Friday, March 19, 2010

Diplomacy at Work

She seems to be saying, "Play nice, children!" and could very well be the patron saint of diplomatic meetings.

As I thought it might interest some people to experience 'diplomacy' in action, I'll briefly describe some meetings I participated in over the past couple of days. The subject under discussion and the parties involved are not of particular interest so you can be assured that we were not bringing peace to the Middle East, ratcheting up sanctions on Iran or setting troop levels in Afghanistan. No, this was your everyday diplomatic negotiating session to agree to the wording on a memo, a non-binding memo that proposes to create a framework in which we can, mutually, proceed forward to discuss substantive projects.

Some background might be helpful. The Economics and Political sections of our embassies are called the Reporting sections. These two groups are responsible for facilitating the flow of information in their respective areas between Washington and the host country. Good reporting officers establish contacts in the host government and, over time, develop a rapport with them that enables the officers to provide Washington with high quality insightful information. This rapport also eases the flow of information from Washington back to the host country.

From time to time, as is their wont, our colleagues in Washington decide that it is critical that they personally give or receive the information. Unsurprisingly, the decision that their personal presence is required is made much more frequently when the host nation is Italy than when it is, for example, Mali. The immediate drawback to this plan of course, whether they are in Italy or Mali, is that they do not, personally, know anyone in the host government. So we are called upon to set up meetings for them with our carefully nurtured, highly valuable contacts. That's an expected and accepted part of our jobs and, frankly, we're happy to do it. Most of our visitors from Washington are very senior people and have attained a certain level of importance, some are even legends in their own minds.

Recently, a group of State Department folks in Washington realized that Spring had come to Rome at the very same time a memo needed to be discussed and flew over to, personally, do the discussing. Because one of the Italian government contacts they needed to meet with was mine, I would be included in any meeting he attended. There are several reasons for embassy personnel to be included in any meetings between host country officials and our Washington visitors. We generally brief our host government contacts on the expectations of the visitors, thereby giving them an opportunity to prepare for the meeting. We are also there to ensure that our visitors arrive on time and at the correct ministry and to introduce the two parties. One of the embassy members of our delegation will always serve as a notetaker during the meeting and will be responsible for writing a reporting cable immediately after it. If and when appropriate, we are there to add our own insight, ideas or opinions to the general fray. Finally, we are there to assess and evaluate the level of damage control required after our visitors have met with our contacts.

We try, whenever possible, to keep the numbers of participants on each side equal. Unfortunately, we are notorious for arriving with last minute unannounced additions to our team. This happened on the first of the two days of meetings I sat in on last week. Our Italian counterparts expected seven of us and ten of us arrived. The start of the meeting was, therefore, delayed while we waited for three Italian 'subject matter experts' who had, unavoidably, "been detained in a previous meeting" but were definitely supposed to participate in this one too.

When the three 'experts', one looking suspiciously like my contact's secretary, arrived, we began the Dance of the Table Positions. The two principals sit in the center facing each other and the rest of the delegation arranges itself in equal numbers on either side of them. There is a tendency, especially on the part of our visitors, to want to sit as close to the principal as possible and the subtle jostling and nudging is entertaining to watch. However, eventually the music stops and everyone has to sit down, with the victors on the principal's right and left hand and the lesser victors in descending order away from the seat of power. As a general rule, the embassy staff take the seats at the far ends and avoid the unseemly jockeying for position.

The meeting began with the usual pleasantries and then our team stated in several thousand well-chosen words what they hoped to accomplish over the next two days. Their team politely acknowledged what we hoped to accomplish and then carefully explained why that would be impossible to achieve. Undaunted, our team re-explained, using many of the same well-chosen words, what they felt was essential to accomplish during the course of the meetings. Unfazed, their team carefully explained the pitfalls inherent in overly ambitious expectations. Back and forth it went until an agreement was reached. It took the better part of an hour to reach an agreement on how the meeting would proceed!

"If they don't begin making progress, I'm throwing this water down on them!"

Once we got into the meat of the discussion, things really slowed down. Those in the center continued to beat horses long dead and those of us on the wings amused ourselves as best we could. The man sitting next to me, who had come from Washington, was playing a game on his BlackBerry and my contact, sitting across from me, was surreptitiously working on a Sudoku puzzle. I happened to see that he'd put a 7 where a 5 needed to go so I texted him and suggested that he might want to change the number. He read my message, frowned, changed the number to a 5 and then smiled and nodded his thanks my way. Diplomacy in action!

The meeting lasted two days, gave the folks from Washington an excuse to visit Rome, didn't destroy our bilateral relations with Italy and produced a non-binding memo that suggests a potential way to begin exploring possible areas of mutual interest. Both teams agreed that it was a highly successful encounter and promised each other that they'd have a follow-up meeting in the near future. It's Cherry Blossom time in Washington, so I think their team will find it necessary to visit us there.

This was the look on the face of the principal Italian negotiator when we said, "Yes, but..." for the twentieth time.

I bought an app for my ipod. It's a beginner's running program designed to take couch potatoes and turn them into 5K runners. In fact, it's called C25K, clever huh? The premise behind the program is that if you follow the instructions three days a week for nine weeks, you will be in shape to run 5 kilometers or 30 minutes at a stretch. You begin with a relatively easy routine of walking and jogging and progress from there to a steady 30 minute run. The ipod app just puts some bells and whistles onto the program. It tells you when to walk and when to jog and when you're halfway through so you can turn around and finish up back home in the end. You can listen to music while you walk/jog and the whole experience isn't much more strenuous than getting up out of the La-Z-Boy to fetch another beer. The concept is that exercise shouldn't be painful; if it doesn't hurt you, you're more likely to continue doing it.

There are actually several apps dedicated to the C25K program and I took my time before selecting the one I chose. It had many positive reviews by people who had used it and one of them said, "I'm a fat old man and I can run 5 kilometers now. This really works!" Well, I thought to myself, I too am a fat old man and I would like to be able to run 5 kilometers, so I bought the app. It is very important to commit the same three days a week for nine weeks, so I decided that Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday worked best for me and planned to begin the next Tuesday. Tuesday it rained.

I was quite certain that the originators of the C25K program never intended for me to run in the rain (although they were curiously silent on the point in their instructions) so I postponed getting started until a Tuesday when it wasn't raining. The following Tuesday I worked late and it was pretty dark when I got home. Surely, no one would expect a beginner to run in the dark, that's madness. I was impatient to get started but not foolhardy, so I decided to wait another week. On the third Tuesday I had prior dinner plans so I was forced to wait until the fourth Tuesday after I bought the app to get started.

Tuesday came, it wasn't raining and it was still quite light out. I started off and paid close attention to the commands to walk and jog and walk again. Halfway through the 30 minute program I was notified and I turned around and retraced my steps back home. I arrived home feeling very good and quite pleased with myself for completing the first day of my C25K. In fact, I was already looking forward to Thursday which would be the second day of my journey to running a 5K.

Wednesday morning I got out of bed and nearly fell on my face. The pain in my knees was intense and neither of my legs seemed to be under my direct control any more. I wobbled around for a minute or two and then ate a hearty breakfast of aspirin, Advil and Tylenol. By Thursday I could walk with a limp, but without groaning out loud, and couldn't even think of jogging without causing knifelike pains to shoot through my knees. Saturday wasn't much better and I've realized that I just might not be a 'runner', some of us aren't. I have also had time to reflect on the review that persuaded me that I could do this and I think that it should be mandatory for people to state exactly how fat and how old they are when they make these absurd claims.

"...and then I ran from here all the way over to there..."

Speaking of exercise, I have a compiled list of 26 of the most highly recommended gelaterias in Rome. I've downloaded an app for my ipod that has allowed me to map each of them and plot the shortest route there from my apartment. I can also enter my comments and evaluations in a very high tech manner. Every weekend, on whichever day I don't go to help out at the kennel, I will visit one of the 26. Although I will always order the largest size they have, personal restraint will keep me from having seconds. It's all about will power. Today I plan to visit Giovanni's over on Via Eleonora Duse. There's a light rain falling and it's getting dark out now, Via E. Duse is about a mile away, but a man can't let minor inconveniences interfere with a mission. Like they say, if it begins to hurt, I'll stop!

The Pantheon - built by a whole bunch of guys who also never did the C25K.