Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You've Got Mail

For the most part I am madly in love with my job. But as with all jobs, there are parts of it I just don't want to do. Probably the biggest one of those parts is delivering demarches.

For those of you who just said "...whaaaa?" a demarche is the fancy diplospeak term for an official message from one government to another. Demarches can be on anything but they seem to come in four main flavors: Do This; Don't Do That; What Do You Know About X?; and What's Your Opinion on Y?. We generally get a couple of these a week, with larger flurries around big international conferences and such. Delivering demarches is probably one of the most diplomatish things I do, but it can also be a tremendous time-suck.

Here's how it works. I show up to work one morning to find a cable from Washington instructing all posts to find out, for an example, whether their host governments think puppies or kittens are more adorable. It generally includes pre-written background and talking points. Those points go to the protocol office, where they are translated into flowery formal diplospeak, which looks something like this:

The Embassy of the United States of America presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea and wishes to know whether the Government of Guinea feels that puppies or kittens are more adorable. The Embassy of the United States of America avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea the assurance of its highest consideration.

Then it goes to be translated into French, and comes out looking something like this:

L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique present ses compliments au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée et voudrait savoir si le Gouvernement de Guinée est de l'opinion que les chiots ou les chatons sont plus adorables. L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique saisit cette occasion pour renouveler au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée l'assurance de sa très haute considération.

I print up the original English and the French translation on pretty formal letterhead and put it into a folder. The folder and I then drive an hour downtown to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I wait until someone is available to see me. I give them the folder and tell them what I'm here about this time. And they say, "Well, I can't really give you an official position on the comparative cuteness of puppies and kittens right now, but I'll pass this along to the Minister and we'll get back to you." I then drive an hour back to the embassy and send word back to Washington that I delivered the demarche as requested and they'll let us know.

And in all likelihood that's the last I'll ever hear of it, because when the MFA says "we'll get back to you" they don't mean *me*, they mean The United States of America. Their embassy in Washington will follow a similar procedure to inform the appropriate office in the State Department that:

The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea presents its compliments to the U.S. Department of State and has the pleasure to inform the Department that kittens are way cuter than puppies, duh. The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the U.S. Department of State the assurance of its highest consideration.

Yes, believe it or not diplomacy still actually works this way. Every time I do this I feel like I should be a man in tux and tails with a top hat and a silk cravat and a vast and luxurious mustache. And maybe a monocle for good measure. One might think, in the 21st century, that we could just email our official messages to demarches@mfa.gn, and they could reply back to demarches@state.gov. I've heard that in more time-focused and communications-infrastructure-endowed countries it is possible to get a demarche done digitally, though one still has to pretty up the language and figure out whom to send it to. But in Guinea the government doesn't have the resources and know-how (and reliable electricity) to maintain an email server, so we still do it the old-fashioned, time-consuming way. And when I have a whole list of other things that need doing (which I usually do) it can be tremendously frustrating.


(tl;dr: Diplomacy needs to get with the times. Kittens are adorable.)

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