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Lessons from three diplomats

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 23, 2013 06:00 AM

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One of Boston’s great strengths lies in its power as a convening city – a global crossroads that brings together people from all walks of life, often in intellectual endeavors. And who better than three ambassadors, whose careers covered half the world, to describe the remarkable paths that led them to Boston.

Friedrich Loehr was Germany’s Ambassador to North Korea, and also served in Beijing, Sudan, and Algeria, among many other places. Baktybek Beshimov hails from far-off Kyrgyzstan, and served as its ambassador to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. And Boston’s own Barry White is so fresh from his four-year stint as the U.S. Ambassador to Norway that he hasn’t even had time to unpack. All three described for Northeastern students Thursday night what it means to practice diplomacy in a global age.

White, who spent 40 years at Foley Hoag -- 13 of them as CEO -- before venturing into diplomacy, was clear about how his legal training prepared him. “It’s all about connecting with people,” he said. White is also a great example of someone who offered his time and talent at the local level, lending his leadership to organizations such as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Alliance for International Business, and then having the vision to take those very American values to an international level.

All three spoke about the serendipity that led to their assignments. Beshimov, a former member of parliament whose entire life can be summarized by his commitment to civil society, comes from a country that struggled with democracy. He described his ambassadorship “as a form of political exile.” Loehr, who has advised German chancellors, political parties, and represented Germany in the United Nations and European Union, had a circuitous route from one assignment to the next. White, an avid Red Sox fan, recalled hearing then-Senator Obama miss a baseball question on NPR’s program “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” His email led to involvement in the Obama campaign and ultimately to his ambassadorial appointment.

All three at some point disagreed with their bosses back home. Loehr hoped to get an ailing North Korean party official to Germany for surgery; his foreign office refused to grant a visa despite Loehr’s pleas that medical care was a fundamental human right that should not be trumped by politics. Beshimov described what it was like to be a member of parliament for the wrong political party. “They were pleased to get me on the plane and see me leave,” he said. And White, ever the lawyer, recalled accompanying the U.S. Secretary of Energy to a meeting with the Norwegian Foreign Minister, and getting a last minute State Department request to raise the issue of whaling. He described how the Energy Secretary wisely sidestepped it: “Not in my portfolio;” leaving it to him, as Ambassador, to raise. When be broached the subject, ever so gently, at the end of the meeting, he got a 15 minute thumping from the Foreign Minister. “I didn’t know enough about the issue,” he said. “I can assure you that never happened again.”

To be an ambassador is to have a seat at history. Loehr spoke of being in North Korea for early tests of is nuclear weapons. Beshimov described the Tamil Tigers movement that was tearing Sri Lanka apart at the time. White recalled scrambling to prepare for Obama’s visit to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; he also recounted the sorrowful aftermath of Norway’s greatest modern tragedy, the shooting, by Anders Behring Brevik, of 77 people in two attacks. “I must have attended eight memorial services in a week,” he said. “I didn’t want to get in the way of their grief. This was their event. It was enough just to attend.”

The three are but a small sample of the diplomatic talent residing in Boston; three stories of being in the right place at the right time. Their presence, inspiring the next generation of diplomats, testifies to the magnetic power of Boston to drawn a wide swath of global talent, and to offer its urban backdrop as a city in which global citizens can feel comfortable.

A student wondered, what happens when you leave a country? White said he’d continue to promote business opportunities, but be careful not to tread on the toes of his successor, who has already been nominated. Loehr described a recent trip back to China, where he reconnected with old friends and contacts from the academic, scientific, and cultural communities. “You know, I had the sense that I was not only welcomed, but actually needed. And as a diplomat at the age of retirement, that’s not such a bad thing.”

Mary Thompson-Jones is Director of Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies program in Global Studies and International Affairs.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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