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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21 Nov

The Consular Corps: Touching People’s Lives

Recently 1-800Home organised an event for study abroad students called Exploring Foreign Service Careers. Our panel members were senior officers from the US Embassy in London.  We recorded their remarks and are publishing them in a series of blogs for benefit of a wider audience.  

Our first blog reflects the remarks of the Visa Branch Chief who represented the Consular Section on the panel.

What happens if you get taken to jail? Who is the first person you call?  If your family is not here and you don’t have friends around who are you going to call? You call the Embassy and talk to the duty officer after hours and word gets to us in the Consular Section in our Special Citizens Services unit and we will talk to you on the phone and be sure you are alright. We’ll tell you what we can do for you, give you some names of lawyers you might be able to get in touch with and explain generally what is going to happen next. And then we’ll make sure during the time you are incarcerated that you are treated no worse than anyone else who is incarcerated.

Our Assistant Secretary likes to say that what we do in the Consular Corps is  touch people’s lives. We are ones who make the hard phone call in the middle of the night when someone has passed away abroad to their family back in the United States and help repatriate that person’s remains back to the United States. We’re the people who also have the pleasure of documenting the birth of your child abroad as an American citizen and providing that birth certificate that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. We also help you to recover a passport when you’ve had a rough weekend and you’ve lost your passport and you need to get home. We will get you a passport generally within a few hours and get you on your way back travelling.

In addition, we have a mission of protecting the border of the United States and facilitating legitimate travel to the United States and that’s my branch of the embassy. We have the responsibility to adjudicate immigrant and non immigrant visas for foreign nationals who wish to travel to the United States. Here in London we do 165,000 of those a year for people of 180 different nationalities. It’s not just a matter of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You have to interview each and every one of those people. You have to talk to them. And you have to know a little about what is going on in their country. For example, if someone is applying for a tourist visa and they are from Russia or Ghana, you might need to know what is happening in those countries that might make someone want to leave there. The officer who does that sort of work is a Foreign Service officer and they generally speak two foreign languages. In our section we have twelve of those people on the line every day making sure that the people who come and ask for a visa are who they say they are, that they are entitled to a visa and that they are not perpetrating fraud against the United States Government. In addition we have a fraud prevention unit which covers the entire section and makes sure that fraud is detected, acted upon and also prevented.  On any given day I am talking to a police sergeant up in Glasgow about an organized crime member who is trying to go to the United States and running that information through our system and figuring out who else might be travelling with him or I might be working to clarify a law in immigration. Immigration law is a slice of federal law that is pretty dynamic. It changes quite frequently and requires a lot of interpretation.

As far as numbers of consuls, here in London  we have approximately 120 personnel and that consists of 27 officers who have a consular commission.  At the window, our junior officers, of whom we have twenty, rotate and do a variety  of things during a two year tour. In that very first tour there is a great deal of on the job training.  After the training they are given a consular commission.

Once the officers have been granted a consular commission they have to be ready to go to the morgue and identify remains of anybody who has passed away and then be prepared to make the hard phone call to the family members back home.  They’ve got to be prepared to visit  prisoners in some pretty rough prisons.  I don’t know how many times I have been in a prison in the visiting area during lock down because of a prison riot – this was not in the UK! In addition, the commissioned officer has got to be ready to go to the site of an airplane accident to do just about any difficult thing that can come up in the consular world.

Finally, in terms of posts in various countries, consular officers work in about 280 posts around the world. If you want to make sure you have a shot at working in Ouagadougou or in Chengdu or pretty much anywhere, there are two cones (State Department specializations are called ‘cones’) where those officers are always going to show up – one is management and the other is consular.

This ends the remarks of the Consular member of the panel. The next blog post will focus on the contribution of the Economic Section.

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