For much of the year, the UN is out of session, so I don’t really have any speechwriting duties. I have a great deal of free time that I can spend however I want — writing a novel, say, or blogging — and I try to devote at least a portion of that time to doing research in relevant areas. Right now, for example, I’m reading Ki-baik Lee’s A New History of Korea. At other times, I’ve put some effort into learning a little Korean, read books on the UN, read through the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, read a bunch of speeches on Security Council reform.
But I do have more immediate duties. Sometimes the tasks have a political flavor, like looking up books on Afghanistan for Ambassador Chun (though these were to send to his son, who’s stationed there). Often, though, my role is just to help the Mission officers to negotiate the confusions of American life. Yesterday, for example, Young and I went through an auto insurance form for one of the officers. Or the other day, one of the officers called me into his office to ask me about breaking his lease in New Jersey and was very reassured when I told him that the worst they could possibly do to him was sue him for the two months’ rent he was getting out of — and that was an unlikely possibility, considering that he’s leaving his apartment to go to Iraq.
And then there are the diplomatic confusions, as when one of the ambassadors had to respond to a Christmas card but wasn’t sure who it was from. His secretary came into our office wielding a card with stripes of black, yellow and red across one corner; a complicated coat of arms involving a bird, a gazelle-looking thing and an African shield with a drum on it; and an inscrutable signature, followed by “DPR.” Looking at our trusty world map with all the flags on it, we worked out that the only countries with the right colors on their flags, in the right order, were Belgium and Uganda, and I couldn’t believe Belgium would have African stuff on its coat of arms (or its Christmas card), considering its unsavory history there. Then I Googled “Uganda coat of arms” and found that indeed, the card was from Uganda. Next came figuring out who the DPR (deputy permanent representative) was. This time Young worked it out, referring to our “Blue Book” of all the UN missions and their senior staffs.
So this is what I do when I’m not writing speeches.