Diplomatic Briefing

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Archive for North America

Newsline: U.S. Embassy in Beirut says American citizen killed in blast

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut says at least one American citizen was killed and several more were injured in Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port. “We offer our sincerest condolences to their loved ones and are working to provide the affected U.S. citizens and their families all possible consular assistance. We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any additional U.S. citizens were affected,” the embassy said in a statement. (https://www.news8000.com/the-latest-american-citizen-killed-in-blast-embassy-says/) The embassy said all of its employees are safe and accounted for.

Newsline: US Embassy auction in Beijing raises speculation of ‘scaling down

As China-US relations spiraled toward the lowest point since diplomatic relations were established in 1979, an auction held by the US Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday attracted a curious crowd. Coming on the heels of the shutdown of the US consulate in Chengdu on July 27, a forced decision in response to the unexpected order to close China’s consulate in Houston, the auction also raised speculation that the embassy was “scaling down.” Some people suspected that items from the consulate in Chengdu would appear at the auction. Global Times reporters went to the auction on Tuesday morning and found hundreds of people. The auction featured used items including office supplies (desks, chairs), household furniture (beds, carpets), domestic appliances (dryers, washing machines), electronic devices and accessories (computers, printers, CPUs). Most of those who went were retirees looking for a bargain, married couples looking for furniture, and some second-hand dealers looking for business opportunities. The embassy said in a statement on its website that the auction is open to all residents aside from management/GSO property/procurement/motor pool and facility staff and their family members. It also noted that the quality and condition of the items were not guaranteed. A Beijing resident at the auction told the Global Times that he attended the auction to check whether it was a sign of scaling-down or even closure of the US Embassy. Others reached by the Global Times said they wondered “if the rumors were true.” However, a statement sent by the embassy press officer to the Global Times said the auction is “a normal part of disposing of used items from the embassy,” which was confirmed by an embassy staff on the scene. “It has nothing to do with diplomatic scaling-down,” the statement said. “Expect more auctions in the near future.” (https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1196700.shtml) This is not the first time the US Embassy and its consulates held auctions in China. The embassy usually held two auctions every year in Beijing before the epidemic. However, this year’s auction attracted much more attention from the Chinese public amid the escalation of diplomatic tensions. An embassy member of staff at the auction said he has never seen so many attendees before.

Newsline: US, China consulate closures deal losses to both nations

In shutting each other’s consulates, the United States and China have done more than strike symbolic blows in their escalating feud. They’ve also dimmed each other’s ability to observe — and to spy on — critical regions of their countries. For the United States, the loss of the Chengdu mission in southwestern China will, among other things, cloud its view of Tibet, a region where Buddhist residents say Beijing is eroding its culture and its traditional independent streak. China says Tibet has been its territory for centuries. For China, the loss of its mission in Houston dims its view of America’s South and, according to U.S. officials, removes the nerve center of a Chinese spying network. While the impact of the consulate closures has yet to be fully felt by either side, it will be. “We’ll be flying blind if not with very dark glasses and so will they,” said Beatrice Camp, a retired career diplomat who served as consul general at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai from 2008 to 2011. (https://www.witn.com/2020/07/31/us-china-consulate-closures-deal-losses-to-both-nations/) The closures of the consulates up the ante in the diplomatic confrontation, with the Trump administration turning up the heat on China in the midst of an already heated rivalry that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and ahead of the November U.S. presidential election — and Beijing responding in kind. In Houston, U.S. officials said they removed the epicenter of a Chinese spying network that spanned more than 25 cities, collecting intelligence, trying to steal intellectual property and harassing the expatriate families of dissidents and others while trying to coerce them to return to China. Led by a consul general who had previously served in Australia, where China has been especially active in going after expatriates, the Houston consulate was “particularly aggressive and particularly successful,” one U.S. official said. U.S. officials do not deny collecting intelligence from the consulate in Chengdu but insist that it functioned the same as any diplomatic mission run by the United States or other nations.

Newsline: How Trump’s Ambassador to Mexico Became a Twitter Star

If you were Donald Trump’s ambassador to Mexico, you might be forgiven for lying low. Instead, in early September 2019, Christopher Landau, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Mexico, posed a challenge to Mexican Twitter users. His counterpart in Greece, he wrote, had almost 150,000 followers in a country with a population of 10 million, whereas the @USAmbMex account only had 40,000 followers in a country of 130 million. “This is an outrage! … Mexico has to be #1!” he tweeted in Spanish. The following day, Landau’s followers numbered more than 76,000. Today, he has over 245,000—and his account offers an unexpected lesson in American digital diplomacy. (https://slate.com/technology/2020/07/mexico-ambassador-twitter.html) Landau’s followers come, we might assume, to learn about U.S. policy and the binational relationship—but they stay for the memes, food pictures, GIFs, and charisma. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Either way, Landau, the representative of a president famous for his attacks against Mexico, has leveraged social media to present a starkly different outreach to our southern neighbor. He has cultivated a solicitous, admiring public persona, inviting people to ask questions about visas or U.S. policy. Often, he responds personally. Incredulous followers argue there’s no way he runs his own account, but he insists that he does.

Newsline: US diplomats plead with State Department not to rush return to offices

More than 500 State Department employees are privately pleading with the Trump administration to pull back its decision to send up to 80 percent of its staff members in Washington back to work in person after an employee who works near Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s office tested positive for the coronavirus this week. In a letter to State Department leaders obtained by NBC News, the staffers assert that the department didn’t follow its own guidelines for when it’s safe and feasible to return to the office. The State Department announced in an email to staff members Monday that it was moving its Washington offices into Phase II of its reopening plan, in which offices can be occupied at up to 80 percent. “We write today with a request for your continued advocacy for maximizing workplace flexibilities and to sensitize you to the ways in which moving too quickly to Phase II, both domestically and overseas, could lead to reduced productivity, negative consequences for manager-employee relations, detrimental effects to the health and safety of employees, and disparate consequences that would counteract the Department’s objectives for diversity and inclusion,” the letter says. (https://news.yahoo.com/diplomats-plead-state-department-not-093844044.html) The letter, written by career State Department employees, was addressed to Undersecretary of State Brian Bulatao, a top aide to and longtime friend of Pompeo. It was sent privately to Bulatao on Thursday. NBC News obtained access to a Google Doc to which employees were adding their names as co-signers ahead of its being sent.

Newsline: Antics of Trump ambassadors highlight crisis in US diplomacy

The US ambassador to Iceland, a dermatologist and major Republican donor, reportedly became so paranoid about his security he asked to carry a gun and to be taken everywhere in an armoured car. Despite the absence of particular security concerns, the embassy in Reykjavik advertised in the local press for bodyguards, to placate the ambassador, Jeffrey Ross Gunter. Since being nominated May 2019, Gunter has proved so hard to work with he has gone through seven deputy chiefs of mission (DCMs), career diplomats who do most of the day-to-day management of the embassy. According to CBS News, he rejected his first deputy, who had spent months learning Icelandic, because he “didn’t like the look of him” at their introductory meeting. Gunter also reportedly refused to return to his post after attending a conference in Washington in February, arguing he could do the job remotely, and was only coaxed back to Reykjavik in May after a call from the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. The state department said that Gunter’s return was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Gunter’s alleged antics are not an isolated case. A record share of Donald Trump’s ambassadorial appointments have been political, mostly rewards for big-money donors, and his nominees have frequently stood out for their lack of qualifications or aptitude. A report by Senate Democrats on the current situation at the state department, titled Diplomacy in Crisis, said: “While it is true that every administration has its share of questionable appointments, the Trump administration’s choices have gone beyond the pale, jeopardizing the department’s ability to safeguard our nation’s interests.” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/28/trump-president-diplomats-ambassadors) Gunter is far from being the only wealthy Trump-donor-turned-diplomat to stand out for their eccentricities. The ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, a billionaire Trump backer, has been investigated by the state department office of the inspector general (before the inspector general was fired in May) for racist and sexist remarks. Lana Marks was a handbag designer and member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club before he made her ambassador to South Africa, where she also forced out her DCM, amid concerns that she was seeking to install her son in a senior role in the embassy, after she referred to him as her “chief of staff” in a tweet, which she later deleted. Christine Toretti, nominated in May 2018 to serve as ambassador to Malta, had been subject to a restraining order in 2008 for “placing a bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor. Ronald Neumann, the head of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former deputy assistant secretary of state, said that the Trump diplomatic record was “somewhat outside the norm in numbers, and I think further outside the norm in poor quality of political appointees”. Between July 2017 and June 2018, according to the Senate Democratic report, 722 full-time, non-seasonal employees left the state department, about 7% of the total staff.

Newsline: Zimbabwe’s Ruling Party Calls US Ambassador a ‘Thug’

Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party spokesman Patrick Chinamasa lashed out at the U.S. government and U.S. Ambassador Brian Nichols. Chinamasa claimed the U.S., through Nichols, was backing Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, via anti-government protests scheduled for Friday. “If he continues to engage in acts undermining the republic, mobilizing and funding disturbances, coordinating violence and training insurgency, our leadership will not hesitate to give him marching orders,” said Chinamasa. “Diplomats should not behave like thugs and Brian Nichols is a thug … We remind Nichols that he is not a super diplomat in this country. … We have nothing to learn from the United States.” (https://www.voanews.com/africa/zimbabwes-ruling-party-calls-us-ambassador-thug-tensions-rise) Tensions with Zimbabwe surfaced after the U.S. Embassy last week spoke out against police arresting a prominent journalist and an opposition leader. The U. S. Embassy in Harare had no immediate reaction to the remarks or the threat to expel Ambassador Nichols.

Newsline: Russian foreign ministry complains to UK, US and Canadian embassies for flying the rainbow flag

The foreign ministry in Russia made a formal complaint to the UK, US and Canadian embassies in Moscow for flying the rainbow LGBT+ Pride flag during Pride Month. Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law bans any positive depiction of LGBT+ people. Anyone found guilty of sharing such information with minors can be sentenced to heavy fines or up to 15 years in prison. A diplomatic source told TASS that the UK embassy in Moscow had received a protest note from the Russian foreign ministry for displaying the LGBT+ Pride flag, which it raised towards the end of June. (https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/07/29/russia-pride-flag-foreign-ministry-complaint-uk-us-canadian-embassy-rainbow-lgbt/) State Duma lawmaker Vasily Piskarev confirmed that protest notes had also been sent to the Canadian and US embassies in Moscow, which also displayed rainbow LGBT+ Pride flags.

Newsline: Farewell message from US Embassy draws backlash on Chinese social media

A farewell message sent out by the US Embassy in China to its Consulate General in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, on social networks on Monday was followed by swarms of comments with mixed emotions from Chinese netizens. While some cheered the official closure of the US consulate and praised the tit-for-tat from the Chinese government, others said they hope the moves could at least make the Trump administration learn something from challenging China’s bottom line. A post published by the US Embassy in China on China’s Twitter-like Weibo released some messages that try to please the Chinese people. It said that “Today, we say goodbye to the US Consulate General in Chengdu. We’ll miss you forever,” along with a short video showing the history of the consulate in Chengdu, and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries in the past. (https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1195779.shtml) The post was published nearly one hour after the consulate was officially shut down. It was a forced decision that China had to make in response to US unexpectedly ordering China’s Consulate General in Houston to close down. The abrupt US move further flared up tensions between the world’s two largest economies. And the post was heavily mocked online as Chinese netizens found the message hypocritical. But some netizens also expressed sadness over worsening bilateral ties. The post and video that try to win the sympathy from the Chinese people receive the opposite effects and the huge amount of anger over US hegemonic move against China at present. Many web users said if US employees of the consulate want to blame anyone for their leaving, they should blame the White House’s decision to close China’s consulate in Houston, without which , the US consulate in Chengdu would remain open today.

Newsline: Stunning ancient site discovered near US embassy in Jerusalem

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered a stunning ancient site near the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The discovery was made in Arnona, the affluent neighborhood in southern Jerusalem where the embassy is located. In a statement emailed to Fox News, the Israel Antiquities Authority said that archaeologists discovered “an unusually large structure” built of concentric walls. Some 120 jar handles were also found bearing seal impressions with ancient Hebrew script. (https://www.foxnews.com/science/ancient-site-discovered-near-us-embassy-jerusalem) In ancient times, a seal stamp, or bulla, was used to authenticate documents or items. Many of the handles have the inscription “LMLK,” (to the king), along with the name of an ancient city, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Other inscriptions have the names of senior officials or wealthy people from the First Temple period between 960 BCE and 586 BCE. The site is believed to be a storage facility from the time of the ancient Judean kings Hezekiah and Menashe.