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“I Heard Something Ticking Away”—Diplomats Dealing With Explosives

Managing personal security is an important part of a Foreign Service Officer’s training. Weapons of mass destruction, sexual assault, cyberattacks, hostage situations, and especially bomb threats are just some of the terrible threats they face. Although awareness and training for diplomatic personnel has improved over the years, the menace has not necessarily decreased.

USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia
USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia

Serving abroad comes with a high risk, especially for people representing the United States.

Political Officer Ernest Siracusa was in Buenos Aires, Argentina when the Argentine Navy and Air Force bombed Plaza de Mayo square, targeting a large crowd expressing support for President Juan Perón. It is to this day the largest aerial bombing on the Argentine mainland. Siracusa was so close he could see the bombing from his window.

So what should personnel do if faced with a bomb threat? The established protocol for dealing with a suspicious object is not to touch it. Personnel are instead advised to evacuate the area and notify authorities. But what should they do if authorities show up late? What if there are no experts in the area? In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, read about diplomats dealing with bomb threats in different (and sometimes rather unconventional) ways.

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Building a Country from Scratch—The South Sudanese Transition to Independence (2005-2011)

Creating a country ex nihilo is never an easy feat. How does one construct functional government institutions from scratch in a land that has been in conflict for decades? Ethnic tensions and former colonial administrations make this uphill battle even steeper. South Sudan faced this very situation

South Sudan independence celebration (2011) USAID | Wikimedia
South Sudan independence celebration (2011) USAID | Wikimedia

after signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Through the CPA, the governing National Congress Party of the North made peace with the South, which was controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) led by John Garang.

The conflict had been sparked by the Arab dominated North imposing direct control and Sharia law over the predominantly Christian and traditional South. Southern leaders created the SPLA/M and rose up in revolt to fight for Southern autonomy. By 2004, twenty-one years of continuous armed conflict led to widespread destruction, the deaths of millions, and the displacement of millions more. The 2005 CPA established power sharing between North and South, created an autonomous regional government, and established a six-year transition period during which a referendum on independence would be held. This meant a government would have to be created—including new ministries and government institutions built from the ground up—and governance would have to be established.

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George W. Bush and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief

Forty million total cases. Three million deaths. One year. This was not the casualty of a bloody global conflict, but the state of the HIV/AIDS Crisis in 2003 when President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). Since the beginning of this program it has provided over $80 billion dollars for AIDS funding and saved an estimated 17 million lives.

PEPFAR Logo (2007) US Government | Wikimedia Commons
PEPFAR Logo (2007) US Government | Wikimedia Commons

In doing so, it also represented a rarity in today’s highly polarized environment: a bipartisan agreement from policymakers that the U.S. had a responsibility to help those in need.

Yet, while the results of PEPFAR seem indisputable, during its early years, many people doubted the efficacy of the program. Implementation problems on the ground, interagency conflicts, and public perception of the program were some of many issues the new initiative faced as it attempted to tackle the global AIDS crisis. In its first five years, the program focused on working directly with fifteen so-called “focus countries” that were considered to have both the highest rates of AIDS and the fewest resources to deal with the disease. After this initial five-year period expired, PEPFAR was reauthorized with a focus on developing long term partnerships with countries that would work to shift the leadership of the fight towards the partner nations.

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Pandemic Pandemonium: International Cooperation in the Face of Crisis

Several devastating pandemics have plagued human civilization throughout history. From the Black Death (1350) to the deadly Coronavirus, each outbreak has its own unique challenges and many human casualties. This was true for the virus that “shook” the beginning of the twenty-first century: the Avian Influenza.

Duck Vaccination (2009) USAID Vietnam | Wikimedia Commons
Duck Vaccination (2009) USAID Vietnam | Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Bird Flu, the Avian Influenza had its beginnings in China (1997), but reappeared in 2003. The Bird Flu was evaluated as a potential pandemic, and continued to be a concern well into the 2010s due to its high mortality rate in humans. While the Avian Influenza can be contracted through contact with infected poultry, there have been instances where this pathogen has passed from human to human. Many health officials therefore feared that a mutated virus could easily transfer from human to human, thus potentially increasing the casualty count dramatically. Although there are still reports of poultry infected with the Avian Influenza—even in 2020—the threat of a widespread outbreak has subsided, thanks to international cooperation.

Despite the increased risk of infections spreading from country to country due to frequent travel, the international community has established serious measures to curb the spread of deadly viruses. In response to the Avian Influenza, affected countries used techniques—quarantines, vaccinating at-risk animals, treating infected individuals, and launching information campaigns—to contain the Bird Flu, prevent further spread, and keep media-induced anxiety at bay. While certain countries had more success than others at curbing infections, it is clear that the international community as a whole engaged in a highly collaborative campaign that prevented further Bird Flu casualties.

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The Velvet Divorce: A Peaceful Breakup in Post-Communist Czechoslovakia

Most divorces do not end well, and those between countries tend to be the messiest of all. The dissolution of the USSR was no exception to this rule as the nation itself, along with many of the individual states within it, fell apart in the early 90s. However, one country, the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia, proved resilient to the tendency towards violence and conflict when a state splits.

Czech Senate (2011) Qaalvin | Wikimedia Commons
Czech Senate (2011) Qaalvin | Wikimedia Commons

The Velvet Revolution freed Czechoslovakia from communist control in 1989, and the first democratically elected government came to power soon after. However, tensions quickly arose between Czech and Slovak leaders as the later’s politicians demanded more decentralization while Czech politicians advocated for greater control from Prague.

Nevertheless, a split between the two groups was not inevitable. A strong majority of both ethnic Czechs and Slovaks opposed dissolution, and relations between the two groups were generally strong. Furthermore, remaining united also brought economic benefits for both sides, especially for the relatively less developed region of Slovakia. Yet, the two groups were relatively disunited even if there was no active dislike. Neither Czechs nor Slovaks had much media presence in the other region. Bratislava was viewed as a cultural backwater compared to Prague, and there was an undercurrent of economic resentment on both sides. However, none of these issues proved insurmountable in the early years of the newly liberated republic.

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Castro’s Cuba – The Early Days

On January 1, 1959, after a sustained armed revolt led by Fidel Castro and others took control over most of the country, Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the departure of the despised dictator, there was initially hope that life in Cuba would improve. William Lenderking, arriving in Havana in March 1959, witnessed how optimism quickly gave way to fear and repression as the new government began indoctrinating youth and instituting widespread control over libraries, newspapers, and magazines. Lenderking concludes that Castro was never truly interested in good relations with the United States. Read more