By Patricia H. Kushlis
Update: See Addendum below.
When Condoleezza Rice was Secretary of State and criticized for the State Department’s lack-luster handling of America's image abroad, she exuberantly claimed that “we all do public diplomacy now.” Suddenly Foreign Service Officers who had never before spoken in public and had other pressing responsibilities – like adjudicating visas (you wonder why appointment times for visa interviews take so long?) or helping American citizens in distress - were suddenly fanned out throughout whatever country they were assigned to on public diplomacy gigs. Meanwhile, 30% of the public diplomacy positions were left vacant. (Aerial Poto left of the Mekong in Laos by PHKushlis 2009)
It’s unclear to me whether an increase in State Department hiring a year or so ago made a dent in the high public diplomacy vacancy rate but I do know that too many American public diplomacy positions abroad are being filled by officers who are not public diplomacy specialists and do not have the requisite skills to perform the job adequately while those that supposedly do are assigned to other specialties or a few – likely more than when USIA was a separate agency – are moving up the hierarchy into Deputy Chief of Mission and Ambassadorial positions.
Although a look at the promotion statistics from a year or so ago, suggests that these higher level opportunities for public diplomacy officers are far fewer, than let’s say, for almost any other State Department Foreign Service specialty.
Meeting-the-public is part of Ambassadorial job requirements
Now Ambassadors do, in fact, have a meet-the-public component in their job descriptions. The best ones know the country to which they are assigned, speak the language fluently or at least passably well and are able to make the case privately and publicly for US foreign policy as it pertains to the country and region in which they serve.
If they don’t have those attributes – as I saw particularly in the case of a variety of political appointees over the years– those with common sense and a modicum of smarts take the advice of the embassy’s public affairs officer as well as the career diplomat (the DCM) who is charged with making the embassy run smoothly and, as importantly, keeping the ambassador from becoming a public embarrassment for the United States. The advice is usually to keep a low profile and let someone who does know something talk with the media especially about substantive issues. And, not-so-by-the-way, to refrain from making a public spectacle of himself or herself thereby introducing an unnecessary irritant into relations between the two countries.
There are, of course, also a few political appointees who are immensely popular in ways difficult for a career Ambassador to emulate. They include both of President Obama’s appointments to China: former Ambassador John Huntsman and the current Ambassador Gary Locke as well as years ago the late Senator Mike Mansfield to Japan where he became almost a permanent fixture (1977-1988) regardless of administration because the Japanese liked and respected him so much.
But that’s not the issue here.
If you have not had the opportunity to view a couple of recent videos of Karen Stewart, US Ambassador to Laos, attempting to perform hip-hop at a public concert, may I suggest you let your fingers run, not do the walking to Youtube. Or just click on the video above. The second one is below the fold. These questionable exhibitions of hubris are blissfully short and, at least for a while, the least offensive one (above) can also be found on the US Embassy Vientiane’s webpage. My guess is it won’t last there all that long – but something posted on You-Tube as well as in the Lao electronic media as these are – can seemingly last forever.
Tone Deaf and judgment poor?
Sadly, Ms. Stewart is a career senior Foreign Service Officer and she may well have had – and continue to have a terrific career. But I wonder.
Her specialty was economics – although her degree from Wellesley was in astronomy. Her last previous overseas posting was as Ambassador to Belarus where she managed to irritate Lukachenka the country’s irascible permanent leader enough to have to leave early but also to the delight of her then State bosses because she received the Department’s first Diplomacy for Freedom award in 2007 and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award in 2011.
What I find bizarre, however, is that Stewart had previously served in both Laos and Thailand and supposedly speaks Lao and Thai – although from her video performance it seems to me she could still work on her tones.
How Stewart made it this far in the Foreign Service is akin to one of the Seven Wonders of the World judging at least by the contents of these videos. Perhaps they primarily speak volumes about the poor judgment exercised by State Department Human Resources in assigning her to such positions or maybe something new has come upon her – like second childhood or something in Vientiane’s water - seepage of some strange hallucinatory chemical from the Mekong maybe?
Yet even though Ambassador Stewart loves hip hop as she clearly does, performing it live on stage should, well, be left to the pros. In October 2009 I had the opportunity to attend a terrific concert by the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumnae Ensemble at the Shanghai Concert Hall. The group was as much about dancing as singing. They were energetic and engaging. And they could and did sing a song in Chinese – and it sounded like well, Chinese. But these were professional musicians and they had had special coaching in the song by a Chinese musician before leaving New York.
What didn't happen in Shanghai or anywhere else during my career
What I did not see, however, was either the American Consul General or the Consulate’s Public Affairs Officer get up on stage and attempt to sing with them although both attended the concert. Obviously these public diplomacy trained officers understood their roles as US government diplomatic representatives as well as their own limitations in song and dance.
I played impresario for any number of American cultural groups performing abroad under Embassy auspices throughout my Foreign Service career. This included Thailand. Never once did I see an Ambassador or anyone else from a US Embassy or Consulate attempt anything in as poor taste as Ms. Stewart’s recent hip-hop performances in Laos.
It may be one thing for a young, junior officer or Peace Corps volunteer who is also a hip-hop performer to join such a group for a number. I heard a former political appointee Ambassador play the drums with a local jazz group at a private party – but he, in fact, could play the drums. Besides the event was also not publicized to the world.
It’s another thing for someone with the rank, responsibility and lack of talent like this Chief of Mission in Laos to do so.
Wiser heads gone missing?
Whatever happened to Embassy Vientiane’s Public Affairs Officers or Deputy Chief of Mission? How could they have encouraged and promoted such inappropriate exhibitionism on the part of their boss. Or did Ambassador Stewart think she knew better and ignored advice from wiser heads. That's certainly been known to happen.
I wonder, is it more appropriate to laugh or cry? Or both?
Addendum: I see according to Diplopundit that when a Hip Hop group subsequently performed in Karachi, Pakistan no one from the embassy - no Consul General, public affairs officer or cultural affairs officer - took to the stage. Also while you're there check out the translation of the rap words Ms Stewart read at the concert in Laos - talk about a peculiar high. Novel way for an Ambassador to conduct business - if that's what it can be termed.