vacation when I got a call from the second in command at post asking where I was and when I was coming back. I said I was coming back the next day. Then I was asked, ‘would you be okay going to Thailand?’   The tsunami had just hit Thailand and Indonesia. There were many people in those embassies on vacation and I don’t think anyone at the time realised the scope of the disaster.  At that point they were scrambling to get foreign service officers there to help Americans who had lost loved ones and to repatriate people. The next day I got on a plane to Thailand and went to Phuket for two weeks. I did a little bit of everything. I stayed for a week with the family whose son had died and they could not find the body. I helped an elderly gentleman whose Thai wife and family had been swept away. He had family in the United States but had no identification. It took him a week to get to Phuket to try and find an American Embassy presence to help him get back to the United States. And he was so very grateful to have an American face. I talked with him a lot about basketball because for him that was America and he had not spoken to anyone in English for a week. So that was a formative experience in my first tour.

My second tour was also a directed assignment to Trinidad and Tobago. This time I did both consular work and economic work. Trinidad and Tobago has lots of oil and gas so I worked on that and also on intellectual property issues. After the second tour, you start applying for jobs in the State Department in the same way you would in the private sector. I had some Chinese Ianguage and I had always wanted to live in China so I applied to be an economic officer in China. But I actually did two years training before I ever stepped foot in China because one of the wonderful things about the State Dept is you do get a lot of language training. The State Department will recruit people that have language skills – especially in hard languages like Chinese, Arabic and Japanese because it takes such a long time to get to a level where you are useful in those languages, but any kind of language skills are useful. You can also have no language skills when you enter and the State Department will train you. I spent six months learning Vietnamese before I went to Vietnam. I spent a year brushing up on my Chinese before I started working in China and I spent most of that year studying Chinese in China.

I spent three years as an econ officer in China working on investment issues, state owned enterprises, and a range of economic issues. Beijing is a huge embassy with about 400 Americans and 1000 staff overall. Altogether there are about 2,000 staff among the embassy and all the consulates in China.  

In the Foreign Service, they want you to spend a lot of time overseas but you also need to spend time back in Washington to understand ‘how the hamburger is made – how the whole policy process works.’ In Washington, you have the Secretary of State, you have a Deputy Secretary of State, and then you have about six or seven Under Secretaries that manage different functional areas. I worked for the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.  It used to just be a division on economic issues but then they realised that we also have environmental concerns and also energy is becoming an increasingly important part of the economic picture. I was the Under Secretary’s Asia expert from 2013 to 2015.

After that assignment I stayed on in Washington on the Germany desk. There were four of us on the Germany desk and I was the senior desk officer for Germany. As a desk officer you do not make policy, you coordinate policy. If other agencies are working on Germany issues you make sure that you know about it. You are the coordinating mechanism between embassies and consulates in the country and Washington. We spent a lot of time writing last minute briefing memos for the Secretary of State, who was talking with his German counterpart roughly once a week. Sometimes you did not get a lot of warning. You might have less than 2 hours to write a briefing memo for a call in 3 hours. Generally, they were discussing global issues like Syria, Ukraine. So we went to the desks specializing in those countries and issues and asked ‘what’s the latest on this? Where are we on this policy? What do we need to press the Germans on or what might the German raise as an issue?’ We also coordinated with US Embassy in Germany, asking them the latest they had heard on the various issues. I did that for two years. It was a fascinating time to be working on Germany because Europe is such a critical partner for the US on a range of issues. So while we worked on some bilateral issues, often it was multilateral trying to figure out how can we work together.

After that, I went in a very different direction and went to Bangladesh to be the deputy in the economic and pollical section. Before I went there, I thought I would be working on the closing democratic space and also working on economic deals. It’s a country of 165 million people and there’s little American investment there so far.  We thought there would be good opportunities for American businesses to invest in Bangladesh, which would benefit both sides.  However, a week after I arrived, the first of 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border from Burma, so I spent most of the year working on refugee issues. It was important that we gave funding for the relief effort. Congress votes on the budget for this so I took the person who actually writes the budget in Congress to the refugee camps.  I took groups of Representatives out there so they could understand the scope of the issue. It was really challenging work. We heard heart wrenching stories from Rohingya every time but it was also rewarding.  You felt the work you were doing was saving lives and that the funding the US provided (which was about 25% of the global appeal) was making a difference. It was a really hard but rewarding that brought me here – to Scotland.

There is a sense of equity in the State Department – that if you serve somewhere very challenging that you will be sent somewhere that might not be as challenging. Bangladesh was very challenging and not just because of the Rohingya situation. There were a series of terrorist attacks which led to the embassy being ‘drawn down.’ Obviously, I do not have those issues in Scotland!

It’s been really interesting. I am the only American officer at the consulate in Edinburgh and we do everything from helping American citizens to expanding promoting and expanding the US-Scotland relationship in a range of ways, economic, cultural and people-to-people. If you want to know more about what we are doing, do follow us on twitter! @USAinScotland

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26 Aug

From Korea to London: A Foreign Service Career

We asked the Head of Non Immigrant Visas at the Embassy in London to Discuss her Foreign Service Journey so far.

In undergraduate school I studied English and Philosophy. Before I joined the Foreign Service I was a lawyer in the Department of Justice in the tax division. It was about as boring as you can imagine. I didn’t really know much about the Foreign Service. I hadn’t heard about it when I was going to undergraduate or graduate school. But my partner who is in the Foreign Service was an international relations major when she was an undergrad. She joined the Foreign Service first and then in true government fashion, I took the exam but then the government did not have any money for quite a while because it was on a continuing resolution which meant they couldn’t hire anybody new. I was waiting and waiting and waiting so eventually I moved to Seoul of my own accord which was my partner’s first post where she was living and I worked at the embassy there in a non officer position. Then I fell in love with the Foreign Service and decided that was definitely what I wanted to do.

After getting into the Foreign Service, my partner and I were able to work together in Washington D.C. (where the State Department in located) in the Dominican Republic, Athens, Greece, Islamabad, Pakistan and now here in London. That gives you an idea of the range. If you are a person that has particular language skills or you are really interested in East Asia for example, there are people who focus regionally. As you can see, I did not do that. I went all over the place. Who knows where I will go next?

Once you are in the Foreign Service there are different paths or divisions called ‘cones’. They are like a major in college. I picked the economic cone but when after joining I did a bunch of consular work and that’s all I have ever done since. So I have never actually done any economic work even though I chose the economic cone at first.

Consular work is a range of things. So if you are an American citizen who is studying overseas and your passport gets lost or stolen you need to get a new one. You come into the embassy and the American Citizen Services section helps. If you are robbed or God forbid you are overseas and you are with someone who has an illness or dies overseas we help with all of that. Then there is the visa section where I work now. All the foreign and UK citizens, who want to go to the United States for study, or work or just for tourism come to my section and apply for visas. That is they apply for non-immigrant visas The corollary to that is someone who wants to immigrate for example someone who is here studying, meets an American citizen, falls in love and decides they want to marry and move to the United States. We do those as well.

In terms of languages I did not get Korean training from the Foreign Service because when I went to Korea I was not with the Foreign Service and did not have a job until I got there. I did get Spanish and Greek training but not Urdu because at that point I was a manager and was not interviewing visa applicants every day and some of our posts are a little more dangerous than others. For example in Islamabad, most people are there for only one year so the government did not want to invest in language training for someone who was only going to do a couple of interviews.

As far as the Foreign Service test – it’s a very gruelling exam but it’s just a hurdle that you have to get over if you really have a passion for it. If you don’t pass it the first time, you can take it again. A lot of people don’t pass the first, second or third time and still go on to have illustrious Foreign Service careers.

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10 May

A Diplomats Job: Defending American Interests and Helping Citizens

American diplomats have one focus: defending and advancing American interests.  In my decades in the Foreign Service, including three years as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan as well as in senior positions in the State Department in a Washington, this focus was made concrete daily in the support and protection the Foreign Service gives individual American citizens, whether business people, individual citizens, or their families.

During one of my assignments, the American teachers at the local international school had repeated problems getting the visas they needed continue working there.  The local laws required foreigners obtain their visas outside the country, but the foreign ministry told the school — and our embassy — that everything could be done in one day at their embassy in the capital of the country next door (an eight hour drive one way or an hour long plane trip.)

Based on this information, the school arranged to have all the teachers travel to the neighboring capital during a brief school holiday.   Unfortunately, the country’s embassy didn’t get, or ignored the instruction from its foreign ministry and refused to issue the visas.  Our embassy — the consular officer, the ambassador, and the deputy chief of mission — then engaged the local government at multiple points in the political leadership as well as in the foreign ministry and the immigration office to have the necessary visas issued right away and prevent a disruption in the school year.  After this incident, we worked with the country’s government to liberalize its system for issuing visas, helping make sure the problem for the American teachers would not be repeated as well as to help out American tourists and business people interested in coming to the country.

Helping American business people is a particular focus for an American Embassy.  Every U.S. Embassy has an economic/commercial section helping business people and promoting trade and investment between the United States and other countries.  It is as core a function of an embassy as the consular section, which is the first stop for Americans needing help with everything from reporting the birth of their child overseas and obtaining new U.S. passports to assisting in the event of the arrest or death of an American overseas. 

Having worked as an economic officer for most of my years at the State Department, I worked on many occasions with companies to fight unfair foreign government or court decisions that would have disadvantaged them against foreign competitors or burdened them with baseless fines or tax bills. 

During my first tour in the Foreign Service, which was in Yemen in the early eighties, I remember arguing with a shaykh and the local immigration authorities when the shaykh’s company had a dispute with some Americans drilling wells with his company.  The shaykh then used his connections to pull the American businessmen’s passports and to convince the Yemeni government authorities to withhold issuing the exit visas the businessmen needed to leave the country.  Again, meeting with the authorities at different levels, and noting the implications such a story would have on the country’s reputation as a place to do business, paid off.  Their passports were returned, the exit visas issued, and the Americans allowed to return home.

It is impossible to imagine that any U.S. Foreign Service Officer does not have similar stories of meeting Americans in need of assistance and doing what they can to help them.  There are things we cannot do — we cannot act as an American’s lawyer, for example — but there are many things we can and do do (for example, the embassy’s consular section can provide a list of qualified local attorneys and an embassy officer can attend a local legal proceeding to help see the American is treated fairly in line with the host country’s laws and practices).  It is at the center of what we do as U.S. diplomats.

Ambassador (ret.) Cekuta was U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and held numerous positions in the State Department, including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy & Natural Resources.

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15 Feb

Economic Section Chief – Looking out for US on Economic Issues and Brexit

This blog is taken a panel discussion on Foreign Service Careers organised for students in London by 1-800Home.

I run the Economics Section in the Embassy. That is the place where we focus on the US-UK economic relationship. It’s a very big relationship in this case – you have $230 billion dollars of trade going back and forth across the Atlantic each year and over £1.2 trillion in investment both ways in each others economy about $600 billion each and it’s the biggest investment relationship in the world between two countries. Over 1 million people in the UK work for American firms and its pretty much the same thing for British firms working in the US. We act as the eyes and ears and voice of Washington whenever there is an economic issue that requires some attention.  For example Washington will ask us to do something and we will make what is called a demarche that’s a French word and it means that we talk to the  UK government and we say here is what our government thinks about the latest trade issue or about what  is happening in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about tax rules around the world.  We will make those positions known to Her Majesty’s Government and will get the response from Her Majesty’s Government and we will get the response back to Washington. Also we  describe what is happening inside a particular country – that’s the ‘eyes’ function.

I have been in the Economic Section of many different countries for example in Serbia during the period when its economy had just recovered from hyper inflation and I did a lot of reporting there about what was going on as they tried to heal their economy. Also Milosovic was in charge of that economy at the time and I talked about how he controlled it and helped Washington understand it better. Here in the UK a lot of that function comes down to Brexit these days. We pay a lot of attention with the colleagues in the political section to understand what the potential impacts are. To drill down into that a bit more, we think of Brexit as an issue between the United Kingdom and the European Union but there are many aspects of Brexit that directly affect US interests so we would focus in on those interests. What would happen to that $600 billion in American investment in London if various scenarios play out with Brexit? What happens to those companies? What problems do they have? What is going to be the impact on their situation?

We have treaties with the EU that regulate civilian nuclear cooperation and allow for nuclear assessment, safety aviation and flight rules for example. We would need to look at these. There are also about 14 rules on data privacy that we would have to renegotiate and have ready to go when the UK leaves the EU at the end of March in 2019. So we are working with Washington to facilitate that process. Washington agencies are actually the ones negotiating those treaties but we help set up conversations and make sure there is deeper understanding of the issues. We are doing that both to facilitate the US role direct impact on Brexit areas but also to help Washington understand the state of play on Brexit. It’s a very complex issue and senior policy makers in Washington don’t really have time to do a lot of complex reading and really understand the details of the backstop to the backstop proposal. We put try to put that in simple terms for Washington.

We cover the economy, we have people doing macro economics, financial services, the trade function, sanctions, transportation – for example aviation, intellectual property rights.  e also have locally employed staff (British nationals) that work with us. We have 3 1/2 locally employed staff – we share one with the political section – it’s not half a person! They help us.  When  we are new to a country and we don’t understand yet the details of  the economy, they provide continuity and help us get to speed very quickly. They are a critical part of the team. Altogether we have about 17 people in the Economic Section. We also work closely with other departments that are also in the embassy. We work with the Department of Commerce that is also in the Embassy (the Foreign Commercial Service). They provide services to US firms that want to export to the UK. This tends to be for smaller and meidum sized companies rather than very large companies like Apple.  They also interact (as do I) with the bigger firms in order to understand the operating environment on Brexit and how it affects their interests.  The Department of Agriculture (USDA) is also represented by the Foreign Agricultural Service. They are a little bit smaller than we are but they do important work. The Agricultural Service is focused on agricultural exports to the UK but they do a lot of reporting just as I was describing about my functions, but on the agricultural side. And the Foreign Commercial Service is focused on providing services to US firms that want to export to the UK. It is probably not Apple or Exxon that need their help. It tends to be firms in the small to medium enterprise range but they also interact, as do I with the bigger firms to understand what the operating environment is for example on Brexit to understand how Brexit affects their interests.

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31 Dec

The ‘MicMa’ Explains the Hidden Management of An Embassy

The second of our blogs explaining the various responsibilities of the officers at the US Embassy in London.  The Management Section is composed of a number of functions that provide back up for the entire Embassy.  

I am  the Minister Counselor for Management Affairs. Since this is the Government we have to make an acronym so I am the MicMa.  We actually have 43 federal agencies that are present in the UK and my section provides all the administrative and logistical support to those agencies so they don’t have to do it for themselves – it’s economies of scale. Whether its HR and hiring and paying people, financial management to prepare internal budgets or the health unit that provides medical services and liaison with local providers  – as obviously there are top notch medical providers in London. We also operate IT section that provides our IT backbone and our cell phones, for example. Finally, we have what we call General Services that includes a lot of different kinds of functions, the mail room, shipping, housing. warehousing, supply,  the motor pool – all of that comes under the general rubric of General Services.

We also have something we call the Community Liaison Officer (CLO). This is an office that is really varied in what it needs to do.  It has several areas of responsibility. It provides advice on schools. We have American embassy children in at least 35 schools and those are only the ones we know of because we pay tuition for them. If your child is in a state school and we don’t pay tuition we don’t know where they go to school. In most foreign posts you have one school – if you are lucky  and two is really golden – so thirty-five is very unusual. CLO also provides counseling to family members. In addition to the locally employed staff we have jobs for family members.

One of the difficult things about the Foreign Service is if you are not married to someone who is not a Foreign Service Officer your spouse trails you and doesn’t necessarily have the opportunity to have a career. These jobs for spouses are not ‘make-work’ jobs, they are essential. Spouses get security clearances while non American locally employed staff can not get a security clearance so having a family member who can provide some of that support with a clearance is really critical.

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