May 15, 2011

My seat at the table, FWIW

Having recently shifted my professional focus to local and domestic politics, after more than two decades exclusively engaged in international work, I've had a few moments to reflect on some of my experiences as well comparing both fields. For now, here are a few memories of world leaders current and past.

Of the several meetings I had with Eduard Shevardnadze when he was President of Georgia, visiting him in his office tower in Tbilisi definitely stands out. On a Friday afternoon, the building was nearly deserted, and I had the impression he opened it up just for our meeting. He had one or two aides with him, including an interpreter (more for our benefit than for his), and yet he took his own meticulous notes on what each member of our delegation had to say. When we had finished, he went back over each point we'd made and gave thorough responses. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I remember a meeting at Blair House with a visiting dignitary from another Soviet successor state who had a dozen officials on his side, to match the dozen or so representatives on our side of the table. While most of us were making at least cursory notes, not one member of his delegation even picked up a pen. And their interpreter was so incoherent and inaccurate that the ambassador later apologized in private. And right after the meeting, a handful of us repaired to a side room where one of the top leaders of American Jewry - who happens to know fluent Russian - conveyed to us what had actually been said.

Back to Shevardnadze for a moment. At the end of our meeting in Tbilisi, we posed for photos. The old man crossed over to where his nation's flag stood, leaned down and carried it back to where we were standing (weighted base and all), just so it would be in the shot. I honestly thought he might keel over then and there (it was also a hot day).

On a visit to another successor state, we were ushered in to meet the long-serving President. We entered past a phalanx of local reporters, TV cameras, and still photographers, who then followed us in to our session. After a few minutes of pleasantries back and forth between our long parallel tables, around and over the large floral arrangements, the President announced: "I would now like to thank the members of the news media." The journalists headed for the exits so fast, it could have been an evacuation drill. I whispered sarcastically to the U.S. diplomat sitting next to me, "In other words, the last one out gets arrested." This foreign service officer, whose future career obviously depended upon maintaining this ruler's trust, responded with muted outrage: "He only meant that...[fill in the blank]"

Not so long ago, I was in a group meeting with a visiting head of state, when suddenly another foreign leader showed up. Our delegation, realizing we had suddenly outstayed our welcome, stood up to bid farewell, but our host insisted we stay and invited the other President to join us. The new arrival sat quietly alongside us for another 15-20 minutes until our session was concluded. The poor guy... Feeling sorry for him, on our way out I suggested that as a head of state with his own security detail, he need not wear his United Nations guest pass (since he was the only world leader who had worn a badge when addressing the UN General Assembly).

A few years ago, I showed up for a group meeting with a European leader who was visiting New York. A few name plates were set at the center of our side of the table, for my more important colleagues, the most important of whom was a no-show. So, at the last minute, to fill the empty place, I got seated face-to-face with our visitor. We were duly admonishing her over Iran's nuclear program and Hamas and Hezbollah, when she asked us whether we weren't offended that Iranian President Ahmadinejad was addressing Columbia University that same day, just a few miles to the north. After some of my distinguished elders expressed their disgust that Columbia would host such a villain, I looked her straight in the face and said, "I think every time Ahmadinejad speaks in public, he strengthens the case for sanctions." She did seem surprised.

In 2004, in Berlin, I was helping coordinate logistics for a reception the evening before the opening of the landmark Anti-Semitism conference convened by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Once the formal program began, I started backing away from the dais, and managed to bump against one of the guests. When I turned around to apologize, I saw it was Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister! I shook his hand, then quickly retreated behind him and Abe Foxman.

It's been fun serving as note-taker and cup-bearer, and sometimes contributing an idea or two, within the very crowded space of Jewish diplomacy. And now it's just a little less crowded. There are many more stories I can tell, and so please stay tuned...

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