Ambassador’s Directory 2020

by WL Author

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A Lost Year as Masked Ambassadors Face Up to Viral Challenge

By Roland Flamini

The ambassadors to Washington who presented their credentials this year and are profiled below, walked into a world turned upside down. Consider: The global coronavirus pandemic is more virulent in the United States than in any other country; daily civil unrest in many U.S. cities reflects massive public discontent over racial inequality and police brutality; a hemorrhaging economy, hit hard by the pandemic, shows no signs of recovery, at least in the short term; a Congress paralyzed by deep political divisions; a chaotic Trump administration that treats friends and foes alike; and an upcoming election unlike any other in recent American history.

For newly arrived envoys, becoming familiar with the antics of Trump and his administration was a bit like speed-reading “Alice in Wonderland.” In foreign ministries around the world, embassy dispatches from Washington are frequently read with disbelief and bewilderment.

Any diplomat will tell you that personal contact is essential to conducting business. Not in the pandemic. Embassies have been in lockdown since March. Personal meetings are few, and they are conducted in an atmosphere of apprehension, not to say fear, with faces masked and hands gloved. The handshake is taboo. Diplomatic social life has either gone underground, limited to surreptitious gatherings of a handful of guests, or disappeared altogether, including the cancellation between May and September of more than 50 national day celebrations.

Almost the first challenge the new ambassadors faced on taking office was the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of their citizens, stranded in foreign countries by closed borders and the suspension of commercial flights.

European Union embassies, for example, coordinated in organizing hundreds of chartered flights from countless countries either as part of the E.U. Civil Protection Mechanism, or as a national effort. At the same time, the E.U. airlifted medical equipment and masks to dozens of countries in Africa and elsewhere.

But diplomats are known for their resilience. Despite total lockdown, they have made wide use of the latest technology to maintain visibility. Washington’s diplomatic community has been living in a virtual world since March, with panel discussions, interviews, digital programs and an abundant use of social media. Key negotiations, such as the proposed U.S.-U.K. trade deal and post-Brexit negotiations have edged forward (with varied success) despite the constraints, leading some experts to wonder whether some of the enforced protocols may not be here to stay.

 

READ MORE FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE

How EU Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis Tackled the Pandemic

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