Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Truth About Living in the Diplomatic Cocktail Circuit

In a recent Kojo Nnamdi show focused on the future of the Foreign Service, Steven Kashkett, State Vice President for AFSA bemoaned the “persistent image of US diplomats as “cookie-pushers,” or debutantes living a cushy life on the cocktail circuit.” (You can listen to the NPR show here or read a quick write up from Foreign Policy Blogs here).

The Urban Dictionary contains two definitions for cookie-pushers: 1) Effete, unmasculine person with pretensions to social status; pejorative for a diplomat. (I went to a party in Georgetown with a bunch of cookie-pushers; some of them even were speaking in French. Time to leave town!), and 2) Psychotic serial killers disguised as little girls who peddle Thin Mints financing their bid for world domination. Often called "Girl Scouts". (I was stopped by a cookie pusher outside of Target, and felt obligated to buy a box of Thin Mints). Uh-oh… either way you look at this, it does not look nor sound good.

I wished it were not so, but the term "cookie-pusher" now lives in online perpetuity with its own entry in Wikipedia which says in part: “Ivor Evans in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (NY: Harper and Row, 1981) uses the term denoting a junior diplomat who functions as a roving waiter at an official reception, presumably "pushing" appetizers on people who don't really want them.”

I would have to take umbrage with Mr. Evan’s definition. With the dollar tanking these days and the Foreign Service budget shortfall the size of the Sahara, I’m not sure we would even have any appetizers for our junior diplomats to “push.” Still, we can’t afford the neighbors to think that we are “poor,” so money will be scraped to “splurge” on our guests and host nation contacts. But no one should be surprise if we start serving popcorn in the next diplomatic reception.

I’m not sure which is more annoying to me, the “cookie-pusher” or the askewed presumption that our diplomats lived in a perpetual happy hour in the service of this nation; or for that matter, lived in one unending banquet of Kobe beef, Belons oyster and the 1959 Château Mouton Rothschild.

So here’s the skinny on this for those not in the know: It is true that our diplomats do have to give dinner parties and attend dinner parties and cocktail receptions as part of their jobs. The more senior you are and the more important the portfolio you have, the more demanding is the social obligations. Attendance to these official functions is usually done after hours and could be as often as three times a week or as little as once or twice a month (which also means you don’t get to see your kids at bedtime 3x a week, as they’re asleep by the time you get home).

Cocktail receptions are more common across diplomatic missions, because it does not last as long as a full-course sit down dinner, but also because it cost less to provide appetizers and drinks, and you can invite more people. That and the added bonus of the diplomat’s spouse, unpaid representative of the United States or country X, not having to sweat in the wood kitchen. Of course, the type of “representation” event you give also depends on the purpose and the guest of honor. It might be that having a small dinner with a local official would be more useful to pin down a needed response, than having a large cocktail party.

Why go through all this trouble anyway? I think it is best said by François de Calliéres in 1716: “A good table is the best and easiest way of keeping [oneself] well informed. The natural effect of good eating and drinking is the inauguration of friendships and the creation of familiarity and when people are a trifle warmed by wine they often disclose secrets of importance.” And here’s Abigail Adams in 1784: “More can be accomplished at one party than at twenty serious conversations.” I call this the “good table” diplomacy, and it’s here to stay as long as we believe that words are cheaper than swords, and ideas matter in this constantly changing world.

I can imagine you nodding your head as you read this and thinking, that’s not such a bad way to end one’s work day - good food and fine wine three times a week. What’s so bad about that? The qualifying words are “good” and “fine.” Let me explain. In the United States, if you visit the western region, you could get served prairie oysters, fried pork rinds or blood-rare steak; in the southern region, you could get grits, crawfish, hog maws and snouts, but - you could always decline to partake and no one would be offended if you walk away.

It’s a different matter when you are the representative of the United States overseas. You have no control over what’s on the menu (unless you’re giving the party) and walking away and throwing up on somebody's lap or carpet is not an option. Declining your host’s offer could be viewed as “undiplomatic,” or worse, an insult with possible repercussions to personal and bilateral relations. I do think that a good FSO needs a carbon steel type stomach, especially these days when they are expected to serve in “expeditionary assignments,” wherever that may be.

We can be grateful that we don’t have a U.S. Mission in Sardinia; at least we don’t have to politely decline an offer of casu marzu (aka: maggot cheese). But here are a few interesting offerings: pacha (sheep’s head with eyeballs), haggis (stuffed sheep's stomach), crispy grasshoppers, fried scorpions, yak meat, blood pudding, and roast pigeon brains. And least I forget - for drinks, there’s tea with yak butter, kumiss (fermented mare's milk), kvass (beer-like beverage made by fermenting old bread in water), and palm wine (created from sap of various palm trees) to name a few.

No, I'm not doing a cheese and whine here. This is just something to consider the next time you hear about the “cookie-pushers living cushy lives” - it’s not always as easy as it looks; and it’s not always as fun as its sounds.


Heather said...

Nice post. I made a similar point about cocktail diplomacy in March

Digger said...

High on my list of least fun are receptions of any sort, but worst of all is the obligatory Fourth of July reception. The very last thing I want to do in my celebration of the birth of this country that I am so proud to serve is stand around in the heat in a business suit, talking to contacts from the country where I am serving, and eating salmon bites wrapped in egg (or at least that was as close to an identification as I could come).

DS said...

Thanks Heather! I hope you are having a great vacation back home.

DS said...

Digger - the thing that bugs me about the 4th of July celebration is how some officers get sent to "recruit" American businesses to put up a table or tent or whatnot as contribution to our celebration. I just think its bad form but what do I know ... I supposed it would also be bad form to just have a toast and then send the guests home.

From experience, we often had the official and then the non-official celebration. The last one, hat was passed around for the non-official one so we could have fireworks and kids could come.

Digger said...

Our non-official one was completely organized by those of us at post who wanted a more traditional 4th. No help from post. We too had the officer sent to solicite money from businesses, and he had to tell them that unlike in years past, they would not get their logo on the program. So much fun!

I have quoted and commented on your post here:

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Thanks both for the links!