Where I’m at: Brazzaville, enjoying the perfect temperature at this time of year
What I’m doing: digesting a naked lunch
Why I’m writing: vignettes about diplomatic life
For those literati out there, (The) Naked Lunch is a must-read. Incidentally, I’ve never read it. That said, William Burroughs classic has made a tremendous impact on American life, even if unbeknownst to most of us. But even those “in the know” may not be aware that the title was suggested by Jack Kerouac (whom I have read). Kerouac suggested the name for the book, which is a series of psychedelic vignettes, because (according to Burroughs) “a naked lunch (is) a frozen moment when everyone sees exactly what is on the end of every fork.” Diplomatic dining is anything but that. And because I’m always looking to use this (cyber)space to let people know what this bizarre (and I hope/believe necessary) universe of diplomacy is all about, this latest vignette is all about those non-naked lunches at which we frequently find ourselves. [Note: because I can’t share many specifics, this is really more of an explanation.]
Brazzaville is – surprise, surprise – one of the smaller diplomatic presences that the U.S. has in the world. That, of course, does not mean that we don’t have significant interests here, but it does, of course, mean that there’s fewer of us to look after them. For me, that means both an amazing career opportunity and a place at the table at lots of diplomatic functions. In the last couple weeks, I’ve had one-on-ones with about a dozen ambassadors, several ministers (equivalent to U.S. Cabinet Secretaries), and even the President here (though that was actually a one-on-one between the President and our Ambassador…the latter was gracious enough to include me in their private chat; the former was gracious enough to offer champagne…at 10am). It also means lots and lots of representational eating events. I just got back, in fact, from one that included, among others, our bureau’s Deputy Assistant Secretary (or better said, “the Boss”), who despite being a Michigan grad is a lovely person.
Having now had either a diplomatic breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, or after-dinner drinks at least every other day for a month in a row (last week was every single day) with various VIPs from around this country, our country, and the world, I can say this definitively: they are anything but naked affairs. The best I can describe such affairs is that they are like a change room with a bunch of pre-adolescent boys getting ready for gym. Everyone looks nervously from person to person, trying not to catch too many people’s eyes, and puffing out his chest while slightly flexing his biceps trying to impress – but not too much – everyone around him. Now, as adults, one notices the nervousness significantly less in the physical actions, but more so in the word choices. Most conversations don’t go on very long before the listener smiles and agrees, whether the point is yet apparent or not. It’s often far better to get a half-story and make the speaker feel appreciated than it is to get the whole-story and risk creating a disagreement on minutiae. Now, that isn’t to say that diplomats and officials are just trying to appease each other, but rather that it’s all a calculated dance. And believe me (you’ll have to, unless you, too, are a diplomat), those that lash back against the rigmarole are easily identified and far less effective. Leaving “non-papers” (e.g. “I was here but I wasn’t if anyone asks”) or having back-up “if asked” talking points, etc. are all part of the subtle dance that is diplomacy.
In any case, while our lunches may not be naked, they are often effective, even if most people in the world don’t appreciate them. America was late to the diplomacy game in many ways, but we’ve really started to embrace it as we’ve realized that we have more to lose. Having friends, or at least non-enemies, is very important to us. Ask yourself how many friends you have that tell you that you’re hair looks like crap or that you really are a sucky karaoke singer or that the dinner you made was edible between all of the burned parts. That’s the kind of friend America would be without diplomacy (or if the diplomats were hopped up on LSD like Burroughs’ characters as they had lunch with their counterparts). People appreciate subtlety in their friendly relationships, even if they have blunt truths to share. Right?
Who said it: Anonymous
Why it’s relevant: perhaps why there are so many diplomats who are lawyers
The quote: “Talk is cheap…until lawyers get involved.”