In Our Times

Since about 1750 (after the Reformation, the Civil War, Cromwell, and battles over the succession to the throne), other than during WWII, Great Britain has generally been a pretty safe place. It had some “highwaymen” and street thuggery, but even that was patchy. (In 1800, it also had several dozen offenses for which hanging was still commonly applied.) And there has been the occasional, isolated “political riot” – such as the “Gordon Riots” in London in 1780.

Because of the patterns of life, centuries of rural habit, and the static world most were born into, lived in, and died in, there was little public violence. Great Britain has not suffered from extended periods of political instability and the terrorism that usually stems from that – save for that which emerged from Ireland in the 1960s, and which had a clear political goal. What happened yesterday on Westminster Bridge is a relatively recent phenomenon – but one we are now seeing all too regularly in various places.

For us as Americans, in 1777 Morocco was – informally – the first country to recognize the newly independent U.S. A friendship treaty was officially signed in 1786, and that treaty remains in place even today. The first foreign property the U.S. Government owned would not be in London, Paris or Amsterdam, but was the U.S. Consulate in Tangier, which is now on a register of U.S. historic places.

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That Wide Ocean

America’s top official in France from 1785-1789, forty-something Thomas Jefferson, came to believe U.S. diplomats should not be overseas more than about eight years at a stretch. He felt if they (and they were then only men) were, they would lose touch with events and opinions at home. As a result, they would eventually be incapable of representing America properly.

He grew concerned also about young men “without attachment” becoming “involved” with European women, and felt their being overseas too long made such “intimacy” almost inevitable. The young women they encountered in diplomatic and social circles (and who, in France and elsewhere on the continent, could speak English) were overwhelmingly aristocrats. He believed “relationships” with those women could damage those “impressionable” young men’s “republican” sentiments and alienate them from the outlooks of most of their fellow Americans at home.

A few years before, a 16 year old future U.S. president became rather “enthralled” by young women he met while visiting Sweden. Yes, it’s a shocker: An American teenage boy loose in Scandinavia notices girls. Yet in that he demonstrated Jefferson’s concerns were perhaps not groundless.

Then lacking the television, internet, etc., that we take for granted, one could see Jefferson’s point about being too far removed from home as well. It took three months minimum for a letter to travel from Europe and to receive a reply from America; and that was usually during the summer months. Far fewer ships risked crossing the Atlantic between December and March – and even navies weren’t keen on it if they could possibly put it off until spring.

Sunset, Soulac-sur-mer, France, over the Bay of Biscay, which eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Sunset, Soulac-sur-mer, France, over the Bay of Biscay, which eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. [Photo by me, 2016.]

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“Land of lovely dames”

A bit more “history.” Please don’t run for cover. I think you’ll find this amusing – especially given this is 4th of July weekend in the U.S.:

Excerpt, from Kindle for iPad.
Excerpt, from Kindle for iPad.

That excerpt is from a recent biography. The first part is from a 1782 letter written by the subject while he was traveling; the second half is from an 1811 letter he also wrote. In 1782 the writer had made his way across Sweden (including Finland, which was part of Sweden then) while returning from Russia.

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How “Powerful” Is Your Passport?

This is an interesting web site, and it got me thinking. It’s called the “Passport Index.” It ranks the world’s passports by “power”:

Screen Capture of Passport Index.
Screen Capture of Passport Index.

The “most powerful” are not too surprising. That ranking is due to how many countries you can visit as a tourist on that passport without needing to obtain a visa. In the case of the U.K. and the U.S., their passport holders (as of today) may enter 147 countries without needing to apply for a visa.

The “least powerful?” South Sudan’s. A South Sudanese passport will get you entry into only 28 countries (again, as of today) without a visa.

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In Your U.S. Passport: Place Of Birth

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 2002 law compelling the Department of State to allow U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to have their passport note their place of birth as Israel. Although President Bush had signed that bill into law, he refused to carry it out. President Obama continued that refusal.

The Constitution states (in Article II, Section 3) that the President “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” From those words it has essentially evolved that it is not Congress – the legislative branch – that is mostly responsible for carrying out foreign affairs. The voice of the country diplomatically comes mostly from the President – meaning from the executive branch.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a globe with borders.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a globe with borders.

Sometimes presidents sign contentious bills into law simply to direct a matter into the courts for constitutional clarification. Apparently some 50,000 U.S. citizens have been born in Jerusalem. After that 2002 law was allowed on the books, birth there and the passport terminology for its location was almost certainly going to end up in court when the executive branch State Department, following the policy course set by both Bush and Obama, naturally declined an “Israel” request by someone who was also willing to sue over it.

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A Cutting Experience

Needing a haircut, I decided to take an hour or two away from the computer yesterday morning. We’re still new in the area, and I ventured into a barber shop I’d been to once before. My cutter this time was not who’d cut my hair previously, but I recalled he had been there trimming someone else the last time.

He seemed around my age. Initially he was soft-spoken and I detected “oddly” accented. Also appearing to be somewhat (in my book, as part that heritage myself) “Mediterranean,” I suspected he might not be from these shores.

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No Hugging, Please, We’re French

It has become the hug cringed at around the world. The Lebanese news site Naharnet has a nice summation of what went, uh, wrong:

….The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”. [The kisses to cheeks.]

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures….

It’s a surprise Kerry didn’t realize Hollande would be baffled. But the Secretary of State had signaled beforehand that he was going to go all “American” in terms of sympathy and give Paris “a hug.” Yet the French president obviously didn’t get what Kerry meant, or didn’t think it would be demonstrated, umm, “literally,” and so was clearly unprepared for an American-style, “Come here, pal.”

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My feeling is former president (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy, who reputedly has a solid sense of “Americanisms,” might have handled it better.

One can imagine the fun media and bloggers around the world might be having now had Ségolène Royal been standing there as president instead. Then again I don’t believe that had she been that Kerry would have tried to hug her that way. Kerry was doing an “American guy thing” with Hollande – and Hollande didn’t understand it.

Younger French of both sexes – especially those who’ve been to the U.S. for any substantive length of time beyond a vacation – are more attuned to Americans’ “curious” behaviors. But middle-aged and older French men on meeting even in emotional circumstances, such as offering condolences, as a rule don’t open by hugging each other like that. French men don’t do American-style “bromance.”

Compared to Americans, the French on the whole are simply far less into demonstrative displays of physical closeness between acquaintances, even friends. But they are not alone in that. Other Europeans, including the British (of course), are similar.

Still, it was a lighthearted moment after a week and a half of at times incredible ugliness and sadness. We all needed it. It provided a badly needed chuckle.

A Danish close friend of ours, and her English husband of two years, are coming for a stay-over visit with us tonight.

We’ve known her for ages. I get kisses to both cheeks, and she lets me hug her. She even hugs me back.

However, if I ever moved to hug him, he’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Or I was going all “American” on him. A firm handshake between us men is all that’s needed. 😉

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

Always Be “Cautious” Worldwide

In the wake of the terror in Paris, unsurprisingly the U.S. State Department has issued a “Worldwide Caution” for U.S. citizens:

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Naturally it is very difficult to “watch everything.” But you aren’t being urged to hide under a bed and stay home and away from every pub. The gist of a “caution” like this is to remind us to be extra-mindful at certain locations, and be particularly alert to what’s going on around us, wherever we are.

Of course “caution” in daily life can’t prevent one simply from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 7, 2005, when we lived in north London, I happened to drive to work that day. I also regularly took the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line – which was attacked by a suicide bomber that morning.

But as we know being at home in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee of safety either. Consider, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. That to me seems the closest comparison to what Paris has endured for the last several days.

I’ve been to the U.S. Embassy in London several times over the years. Once you get past the heavy U.S. military security, you’re “inside the United States” in a way. That reality makes it, and other U.S. embassies and consulates, “magnets” for protests and even possible violence.

Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Occasionally, there are “anti-U.S.” demonstrations in the vicinity – although never too close; British authorities don’t permit that. But they can be near enough that you could “blunder” into something by accident – which is also the sort of thing a “caution” like this wants you to be aware of as a visitor. Especially when you are around anything “American,” open your eyes a bit wider, be cognizant of what’s happening around you, and don’t, for example, wander into the midst of some “anti-American” demonstration because you’re snapping photos of buildings.

The Embassy is apparently due to relocate from its current location at historic Grosvenor Square to a larger building that’s also more “secure.” In Britain. Shows the world we live in now, and probably will for the forseeable future.

A last thought here: Vive la France !

Santa’s Political Leanings

Always politics. Everything’s political. Now, there’s evidently a debate in the U.S. over whether Santa Claus is a Republican or a Democrat:

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Hold on. Actually, that question is immaterial until we ascertain his citizenship. Is he even a U.S. citizen?

If he is, he may be registered to vote in his last state of residency, which would prove his political leanings easily. Unless he’s an independent. It would seem his only possible place of U.S. residency might have been Alaska; there is a town outside Fairbanks named North Pole.

That’s conjecture of course. We do know he is domiciled abroad now at the North Pole. If he is a U.S. citizen, that makes him an expat.

If so, we know he enters the country only one day a year. Does he bank abroad? (Presumably he doesn’t have accounts in tax havens, like Luxembourg?) Does he regularly file U.S. income taxes, and pay taxes owed on monies earned above the yearly $100,000 or so earned income exclusion threshold?

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Santa Claus
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Santa Claus

And what about Mrs. Claus? Is she a U.S. citizen too? Or an alien? If the latter, does she have a U.S. Taxpayer Identification Number? And do they have minor children who were born abroad? Children born abroad to U.S. citizens are usually entitled to a U.S. passport; but the children must have been issued with a Consular Report of Birth Abroad by a U.S. embassy or consulate in the foreign country of birth.

If Santa Claus isn’t a U.S. citizen, based on competing international claims to sovereignty regarding the North Pole, Santa seems likely either of Canadian, Danish or Russian nationality. It appears he enters the U.S. and leaves outside of normal U.S. Customs and Border Protection admittance procedures. That’s bad enough, but if he’s also Russian, as we know this year there may be sanctions issues for him due to the U.S. position on Russian intervention in Ukraine. Can he continue to do business as usual in the U.S.?

So before we ask about his preferred U.S. political party, we need to know a lot more about him first.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 😉

U.S. Diplomacy: 1793 v. 2014

First, a brief recollection of an infamous early event in U.S. diplomatic history. In 1793, while William Short and Gouverneur Morris were negotiating in France and Spain, across the Atlantic the (mis)behaviors of one Edmond-Charles Genêt were besetting the new American republic at home. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, France’s representative in the U.S.:

….soon exceeded his diplomatic authority. Hailed as “Citizen Genêt” by Americans who favoured the French cause, he conspired with those who opposed Pres. George Washington’s policy of neutrality. (See Citizen Genêt Affair.) His efforts to bring the United States into the war [France was fighting against Great Britain] and his high-handed arming of privateers in American ports to operate against the British brought relations between the United States and France to the brink of war and risked the loss of France’s sole source of credit abroad. In August 1793 Washington, who was firmly committed to a policy of neutrality in the European conflict, requested that Genêt be recalled. Realizing that he faced arrest [due to shifting revolutionary power struggles] if he returned to France, Genêt chose to remain in the United States; he married the daughter of George Clinton, governor of New York, became a U.S. citizen, and settled down to farming.

Fast forward to our 2014. The Guardian:

An Indian diplomat was re-indicted Friday on US visa fraud charges that touched off an international stir after she was arrested and strip-searched last year….

Perhaps worth noting: that diplomat, one Devyani Khobragade, India’s then deputy consul general in New York, did not even try to involve the U.S. in a war either.

….The episode roiled US-Indian relations, with India taking such steps as removing concrete traffic barriers around the US embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards. After being indicted, Khobragade complied with a Department of State request to leave the US, and the Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from the US embassy in New Delhi. The US complied….

Which is where matters realistically should have been allowed to rest. As with Genêt’s seriously overstepping diplomatic bounds, diplomats have always been ejected for real, or trumped up, reasons. One would have expected roughly this chain of events in reaction to Khobragade’s alleged actions: she is expelled from the U.S.; the U.S. pays a small price in kind so India can save face; behind the scenes discussions are held emphasizing that we all – Americans and Indians – don’t want this endangering relations, and don’t want something like this occurring again; and everyone agrees to move on.

Matters did not take that course. Federal domestic U.S. prosecutors secure a re-indictment of that now deported Indian diplomat. She is vociferously defended by the government of India, so will in all likelihood never set foot in the U.S. ever again because India will almost certainly never hand her over to the U.S. to face that re-indictment in court anyway.

Nevertheless, in Washington, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf stated on Friday that the department had opposed dismissing the charges:

“….Our position regarding immunity, that the U.S. Government took in the brief opposing the motion to dismiss, was that she had full immunity only for a very brief period, a day….”

Yet in the wake of her arrest and “strip search,” we also saw a State Department scrambling to contain the diplomatic fallout. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “regret” at Khobragade’s treatment in custody. Shortly after that, we heard the same Ms. Harf explain the department wished India to understand it was “an isolated episode,” and that the U.S.-India relationship “….is an incredibly important relationship. That has in no way changed.”

However, Indian officialdom appeared to feel decidedly otherwise. And this re-indictment in March merely re-fans the flames. So State officials may soon revert to fretting publicly as they had initially in December.

We know already of diplomatic headaches arising from non-U.S. citizens facing the death penalty in U.S. local jurisdictions that appear indifferent to “international law.” In this case, the damage the federal Justice Department’s ongoing pursuit of Khobragade is doing to what had been increasingly warm U.S. relations with India appears considerable. Evidently uneasy about that, referring to the case’s top Manhattan prosecutor (an India-born immigrant to the U.S.), one foreign service professional is anonymously quoted as saying, “….he’s not the one who will be serving in missions in India.”

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Indeed currently the U.S. is up to its eyeballs internationally. With Russia annexing Crimea and its intentions toward the rest of Ukraine unclear, the Syrian civil war raging, Iranian nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s intermittent sabre-rattling, China threatening Japan, and innumerable other global challenges, India – “the world’s largest democracy” and an important U.S. trading partner – is an invaluable friend to have. But what had been a slowly healing diplomatic wound has had its scab ripped off, and with Khobragade’s re-indictment obviously re-infuriating the Indian government that wound is unlikely to heal fully anytime soon.

Even if Khobragade was not (and is not) immune from U.S. prosecution for her alleged crimes in the U.S., noticeably lacking has been a visible U.S. exercise of wider good judgment about how to deal with her without poking India repeatedly in the eye. Instead India is lectured highhandedly by domestic U.S. law enforcement about how she “was treated no differently than others who are arrested,” and even supposedly received “courtesies” – when, as a diplomat, and even if not immune, she was definitely not like “others.” Worst of all, we see the prestigious State Department, whose first secretary was Thomas Jefferson, and which is tasked with spearheading U.S. diplomacy around the world, essentially finding itself suddenly relegated to the tail of the Justice Department’s domestic prosecutorial kite.

In long ago 1793, the U.S. federal government was not even five years old and the State Department was similarly brand new. Consisting then of Attorney General Edmund Randolph and a few clerks, the “Justice Department” as we now understand it did not really exist. Had it, the U.S. might well have ended up at war with Genêt’s France.