Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Onward (and Upward) Assignment

Mrs. Valdysses and I will be headed to beautiful Beijing, China in 2012!

Between now and then is training, training, training....

Any Chinese-learning tips are appreciated.  I feel I've gotten over the hurdle of learning a foreign language, now to get over the hurdle of learning this foreign language.  Should be nothing, right?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Our Constituency

Much is made of the State Department's budget situation, especially in the current climate. Efforts at reducing waste, using funds efficiently and maximizing utility of what we have are everywhere, and for good reason -- no one can afford to be wasteful, especially when one is spending tax dollars. The State Department, like many other Federal agencies, is asking for more, expecting less, and planning on how to make the most of what we have. But it was not always like this...

 Congress authorizes our budget, and congress is not always seen as being very supportive of what we do. I think, from my limited experience, that congressional favor is a red herring. Congresspeople know full well the benefits of diplomacy, but diplomacy is often a hard sell. Our "constituency", as it were, does not exist. or at least that's what people keep telling me. I just don't buy it.

 The military has a network, and a constituency. Most everyone knows a few soldiers, and defense dollars bring jobs to every corner of the nation. Anyone with children knows their teachers, and anyone who's politically active has a chance to meet their representatives. These people stay in touch with their constituency on a daily basis. On the other hand, diplomats work overseas, and when they're back home they tend to live within 15 or so miles of D.C. Unless you live in D.C., or know someone from before they joined the foreign service, you're unlikely to feel much kinship. It doesn't help matters that we are stereotyped as effete, stripey-pantsed, high maintenance liberals.

 Here's the thing, though: your representative, excellent as she is, might care more about your jerk neighbor's interests than yours, if your jerk neighbor ccontributed more to her campaign. Your child's teachers at school are excellent, without a doubt, but they occasionally make their own decisions about what should and should not be taught to your children. Your military does very difficult work in very hostile places, but has little to no influence on the places you might actually want to go on vacation.

Your diplomats, faceless and high maintenance as we invariably are, work for you.

 If you wake up without a passport in an Italian jail, we will come help you. If your business needs parts made overseas, we can make that possible. If your cousin wants to move to the U.S., we can make that happen. We do these things because the laws you and your fellow citizens approved compel us to. We don't interpret those laws individually, and we aren't swayed by political moods or by personal politics. We do not make policy, we promote the will, the wishes, and the interests of your country throughout the world.

 So, the next time you have occasion to picture a diplomat, don't think of a privileged, rich man drinking cocktails at a gala in Europe, think of a former fighter pilot riding in a jeep to visit a scared American citizen in a sub Saharan jail. Think of a group of talented people working through the night to design a system whereby you can text money to red cross efforts in Haiti. Think of lawyers, nurses, soldiers, scholars and activists giving up their lives and careers in the U.S. to serve your interests in every corner of the globe. I can't agree with the idea that we don't have a constituency. The moment any part of your life has to do with someone or something outside of U.S. borders, you become our constituent. We will happily keep serving your interests, and the interests of our country, even if you never know us.

 So thank you, taxpayers, for making this great enterprise possible. I hope you know that you're getting your money's worth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Great Seal of the United States

A-100 is underway, and with it a deluge of charming, useful, and baffling information.  There are acronym lists to ingest, letter-writing templates to digest, protocols to observe, and emails to draft.  Amidst all that, there are really delightful history lessons to be had.  Since this is public knowledge, and indeed knowledge created for and by the public, I thought I might share with you all a bit I found particularly interesting.

The Department of State was once known as the Department of Foreign Affairs.  America being America, it was decided early on that Foreign Affairs alone were not enough to sustain a department.  At one time in the nation's history, the Department of State was responsible for not only representing American interests abroad, but also for administering the census, printing money (oh my goodness if only) and keeping the Great Seal of the United States.

Today, many of those duties have been tasked to other departments, as it has come to pass that managing Foreign Affairs is a full time job.  DoS has retained one of its former civil duties, however, and it's delightful: we keep the Great Seal.

The Great Seal of the United States is highly symbolic, and while it does follow traditional rules of heraldic design (known as rules of tincture) it contains a number of unique elements.  The Eagle is a heraldic symbol of virtue, but the Bald Eagle is used only on this seal, and until such time as we saw fit to use it, was not considered a heraldic symbol.  The stars (or mulletts) on the crest above the Eagle's head are 5 pointed today, though they were originally 6-pointed.  Their order also describes a 6 pointed star.  The olive branch and arrows signify exactly what you might imagine.

The seal is, however, not simply a design.  It is a physical thing, and every year it is physically used to affix the one Great Seal of the United States to between 2000 and 3000 of these documents.  The Seal Press is the implement that makes these impressions with the Seal.  It resides in a locked glass cabinet, and remains locked even while being used.

Being that it is a physical object ( The Seal press and the Seal itself), it had to have been made by someone.  Before the country had a department of engraving, that job fell to whosoever won the contract.  Tiffany & Co, Baily Banks & Biddle were but two of the firms tasked with the manufacture of the Seal itself, a task which resulted in a slightly different version every time it was recast.  Seals of the past have differed in proportion, olive branch design, star points (as mentioned above), talon length, and nearly everything else.  Every change was hotly contested in Congress, but it is the result of those changes that we have the symbol we recognize today.

It is the symbol of all official communications from the president, it is the symbol of centuries of International Treaties, it is the symbol of the will of this Nation, expressed throughout the world, and in 5 weeks it will be the symbol emblazoned upon my confirmation.

A diplomat is something to be.