Baltics: A Mission Possible : Diplomacy: Soviet shake-up may create a scramble to set up embassies. Old hands know that requires not just knowledge of politics and protocol but also knowledge of where to find paper clips in a pinch.
When President Bush recognizes the Baltic nations today, and later possibly other newly independent Soviet republics, some lucky diplomats will be on the cutting edge of American foreign policy.
These Foreign Service officers probably will be dispatched from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Perhaps accompanied by an assistant or secretary, each newly minted ambassador will face a plethora of issues arising from the breakup of the world’s last great empire into a hodgepodge that might be called Not the Soviet Union.
He or she will deal with the leaders of the new nation, of course. Bush might even call to wish the new envoy well, highlighting Administration support for a speedy local burial of communism’s rotting corpse.
But sooner or later the hoopla will subside, the euphoria will fade. Then the diplomat’s old friend--grim reality--will settle in for a long visit.
This is the part that Thomas Bleha, a former Foreign Service officer, remembers well from his days with the State Department. Beneath the pomp and circumstance of statecraft, Bleha warns, lurks the mundane bedrock of embassy essentials: education, health, toilet paper.
In fact, diplomats of many countries are likely to spend hours over drinks commiserating about these maddening details. Some 30 nations have already recognized the independence of the three Baltic republics, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In all, as of Sunday, 10 of the 15 Soviet republics have declared independence from the central government.
Among other things, no new outpost of the United States can operate without toilet paper and paper clips, Bleha says. And one of the first tasks will be to find a reliable local supply of these and other human and bureaucratic necessities--which could be a tall order in a land of shortages where one report says armed gangs organized to steal cabbages.
If reliable local suppliers can’t be found, then import arrangements will have to be made, he says.
Now director of external affairs at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Bleha became well versed in creating an embassy from scratch when he served in Asia and Africa during the great colonial retreat of the 1960s. Then the United States was opening embassies almost wholesale, he recalls, adding that the department’s advance men carried checklists of items needed to found the complete diplomatic mission.
“We had huge legal-sized sheets of paper that said, ‘Desks, typewriters, toilet paper, paper clips. . . ,’ ” he says.
Obviously, a new ambassador can operate from a hotel room or other quarters for a while, Bleha adds. But a top early priority will be finding a building suitable for processing visas, entertaining dignitaries and keeping code machines secure. (In the bad old days of the Evil Empire, the latter could be a real problem. In 1985, the new U.S. Embassy building in Moscow was discovered to be a Swiss cheese of bugging devices, riddled with so many electronic probes it was unusable. This year, politicians and diplomats were still scratching their heads over how to replace this Orkin man’s nightmare.)
The endless details of opening shop--including scrounging the money out of the State Department budget--means that “it will take up to a year to get a full complement” of local and American staff into a new embassy, Bleha says. That often includes not only political, economic, consular and administrative officers but also cleaning people, maintenance workers and chauffeurs, he adds.
In fact, the way Bleha describes it, establishing an embassy is like pioneering. Especially in the more volatile former Soviet republics where civil war is a possibility, decision-makers might bar spouses and children from accompanying diplomats, he says.
Even if war isn’t in the cards, the lack of local housing, health and education facilities might prevent families from accompanying professionals, he says.
For new diplomats coming to America, it will be like entering a brave new world too, Bleha says. They’ll need State Department assistance with housing, diplomatic license plates and tax exemption certificates.
Until full-blown missions are established, some former republics are asserting an economical presence in Washington. The flags of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are flying at the International Union of Electronic Workers headquarters in Washington--directly across from the Soviet Embassy.
Although the world may indeed experience a rapid, absolute increase in its diplomatic population as a result of the Soviet breakup, Bleha doubts that the presence of a few more embassies in Washington will be noticeable. The city already hosts more than 100 diplomatic missions, he says.
But Bleha is certain of one thing--every new nation will feel duty-bound to make connections with the United States.
“There are one or two things you need to be a real country,” he says. “One is an embassy in Washington or at the United Nations. I don’t know whether you have to have an airline.”