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Ambassadors John & Larry Dinger MAG
John and Larry Dinger are the United States' first career-service ambassador brothers. Born in Iowa, they are ambassadors to Mongolia and the Federated States of Micronesia respectively.
You two are the only siblings serving as career ambassadors?
[Larry Dinger] I guess John and I are the only career Foreign Service ambassador brothers ever. Partly it's that we just happen to be in the same profession. I think we credit a couple of things, particularly our parents and family. They were very encouraging and said, "Well, do what you enjoy, and do it well. " And we've both had the same educational background in Riceville, Iowa, a small town, but a place that was nurturing.
Whose idea was it go into the Foreign Service?
[Larry Dinger] My brother John.
[John Dinger] I'm not sure whether it was my idea first, but in any case, I acted on it first. When I left the University of Northern Iowa in 1974, I took the Foreign Service exam and passed. Less than a year later, I was at my first assignment.
[Larry Dinger] I observed his lifestyle and what he was doing, and visited John in Rio de Janeiro in 1978. A few years later I decided I wanted to be a public servant. John's example led me to take the test, and I joined the Foreign Service, and I've been extremely happy.
Most people know that Mongolia is just north of China and that Micronesia is in the Pacific near Guam, but what is life like in these countries? Do they have television or fast food? How do teens dress?
[Larry Dinger] It depends on the teens. In Micronesia there's no fast food, except if you cut up a tuna, I guess that's pretty fast. Sushi is popular, but nothing like a McDonald's hamburger. They do watch TV, most is taped two weeks before in San Francisco. Some schools have uniforms, but a lot of kids, particularly if they go to the biggest school on the island, wear clothes that would fit in pretty well at schools in the United States.
[John Dinger] In the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, there are Internet cafes and kids dress just the way kids dress in America. It really shows how American culture and fashion have spread throughout the world. But there are no McDonald's or Kentucky Fried or Pizza Hut, although there are local hamburger chains. Kids in the countryside are different. They wear traditional robes and boots and hats. They're right out of National Geographic magazine. There's a big difference between city and countryside.
Cool. In high school, we're taught to resolve conflicts peacefully; as ambassadors, I'm sure you understand that very well. You're there to resolve things on an international scale. So, how and when can you justify the United States going to war, and under what conditions do you think it would be appropriate?
[John Dinger] I always think of American security policy and military power as not too different from the police force. You hope that its presence is a good deterrent and keeps the world safe, but at the same time, police occasionally have to intervene more forcefully. I think that's true with America and its power. And we take a lot of pride in America's role in the world, and I think most people in the world appreciate it as well.
Part of our job is to explain American policies and gain support for them, and we take a lot of pride in what we do.
[Larry Dinger] That was my answer. There's been a very long and deep relationship with the U. S. and the Federated States of Micronesia, and a lot of people from the Federated States serve in the U. S. military. We have a lot of arrangements, so they take a lot of interest in American foreign policy and can be very supportive of our efforts to lead a global coalition against terrorism and assist in the preservation of peace in the world.
Have either of you personally meet with President Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell?
[Larry Dinger] I haven't personally met with President Bush, although he nominated me. Secretary Powell swore me to the ambassadorship, so I met him then, and John and I were both in a meeting with Secretary Powell recently. I've really enjoyed the opportunities I've had to be around him. He's a terrific Secretary of State, and I'm happy to serve him.
Do you ever have opportunitiest o influence policy through the President or Colin Powell?
[John Dinger]Well, one thing all Foreign Service officers do, but especially ambassadors, is try to help develop policies for our countries. Every Foreign Service officer is always trying to make sure that Washington knows what the situation is in our countries, and we try to help Washington make wise decisions. Even in Mongolia, there are daily issues that involve Washington.
And so we give advice as we get more senior, and especially as ambassadors, we are the senior representatives of America in the country. I think we have a real opportunity to influence policy and it's one of the things that makes this such a terrific job.
[Larry Dinger] I think that is especially true in the smaller countries, where we probably know even more about the situation than the folks back in Washington.
With terrorism such a concern to Americans, and especially with embassies as targets, do you feel safe? How vulnerable are Mongolia and Micronesia to terrorism?
[Larry Dinger] The Bali bombing and other bombings of embassies in East Africa accented that there is no place in the world that is completely safe. The State Department has made a tremendous effort to maximize the ability of each of its embassies to be reasonably safe. Micronesia is a pretty remote area of the world, but even there, we spend a lot of time trying to make sure Americans there are safe. If the American embassy is safe, then we would rely on the Micronesian government to buttress their efforts in the war on terrorism.
[John Dinger] Although we do not directly provide protection to Americans in Mongolia, among our top priorities is to try to do anything we can to keep informed of any threats. Mongolia is a safe place, but as Larry mentioned, no place is safe from terrorism. So, we work at several levels. We help to keep our employees safe and give advice to local Americans on any threat we might have. Terrorists can use any place in the world for training or financing their work. So we work closely with the Mongolian government to try to make sure they do not offer aid to terrorists.
What do you consider your greatest disappointments, either politically or personally, and how did you overcome them?
[Larry Dinger] I'll preface it by saying that I really have enjoyed my Foreign Service career. I think it was the right career for me, though it took me a long time to decide on it. Generally, it's been a great opportunity to learn and move to new positions every few years and experience other cultures. All that is very positive. But, it's much too far away from my parents; our mother is 93. Thank goodness our sister is there to help with her care.
[John Dinger] That's certainly true. This is a great job and I have a hard time imagining one I would have enjoyed more. I started right after college, but being away from family and friends is clearly the toughest challenge. It's just a choice. It's a little easier lately, we have the Internet and people make telephone calls internationally more often now. But that's clearly the disadvantage.
What are some perks of being an ambassador? What do you get to do that ordinary citizens don't?
[Larry Dinger] Well, I do meet with the president of the country occasionally, and have the opportunity to speak directly with the leadership, which, in any country, even a small one like the Federated States of Micronesia, not everyone gets to do. That gives me the opportunity to make it particularly clear what our interests are, and how we want them to coincide with Micronesian interests. I like that a lot.
[John Dinger] The ambassador must always be concerned with the running of the embassy, but we each have a deputy whose primary responsibility is doing that. Ambassadors are often said to be the"outside person" in an embassy. We are the physical representative of the American president and the American people in our countries. So, I am out a lot.
I've traveled twice to each of Mongolia's 21 provinces. Very few people have an opportunity to do something that adventurous. Meanwhile, when I'm in the city, I am invited to many cultural events, speeches and public events. And it's a kick. Some are very exotic, and they're really quirky. Almost all are interesting, and I enjoy it tremendously.
In pop culture, ambassadors are often portrayed as having a lot of elegant balls and dinner parties. Is there any truth to that? Do you have chauffeurs or butlers?
[Larry Dinger] In Micronesia, there is somebody at the embassy assigned to drive me. I like driving, so often I drive myself if there's no parking problem. We do have what are called representational responsibilities, which are important. Showing the American flag and inviting people in for some American holidays. We've had Memorial Day and Veterans' Day observances, and a9/11 observance. There are many things like that; they're an important part of the job.
[John Dinger] Mongolia is not full of glittering events, although there are two or three black-tie events every year. I enjoy attending them, but I think few ambassadors would say that's what we do most of the time. It is a part of it, though, and it can be a lot of fun.
Do you feel you're doing your duty to your country, or do you feel lucky to have such a great job and are being rewarded?
[John Dinger] Both. When I presented my credentials to the president of Mongolia, they had the American flag flying and a military band playing our National Anthem. That was when it struck me that I was truly there representing America, and it made me pause. Even though Mongolia is a remote, small place, I have the responsibility of representing America and our interests in Mongolia.
[Larry Dinger] I'm pretty convinced that anybody who takes a job with the State Department is capable of many jobs. It's a pretty rigorous process. But I think almost all of us take the job here (which probably pays much less than other jobs) because we believe in public service. We want to make the world a better place. There are nice perks as an ambassador, but all of us are doing this because we want to serve our country.
What do you recommend to students who are considering being ambassadors? Does their choice in college matter?
[Larry Dinger] When I talk to Peace Corps volunteers, I tell them that their major and choice of college probably aren't crucial. The important elements are a real interest in learning and reading. Read everything, from People magazine to Foreign Affairs, including the newspaper every day. Have a diverse life. Most foreign service officers, no matter what their major, have a lot of interest in the world. They may have been out in the world for a while, working, or been in the military, or the Peace Corps. Almost all have gone to college. Though it's not a requirement, I think it's a good idea.
[John Dinger] I think if you enjoy watching "Jeopardy, " there's a pretty good chance you would love life in the Foreign Service. If you're interested in a whole range of issues, as Larry said, from pop culture to foreign policy to domestic politics, there's a good chance you'd find this a fascinating job.
An exam is given annually, you can read about it at www. careers. state. gov. Many people take the exam more than once. I read about a guy who took it six times. He wanted the job, so he just kept taking it.
[Larry Dinger] The other attribute I think is critical is wanting to spend time overseas.
When you and your families moved to Mongolia and Micronesia, was there an element of culture shock?
[Larry Dinger] You get over what I think of as culture shock after the first or second time overseas, but there are always adjustments. In Micronesia, the boat with vegetables only comes every few weeks, so you get usedt o that. On the other hand you always have fresh tuna. The schools are different every place, for the kids.
[John Dinger] I'm on my - oh, I don'tk now what it is now - eleventh or twelfth assignment, and it's always an adjustment.
If you could meet with any world leader, who would you choose?<BR>
[John Dinger] You know, one of the fun things about our job is that it's not unusual for us to be in meetings with world leaders, and that makes it difficult to single out one. When I was assigned to South Africa, I had occasion to meet Nelson Mandela, and this might be an obvious choice for some. Those opportunities happen, but it's not an everyday occurrence.
[Larry Dinger] I guess I'll name one whom I wish I had had the opportunity to meet with: Mother Teresa. She would have been a fabulous person to get to know. When I was in Nepal, my last tour, I got to meet some of the senior Tibetan Buddhists, and I found them quite fascinating.
[John Dinger] A year ago, former President Jimmy Carter came to visit Mongolia, so I spent quite a bit of time with him. That's the sort of experience our job occasionally offers.
Since both your countries are fairly close to North Korea, what would you advise President Bush do to maintain peace?
[John Dinger] Those are President Bush's decisions, and we'll leave them for him to make based on the advice he gets from his advisors, who are most knowledgeable on the topic.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as ambassador?
[John Dinger] It may sound odd, but ambassadors have responsibilities for our staffs. My greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with foreign policy, it's trying to make our working conditions the best possible, so that those working for us succeed. That's what I take the most pride in.
[Larry Dinger] Yeah, I think what I most enjoy is a productive and happy life. I think that if you accomplish having an embassy with a good morale, then all the substantive issues get taken care of. I'm in a very small embassy: Kolonia has only a dozen people working there. So we all have to be interchangeable, with a lot of cross-training, We seem to function well, and I'm proud of that.
What has been your most frustrating experience as ambassador?
[Larry Dinger] I suppose it's whenever my view isn't the one that wins in the end, but you just have to live with that.
[John Dinger] Mongolia is a country that has left communism behind, is embracing democracy and the market economy, and you know, we're Americans and so we have a lot of experience in those things. We like not only giving advice to the Mongolians, but having them follow it. Sometimes they do. Mongolia is a sovereign nation that makes its own decisions, and occasionally, in my view, makes mistakes, but that comes with the territory. We do our best, but they must make decisions for themselves, and it's frustrating when I don't think they make the right calls.
Do either of you ever feel lonely for the United States? What do you miss?
[Larry Dinger] Returning to what we said earlier: it's hard for the family. It's not exactly lonely, it's wishing we could be there for the big occasions, and even the small ones. I haven't had the chance to visit my mother a lot. As far as material things, frankly, one of my very first meals back is having a fast-food hamburger, because you just don't get those in Micronesia.
[John Dinger] My first meal back these days is the salad bar. There's not a lot of fresh produce in Mongolia, especially in winter. And, I agree with Larry that it's not so much being away from America, since the Internet and cable TV are available in Mongolia. But I do miss family:I've been to very few weddings and very few funerals in my life.
[Larry Dinger] One of the things that has been interesting for me, especially in the last dozen years, is how the information revolution has mushroomed. The fax machine entered American life while I was overseas, and the cell phone, and to some extent, the computer and the Internet. When I come back to the U. S. , I have to learn something that everyone assumes I know. That's more fun than frustration.
Have either of you been frustrated by language barriers?
[John Dinger] One of the great aspects of the State Department is our training. I've had to spend a lot of my career in training -some people say that's because I need it more than the average foreign service officer [chuckle] - but the State Department has taught me Portuguese and Japanese. It's made an attempt to teach me Mongolian, which has not come as easily. In fact, in over 25 years in the Foreign Service, Mongolia is the first place I've been assigned where I don't speak the language.
[Larry Dinger] The State Department has taught me Spanish and the Indonesian language, and both were very helpful when I was in those countries. Where I am now, there are six to eight local languages, depending on how you define them, but the language that unites them all is English, so I generally find it easy to communicate.
How does the quality of life in your countries, and the way people live, differ from ours in America?
[Larry Dinger] In Micronesia, the average income is $2, 000 a year and most of the population has an income of $800 a year. That's higher than some countries, but a lot less than the United States, so the lifestyle is quite different.
[John Dinger] Mongolia is even poorer with a per capita income of about $400 a year. That said, the market economy is really taking off, and there are cell phones everywhere and cafés and lots of consumer goods. Some have really benefited, maybe a third of the people, but about a third are above where they were with communism. A lot of the advice we've given Mongolia is to make sure everyone benefits from their new economy.
Have you ever encountered hostility toward Americans?
[Larry Dinger] I've never really encountered hostility. In Micronesia, we're really the closest of friends. We're closer than allies, although the U. S. is much bigger, but Micronesians serve in our armed forces. Many come to the United States to go to school and find work.
[John Dinger] Mongolia is an interesting case because Mongolia and America did not know each other until 1990 when they overthrew communism. But in recent years we have become very good friends. Mongolia has two geographic neighbors, China to the south and Russia to the north, and they call America their third neighbor.
They look to us for guidance, and as a model for democracy and their economy. It's very gratifying.
I have not felt any antagonism toward America or Americans during my years overseas. Clearly, once in a while people don't agree with American policies, but I think that people in general believe America is a force for good, and respect Americans and what our country tries to do.