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.