Post Date: October 3, 2005

From the September 2005 issue of Harvard Law Today.

Fifteen ambassadors took their seats at the round Security Council table. Two rows behind U.S. Ambassador Gerald Scott sat Alex Wong ’07, summer intern at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The crowd quieted for the start of the meeting about Darfur, and Wong put on his plastic earpiece and prepared to write in his notebook. Though he had little formal preparation for the meeting, his notes would be vetted by his bosses and turned into confidential cables relayed to the U.S. State Department.

Wong quickly learned how to record complex meetings. “A lot of diplomatic speak is very fluffy,” he explained. “[At first] it was tough to differentiate between the fluff and the meaty stuff, but it’s been a quick education, and you get an ear for it.”

Wong’s crash course in diplomacy was particularly intense given the challenges facing the U.S. Mission. After the resignation of the former U.S. ambassador, John Danforth, last December, the Mission was without a permanent leader. Because the nomination of John Bolton was stalled in congressional debates, Wong and his co-workers toiled for months unsure when a new leader would arrive.

For Wong, the busy summer translated into more opportunities to learn. “People from different sections will draft me into helping,” he said, “whether it’s Security Council reform, whether it’s the ICC-Sudan [meeting], whether it’s work on the counterterrorism subcommittee.”

The formal meetings offered insight into the public side of diplomacy. Wong now understands the delicacy of staking out positions and managing confrontations.

“The diplomats are very skilled at giving nonresponses, saying that there are issues to be considered or that there are instructions they’re awaiting,” he said. “[They] understand that there are sticking points.”

One politically heated subject during his summer was the tense relationship between the U.S. and the U.N. Wong says that, before starting work, he wondered whether this tension would strain relations between the U.S. delegation and other delegations and U.N. staff. He found the opposite.

“Diplomats are by nature and by profession very nice people, and they understand the difficulties,” he explained. “The working relationships are actually quite good.”

As Wong found, these working relationships are sometimes an even more important part of diplomacy than the rhetoric exchanged across the table at public meetings.

He was surprised to see that national policies can “really hinge on a conversation between some no-name diplomat that you never hear of in the newspaper and another no-name diplomat having iced coffee at some stand on 47th Street.”

Around the U.N. headquarters, on New York’s East River, these casual interactions occur often, on street corners and in cappuccino bars. Wong saw firsthand that, while subtle, the effects of these personal ties can be significant.

“Working relationships [among diplomats] have great bearing on people’s lives–whether it’s Darfur or Liberia or Burundi,” he said.

Wong was able to make a few connections himself. Among the celebrities and government officials he encountered were U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, actor Benicio Del Toro, author Elie Wiesel and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

When he met Annan, the exchange showed him the grace of a true diplomat: “When I shook hands with Kofi Annan, I accidentally cracked his knuckle. But he didn’t break his expression. He was very nice.”

As Wong learned the skills of diplomacy on personal and public levels, he predicted that his summer experience would translate into a broader perspective on international law once he returned for his 2L year. But during the summer, he didn’t underestimate the nonacademic benefits of the internship, from meeting celebrities to visiting consulates.

“This job has so many great perks,” he said with a grin.

-By Mary Bridges