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View from Washington

Why Accra and Jakarta could be the plum posts for Obama’s ambassadors

By Sasha Issenberg

Later this spring, Barack Obama will start to replace the 170 or so US ambassadors around the world and observers anticipate new diversity in the people representing the US abroad. Obama’s fundraising base was filled with eligible candidates – particularly young black professionals and tech-world ­entrepreneurs. Could we now see a fresh generation of appointees who would prefer a stint in Accra over Oslo? Will frustrated venture capitalists be ready to give up on San Jose, California, for a few years in San José, Costa Rica?

“[New and potential ambassadors] have a great ­interest in joining this administration,” says Teresita Schaffer, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka. “If you look at the horsepower Obama has assembled on his economic team, you would expect a large number [of the recruits] to be brainy technocrats.”

Obama has indicated little desire to disrupt a long-standing informal deal with the foreign service that has kept about 70 per cent of ambassadorships in the hands of professional diplomats recommended by the State Department. Past administrations have concentrated their 40 or so remaining assignments in friendly capitals with a high quality of life. The biggest names have often been directed to old powers, a gesture designed to reassure allies that they can be heard in Washington. Retired government officials have gone to Tokyo (vice president Walter Mondale and House Speaker Thomas Foley) and business leaders to Paris (IBM president Arthur Watson and financier Felix Rohatyn).

Less prestigious assignments have sent political appointees to nearby island nations, envied for their tropical lifestyle, easy flight connections back home, and the right to a life-long title of ambassador (even if the heaviest diplomatic lifting involves guava-tariff negotiations). Typically, in 2004 George Bush awarded one of the most plum postings – ­Barbados and the eastern Caribbean – to Iowa state senator Mary Kramer, who supported him early on, but who had little international experience. “It was the talk of the town – what a sweet gig,” recalls former state Democratic chairman Gordon Fischer.

Yet those who have held such posts say stingy State Department budgets make it hard to enlist academics, journalists, think-tankers, and former government officials. And this is likely to be made worse by the current economic ­situation. “The reality is you can’t do the job if you don’t have a lot of money,” says Terry Shumaker, a New Hampshire lawyer who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. During his tenure in Port of Spain, Shumaker received an annual budget of only $19,000 (€15,000) for entertainment. This had to include the 4 July Independence Day party, which is the big social event on a US embassy’s calendar. Other spending with public money was governed by arcane rules: Shumaker had to pay for everything from business cards to a staff party out of his own pocket.

One nation that some foreign-policy watchers think could switch from drawing career diplomats to a political appointee is ­Indonesia. Obama has vowed a new outreach towards the Muslim world and particular ­personal attention may go to Jakarta (pictured above), where he spent some of his childhood from 1967 to 1971. “For a country of strategic importance,” says a former foreign service officer and congressional aide, “the president wants to have his own guy there.”

Bum deal

Mexico [HEALTH]

Mexicans are slimming down. Facing an expanding obesity problem (it is the second fattest country in the world) the government has launched a pro-exercise ad campaign and is offering programmes for those wanting to lose weight. As of late last year, two million people had signed up. The government expects another three million this year.

Wool rich


Peru appears to be failing to protect one of its most valuable assets: the vicuña (a relative of the llama). In February, over 150 were found shot and skinned in the high Andes, apparently by poachers (their incredibly soft, fine wool is worth $2,000 a pound).

The precious camelids were nearly hunted to extinction by the late 1960s but careful protection since then by Peru – as well as Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – means there are now about 200,000 in the Andes. But when President Alan García was elected in 2006, the government unit in charge of protecting Peru’s flock (the biggest) was dissolved.

“The authorities lack budget, manpower and expertise for the development of the camelids and this may jeopardise the species,” says David Carrillo, of local NGO Desco.

In a spin


Currently, the Google Maps website identifies a small collection of islands in the South Atlantic as the “Falklands (Islas Malvinas)” (see our cover story, Issue 21). The islands fly the British flag (hence the British name). But Argentina has long considered the archipelago to be Argentine, so their claim and their name gets recognition, in brackets.

It was this that led Buenos Aires to recently establish contact with a small Google unit of policy analysts and technical experts. The “geopolitical team” is Google’s de-facto foreign mission, trouble-shooting international incidents that erupt over the way borders, boundaries, sovereignty and place names are represented in Google’s mapping interfaces. “Google has had to think about accurately displaying geographic information since we started making geographic projects,” is all spokeswoman Kate Hurowitz would say. (The company would not discuss the team’s size and nobody was available for interview).

For Google, carefully handling such disputes is central to its brand as a universal data source. Traditional map makers and geographical societies have always been able to print different editions for different parts of the world, customising products to suit the different markets. But Google has fewer options.

(Microsoft has its own version of a geopolitical unit because of similar concerns.) Google consults government authorities for advice, but refused to adopt the policies of both UN cartographic agencies as well as the UK and US geographic societies. Instead, Google established its own process for choosing “primary, common, local” names, often settling for clutter as a compromise: “Sea of Japan” sits on the same water as “East Sea”, the Korean name for it.

Looming headaches for Google’s geopolitical team

  1. Gibraltar
    Gibraltar is not defined as part of the UK or Spain. Will either country challenge the suggestion of Gibraltar’s sovereignty?
  2. Liancourt Rocks
    If Google acknowledges South Korean control of the Liancourt Rocks over Japanese claims, why not use their Korean name, Dokdo?
  3. Congo river
    Could one line down the middle of the Congo river be the basis for a settlement between Republic of Congo and the DRC which each claim it should be entirely within their borders.
  4. Arabian Gulf
    Will an unlikely coalition of Iran, Israel and western traditionalists push Google to dump the pan-Arab term “Arabian Gulf” and stick only with “Persian Gulf”?
  5. Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh
    Are Google users in India, one of the company’s biggest markets, happy with maps that indicate Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territories?

Nature’s way

Costa Rica [MONEY]

As of May 2010, Costa Rica will inject colour into its dreary banknotes to symbolise its six ecosystems. For mangrove swamps, there will be a yellow 5,000 colones note. For coral reefs, there’ll be a blue 2,000 colones note. Different denominations will be printed in different sizes to help the visually impaired. And they may also be printed in plastic to last longer.

Bang for buck

Atlantic City [DEVELOPMENT]

A recent influx of new hotels, high-end shops and even an express train from Manhattan, suggests Atlantic City hopes to revive its glamorous gambling resort-town past. But there is a long way to go. The city still has much higher rates than the US averages for unemployment (9.6 per cent compared to 7.1 national average), poverty (22.5 compared to 13.3 per cent) and crime rates (22.2 out of 1,000 people commit violent crime, compared to 4.7 nationally).

Atlantic City’s mayor, Lorenzo Langford, believes investment in the casino industry can help. “Any effort undertaken to increase the number of people that spend their discretionary dollars here will, in turn, benefit our municipality,” he says.

Although casinos provide jobs and tax revenues for the community, studies say the city’s quality of life won’t go up until it puts cash into good child-care, free youth activities and perhaps a large supermarket.

War spending spree


The US spent $1.49bn (€1.17bn) on UN peacekeeping operations in 2008. And more than a hundred times that ($186bn) on anti-terrorism and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Top priority


Last year Colombia spent the same amount on defence (around 6 per cent of GDP) as it did on health, education and the environment.

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