State Department Program Allows Army of Ambassadors to Experience Arkansas

by Larry Luxner  on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 12:00 am  

As more than 40 former heads of state prepare to descend upon Little Rock for next week’s annual conference of the Club de Madrid, local officials can rest assured that Arkansas already generates good vibes among many of the world’s top diplomats — thanks to the U.S. State Department’s “Experience America” program.

For three days in October, former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Mike Beebe and other leaders hosted the largest delegation of foreign ambassadors Arkansas has ever seen. The diplomats’ delight was evident as they enjoyed a sumptuous welcome dinner in the backyard of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock that featured the best of down-home Southern cuisine: black-eyed pea salad, roasted potatoes, barbecue chicken, dry-rub smoked beef brisket, honey and dill salmon, turnip greens and apple crisp.

“This is really a treat for all our ambassadors to get together here. We’re certainly pleased you chose Arkansas for your Experience America tour,” Beebe told the diplomats and their spouses, who represented 43 countries from Azerbaijan to Uruguay.

The cookout was one of many highlights of the Oct. 21-23 visit, which was arranged by Capricia Penavic Marshall, chief of the State Department’s Office of Protocol.

“The State Department does an excellent job at organizing these trips,” said Envoy Deborah Mae-Lovell of the Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbuda. “This gives me a chance to meet with a cross section of the population, from government officials to business executives, educators and young people. It enhances the work I do as an ambassador.”

It’s true that foreign diplomats accredited to the United States rarely socialize outside Washington. But here in Arkansas was a whole bus full of them, representing political entities as tiny as the remote Pacific atoll of Tuvalu (population 9,800) and as powerful as the 27-member European Union (population 503 million).

Claudia Fritsche, ambassador of 62-square-mile Liechtenstein — the second-tiniest country represented on the trip — said Arkansas was one of only six states she had not yet visited; now she can finally scratch it off her list. “I’m deeply impressed by the natural beauty and the truly entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Arkansas,” she said. “And there’s also something one expects, but I’m still humbled by it: Southern hospitality.”

Her colleague from Luxembourg, Ambassador Jean-Louis Wolzfeld, agreed. “America is far more than its capital city, and it’s important to see how people live and think outside the Beltway.”

With only 2.9 million inhabitants and no world-class cities or soaring monuments, Arkansas may seem an unlikely place for the State Department to schlep one-fourth of the entire Washington-based diplomatic corps. As Beebe noted, recalling his 12-day trade mission to China last April: “The Chinese know only two things about Arkansas: Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart.”

It’s no accident the ambassadors came face to face with both, receiving personal greetings from the 42nd president over dinner at the $165 million steel-and-glass Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. Later on, in Fayetteville, they also met with Rosalind Brewer, president and CEO of retail chain Sam’s Club, a unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

During a break from her responsibilities as chief U.S. protocol officer and chaperone on the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Little Rock to Fayetteville, Marshall — former special assistant to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady — explained how it all works.

“Embassies pay their own way, and they pay for their stay. What we do is work with airlines and our host committee,” she told us. “When President Clinton heard about what we were doing, he told me, ‘You must bring the ambassadors to Arkansas, and I want to be here when they come.’ The folks at the Clinton Presidential Center worked very hard at aligning the stars to make it happen.”



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