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.”

It also helped that in a recent State Department survey asking Washington-based ambassadors where they wanted to go next, three states — Alaska, Arkansas and New Mexico — came out on top.

“Our focus on the Experience America trips is not only to showcase the beauty of our great nation, and the diversity of culture and tradition, but also to create business relationships with people from all backgrounds,” Marshall said. “For example, when we went to Los Angeles, the ambassadors attended a wonderful luncheon hosted by Warner Bros. They were quite frank about how a country can prepare a package to invite a studio to go on location and film in their country. Later, the ambassador of Gabon signed a deal with them; it all came about from that luncheon.”

With dollar signs in mind, local business leaders feted the ambassadors as if they were celebrities at not one but two lavish events. The first was a lengthy Governor’s Business Roundtable Breakfast at the Little Rock Club on the 30th floor of the Regions Bank Building, then the following day at the University of Arkansas’ sprawling campus in Fayetteville.

“Even through the worst recession in my lifetime, our business leaders have persevered, maintained and have been able to expand,” Beebe said over breakfast, noting that Arkansas has gained 27,000 jobs since the economy hit bottom in 2009.

“We care deeply about your economic viability for very selfish reasons,” he told the diplomats. “When we do poorly, the rest of the states do poorly, and when the states do poorly, the globe does poorly. So it’s important for us to get together and talk about economic strategy. It’s our job to tout who we are and what we have available. And what we have available is an ever-increasing advanced workforce.”

Beebe, who’s led trade missions to China, France, Germany, Great Britain and Cuba, said Arkansas has been relatively successful in attracting investment from Western Europe and Asia, “though we’d like to have a few more companies from the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East.”

Arkansas would also like to sell more to the world.

To that end, Paul Rivera, general manager of the Caterpillar factory in North Little Rock, said his Peoria, Ill., company — the world’s largest name in mining and construction equipment — spent $148 million to build its world-class facility in Arkansas three years ago. The factory now employs about 600 people.

“We produce things every country needs,” Rivera said, noting that 45 percent of his factory’s output is shipped outside the United States. And in response to a question from Botswana’s ambassador, Tebelelo Mazile Seretse, he added: “Africa is a huge growth market for Caterpillar, served primarily from our European and Brazilian markets, but we’d like to produce machines — especially for mining and road construction — closer to the point of use.”

Eric Fox, plant manager for global cosmetics giant L’Oreal, told diplomats his 900,000-SF factory in North Little Rock produces 300 million units of Lancôme and Maybelline mascara, eye shadow, face powder, nail enamel and lipstick every year.

“This is the largest cosmetics plant in the world for L’Oreal,” said Fox, who manages 800 employees. “We’re now opening factories in Russia, Brazil, Egypt and Indonesia. Western Europe and the U.S. are fairly mature markets, so there’s little room for growth, but the global middle class will grow from 1 billion today to 2.7 billion by 2050, and these people are going to need quality beauty products.”

In Fayetteville, the ambassadors were welcomed to the University of Arkansas by Razorbacks cheerleaders, backed up by the school’s marching band. They also learned how to “call the hogs” and posed for photos under a statue of Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Here too, business was on the agenda, with presentations by two of the state’s most important companies: Wal-Mart, the planet’s largest retailer, and Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef and pork.

“Our rate of growth exceeds all other metropolitan areas in the Midwest,” said Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “We’re adding 31 residents to this corner of Arkansas every day. More than a quarter of a million people have moved here in the last 20 years. They come and stay, and they love it.”

The state’s most famous corporate name is, of course, Wal-Mart, which began in 1962 with just one store in the town of Rogers, about 20 miles north of Fayetteville.

Last year, Sam’s Club alone posted sales of $49 billion — more than the annual GDP of 19 countries represented by the ambassadors listening to CEO Brewer’s speech — and its stores cover a combined 81 million SF, which is three times the size of Monaco. Its parent company, Wal-Mart, with well over 2 million employees and fiscal 2012 revenue of almost $444 billion, would rank as the world’s 26th-largest economy — smack between Argentina and Austria — if it were a country of its own.

“Many of you here today represent countries that Wal-Mart sources from, and it’s a long list that includes Thailand (tables, jewelry and TVs); Egypt (rugs and shirts); Germany (wines) and Cambodia (gloves and dresses),” said Brewer. “One of our goals is to be a good global citizen, and 70 percent of impoverished people are women. Wal-Mart has the size and scale to help, by empowering women across our supply chain. So over the next five years, we will source $20 billion from women-owned suppliers in the U.S. and double our sourcing from women-owned suppliers internationally.”

Like Brewer, Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods, looked out at the roomful of ambassadors and saw potential new sales to a multitude of countries.

Smith rattled off statistics: Tyson, with 115,000 employees and $33 billion in annual revenue, is the nation’s second-largest tortilla maker and the largest manufacturer of pizza toppings, though beef represents 40 percent of company sales, chicken 35 percent and pork 15 percent.

“Over time, chicken will continue to grow in per-capita consumption. Today, we’re in countries where we see an emerging middle class and a good supply of feed grains,” he said. “Latin America is a huge growth opportunity for us, but we’re also in India, where per-capita chicken consumption is only 5 pounds a year. We have three operations in China — the only place where we have company-owned farms.”

All that farm talk resonated with Moroccan Ambassador Mohamed Rachad Bouhlal, who three months earlier visited Wyoming as part of Experience America.

“Arkansas is an agricultural state, and agriculture is very important for Morocco. We are a big exporter of processed foods and livestock,” said Bouhlal, recalling with fondness President Clinton’s 1999 visit to Morocco to attend the funeral of King Hassan II, as well as King Mohammed VI’s reciprocal visit to the United States a year later. “There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and I’m sure possibilities for partnerships exist.” 

(Larry Luxner, a freelance writer based in Maryland, is news editor of The Washington Diplomat and editor of CubaNews.)



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