Thursday, July 10, 2008
Politics and Diplomats
I walked out of my section at work the other day, and ran into a couple of colleagues (a married couple) who were unfolding a child’s t-shirt. I watched as she looked at it and started laughing and exclaiming, “I can’t believe you actually bought that!” I asked to see what was so funny, and they turned it around to show me that it was a political t-shirt, supporting a certain individual who is currently running for the U.S. presidency. I started laughing as well. Not because the t-shirt is funny (actually not funny at all, just has a name and a likeness of the guy), but because this colleague had found an imaginative way around the restrictions on diplomats expressing political views. He couldn’t wear the candidate’s t-shirt himself, and neither could his wife, but his 2-year-old certainly could!
This is a common frustration among those of us in the Foreign Service, but not one that is often readily admitted to. The rules about government employees taking part in political life are very strict, and when you’re in the “fishbowl” scenario of a diplomat living abroad, the rules get even more restrictive. We’re not allowed to have political discussions with random individuals in the countries we work in, for fear we might get quoted as officially supporting one guy or the other. Some diplomats find themselves encouraging other expatriate friends to express the same views they have, so they can feel as though they’re taking part in the discussion (albeit vicariously). Candidates talk about the image problems the country faces in the rest of the world – and who would know about this better than the men and women who are out there every day living in “the rest of the world,” trying their best to present what is good about America and constantly having to combat ingrained misconceptions? But we’re encouraged not to indicate which candidate’s ideas we think are the best (though we do sometimes discuss it amongst ourselves). And I promise, though we will tell you until we’re blue in the face that we don’t have a firm opinion, some of us feel very strongly about it.
So how do you get your point across? Find a 2-year-old, and buy him a t-shirt. Because he’s too young for rules.