by roland flamini | February 25, 2013 | People
Bartolomeo Bimbi’s Fiori hangs in the living room of Claudio Bisogniero’s residence.
Claudio Bisogniero: Ambassador of Italy to the United States
Italy’s Claudio Bisogniero, 58, has wide experience in global security issues, having served at NA TO headquarters in Brussels, first as a member of the Italian delegation and as deputy secretary general from 2007 to 2011. The son of a former Carabinieri general who was chairman of the Italian Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ambassador now lives in the Italian residence on Albermarle Street. When he presented his credentials to President Barack Obama in February 2012, he was starting his third diplomatic assignment in the United States. In 1992 he was appointed counselor of economic and commercial affairs in the Washington embassy, and from there was assigned to the Italian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. He and his wife, Laura Denise Bisogniero, have two children.
Felipe Bulnes in front of Guillermo Núñez’s Grita Asturias, which hangs in the hallway of the Embassy of Chile.
Felipe Bulnes: Ambassador of Chile to the United States
At just 43, Chile’s Felipe Bulnes is on the young side when compared to his contemporaries, and he did not have to climb the foreign-service ladder to reach this prestigious posting. Like many US ambassadors (but few Chilean ones), he is a political appointee. A Fulbright scholar with a degree from Harvard Law School, he has left behind in Santiago a ministerial post in education, a teaching position, and a top law firm with his name on the shingle. As a private-sector outsider, he admits that “there is a lot of prejudice” against him from the professionals, “but it’s a complex situation. You have a chance to be creative, and if you’re active, you can do it. But you have to push against the structure—and that’s my job, to push.” He makes time to enjoy his home life as well; he and his wife, Mónica Pellegrini, have a son.
Michael Moussa-Adamo on the front porch of the Embassy of the Gabonese Republic.
Michael Moussa-Adamo: Ambassador of the Gabonese Republic to the United States
The Gabonese Republic’s Michael Moussa-Adamo, 52, is another first-time ambassador, but he is no stranger to the United States. He is a 1989 graduate of Boston University, with a master’s degree in communications and international relations. While at BU he worked as a teaching assistant at the African Studies Center, and, from 1989 to 1991, as a consultant for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. His subsequent public service career in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, covers the waterfront. A married father of six, he has been a member of Gabon’s parliament, head of the Gabonese departments of tourism, information technology, and communications, and a foreign policy adviser to various ministries, most recently to Gabon’s president. He took up his post as Gabonese ambassador in Washington in September 2011. As the envoy of a medium-size African nation, Ambassador Moussa-Adamo has made quite a mark in Washington’s competitive milieu. He regularly hosts brainstorming lunches with politicians, members of the media, and academics in his embassy residence in Kalorama, which many of his guests remember as the Washington home of the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. He also wants to encourage eco-tourism to Gabon. “We’re the most stable country on the continent [of Africa],” he says, “but we have not told our story.” He is telling it now.
Namik Tan in the drawing room of the Turkish Embassy, Tan’s residence.
Namik Tan: Ambassador of Turkey to the United States
Turkish ambassador to the United States Namik Tan reckons that he has spent almost as much of his career in Washington as he has in Ankara. This is his third posting to Turkey’s embassy in the United States, and this time he has been in the nation’s capital since February 2010. (He previously had staff assignments in the Washington embassy in 1991 and 1995, each for a period of four years.) The career diplomat has also served as ambassador to Israel, as the foreign ministry spokesman in Ankara, and most recently deputy undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the latter position, he played a key role in managing Turkey’s complicated foreign relations as an Islamic country, a member of NATO, an aspiring member of the European Union, and a longtime ally of the United States. “We can talk to anyone and everyone you can think of,” Tan muses. “Even if they don’t talk to each other, they talk to us.” In Washington, Tan lives with his wife, Fügen, in the Turkish Embassy residence, which is a noted historical landmark, on Embassy Row. The couple has two children.
Sir Peter Westmacott and Lady Westmacott at the top of the grand staircase in their home. Behind them is a corridor leading to the ballroom.
Sir Peter Westmacott: British Ambassador to the United States
The British ambassador and his Washingtonian wife, Susie, took up residence on Massachusetts Avenue in January 2012. Sir Peter Westmacott served as British ambassador to France from 2007 to 2011 and ambassador to Turkey from 2002 to 2006. His previous DC embassy posting was as counsellor for political and public affairs in the mid-1990s. Of his return to Washington as ambassador he says, “I was minding my own business in Paris,” thinking that his next move would be retirement, “[but] I knew that the only job that would keep me in public service was to return to Washington. I could hardly believe my good fortune when it happened. I had spent years studying America.” Unusual for a senior British diplomat, he had spent many years in his 40-plus-year career holding key posts at the Foreign Office in London. His time there included a highly sensitive appointment as deputy private secretary to Prince Charles from 1990 to 1993, a period of domestic turmoil for the royal couple, as the Prince of Wales officially separated from Princess Diana in 1992. The Westmacotts have four grown children.
Claudio Bisogniero, Italy’s ambassador to the United States, lives in a rambling Tudor-style mansion near Cleveland Park. It was purchased by Italy as the ambassador’s residence in 1976, back when tweeting was what birds did in the trees around the 17-acre property. These days, Bisogniero is the one likely to be tweeting, sometimes as he is being chauffeured to the chancery (dipspeak for embassy offices) in his Maserati.
Thirty years ago, diplomacy was conducted by a closed group of elite professionals who spoke mainly to each other, using a kind of coded language that hardly anyone else understood. But the competitive pressures of the global economy, the need to get news out quickly in the 24-hour news cycle, and the tempting outreach prospects offered by social media have changed all that.
Today, diplomats are the same elite professionals but, as Sir Peter Westmacott, British ambassador to the United States, puts it, “we do the business differently.”
That’s British understatement for the fact that diplomacy has undergone the biggest transformation since invisible ink was invented for writing secret dispatches.
Operating in a Dot-Com World
It’s not that all ambassadors in all the world’s capitals suddenly had an epiphany and became avid fans of social media and online communication. But after social media was recognized as a major factor in germinating the Arab Spring, and as it continues to play a role in the ongoing upheaval, policymakers around the globe are deciding that governments will ignore social media at their peril.
The result is that traditionally discreet, risk averse senior diplomats are now required to engage in discourse with unknown interlocutors. “We put out a lot of things digitally,” says Westmacott, who has his own blog. The embassy account (@UKinUSA) also has more than 19,000 followers on Twitter (the current number at press time), and the topics, he says, range from “continuing interest in the news and questions about how to get a British visa to royal pregnancy questions. ‘If it’s twins, how are they going to decide who gets the throne?’ That kind of thing.”
Ambassador Michael Moussa-Adamo of the Gabonese Republic says his embassy’s website answers as many questions from Gabonese living in the Central African country as it does from Americans. “They want to know about the United States, and they ask questions about studying here,” he explains. “They also ask about what’s going on. And yes, this new openness comes at a price: You pay for whatever you’re saying and not saying.”
But embassies keep listening—and answering. Bisogniero, for example, uses Twitter “to be more effective and more transparent, and to better respond quickly to emerging challenges.” Adds Felipe Bulnes, Chile’s ambassador in Washington: “When I wake up in the morning, I review what is trending on Facebook, Twitter, and so on, to get a quick sense of what’s happening.”
The online tools end up giving foreign embassies a voice of their own. “It’s like having my own newspaper,” Bulnes says. “I can get my message across without the filter of the local media. A huge opportunity.”
The full impact of Twitter hit Turkish ambassador to the United States Namik Tan recently after he had an argument with his wife at breakfast. At noon, he tweeted her that he was sorry. “Before I knew it, I was receiving hundreds of messages about our domestic argument,” he recalls, “mostly from women at first, but then it became a debate. It even got picked up in the gossip columns in Turkey.”
At press time, Tan (@NamikTan) had more than 64,000 Twitter followers and notes that the service allows embassies to “put out their own agenda, reaching out to the public easily and instantly.” Which is what he did in March 2011 when Turkish diplomats in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, brokered the release of four New York Times journalists held by the Libyan government of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Informed at 4 am of the journalists’ release into Turkish custody, “I tweeted the news, and we reached four-and-a-half million people,” says Tan in regard to Twitter’s pebble-in-the-pond messaging, which relies on retweets and resulting journalistic coverage. “Turkey got the credit it deserved.”
A Different Presence
When it comes to local outreach, it’s long been a practice for foreign ambassadors in the nation’s capital to offer their residences as venues for charity events (incidentally, this is a rare occurrence in foreign embassies in other countries). And in May, the European Union Embassies’ Open House day has Washingtonians lining up to get in; outside the British embassy, of course, they queue.
Beyond that, ambassadors do their own thing. Michael Moussa-Adamo, for example, is involved with Thearc, a social activist organization located in Washington’s Ward 8, which has the highest joblessness rate in DC. Moussa-Adamo finds the organization’s revitalization of the ward inspiring, as well as Thearc’s efforts to further economic development through the arts. The Gabonese ambassador chairs its annual gala.
Many ambassadors also have ties to their conationals living in the United States, and probably none more so than Ambassador Bisogniero, who is closely connected with the Italian-American community estimated at nearly 20 million. For example, the Italian Embassy backs an Italian language program in US high schools, in part to keep the language alive among Italian Americans. And Italy’s government has proclaimed 2013 the “Year of Italian Culture” in the United States with a massive, yearlong program of concerts, exhibitions, and conferences throughout America, relying heavily on Italian-American support. Furthermore, Bisogniero has been a member of the Italy-USA Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Rome that works to promote both friendship between Italians and Americans, as well as American culture in Italy, since 2008. This is not merely for cultural reasons: In 2006, Italian citizens living abroad became eligible to vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections, including hundreds of thousands of Italians in the States—and the figure has since grown.
Delivering the Goods
Another shift in diplomacy has ambassadors increasingly involved in business activity. In the hugely competitive environment of the global economy, ambassadors serve as de facto super-salesmen of their country’s vital export market and foreign investment opportunities.
When Westmacott and his wife, Susie, held a reception in the sprawling garden of the embassy residence in September, parked on their manicured lawn was a new Aston Martin Vanquish. The purpose, says Sir Peter, was to showcase “the strength and innovation of the British automotive industry.”
Weeks later, the Westmacotts hosted a reception to mark the first anniversary of the Washington office of Bonhams, the high-end London auction house. Paintings expected to fetch thousands of dollars at a forthcoming auction were on display at the neo-Georgian Massachusetts Avenue residence on Observatory Circle, a home designed by the English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
“UK trade and investment is a big part of what I do now,” says Westmacott. “We’re all keen for economic growth. Sometimes it’s about the UK as a prime site for investment in Europe, or I do a launch of an item at the house for a British company.” In the past year, he has made more than 30 trips to US destinations outside Washington. Most travels are business related, and it’s easy to see why: The United States is Britain’s biggest export customer ($51.2 billion in 2011, compared with $55.9 billion American exports to Britain).
Felipe Bulnes says the changes in what ambassadors do has made them less Washington-centric. In the nine months since taking up his post, the 43-year-old former minister of education has made 10 business trips outside the nation’s capital, to cities such as Los Angeles and Boston.
“Trade, technology, innovation, and education are my priorities—the embassy’s priorities,” says Bulnes. The big push is to encourage hightech investment to create “Chilicon Valley” in his native country. The embassy, the ambassador says, is “broadening its horizons,” forging what he calls “strategic alliances” with California, Massachusetts, and other areas with high-tech industries of interest to the Chileans.
“Today, what matters is soft power, and what makes soft power is political stability and economic stability,” observes Tan. “To be a soft power, a government has to do its job in a sustainable way to strengthen its economy.”
So is there any truth to the old English adage that an ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”? Not now, say the ambassadors. “There are no secrets anymore, and you cannot hide anything,” says Tan. “Transparency is imposed on you, and you have to live with that reality.”
Photography by stephen voss