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What Does a U.S. Ambassador Really Do?

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In the movies, U.S. ambassadors often appear to come to the aid of jailed foreigners in inhospitable prisons. In the press, they’ve been vilified for not spending all of their time in the country they’ve been assigned to represent or for not being fluent in the language. Some critics have even referred to their appointment as a kind of payola scheme, with positions being awarded in exchange for campaign contributions to the sitting president.

Ambassadors for the United States seem to wear a variety of faces, but which of them is accurate?

“It varies widely from country to country,” Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and current professor of international affairs at Penn State University, tells Mental Floss. “France will be very different from Russia. But generally, ambassadors have two functions, one internal and one external.”

The internal function is managing the U.S. embassy itself and all of its employees, which can number from one to 1000 and involve several representatives from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and other government branches. The external function is dealing with the native government, missionaries, and local press in representing the President of the United States.

“You explain what Washington is thinking,” Jett explains, “and explain to Washington what the other government is thinking. You have a lot of people wanting a lot of your time.”

For Jett, that meant getting involved in Mozambique’s highly volatile civil war that resulted in the country's first free and democratic election in 1994. He had to live up to his diplomat label, encouraging democracy while being careful not to agitate the sitting government with criticism as the press swarmed around him.

On one occasion in Peru, Jett arrived for a social engagement and left early. A half-hour later, terrorists from the country's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the event and kept hostages—including several of Jett's embassy employees—for 126 days.

Those incidents cast a long shadow over the stereotype that ambassadors do little but arrange parties and entertain foreign dignitaries. “The Middle East is hard,” Jett says. “Pakistan, places like that.” Depending on the conditions of the territory in question, ambassadors may even be eligible for danger pay on top of their regular salary. “It can be as little as 5 percent [extra] or up to 40 percent. If you’re going into a place with malaria or what’s called a 'hardship post'—a place with a threat of terrorism—you’ll be paid more than if you were going to the Caribbean.”

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Jett was a career foreign affairs officer, rising through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and later a Senior Director of African Affairs before securing a post as an ambassador, the top-ranking diplomat. Traditionally, career employees will make up roughly 70 percent of the 180-odd ambassador posts at any given time, with the remaining 30 percent filled by political appointees who contributed to a presidential campaign or have another personal connection to the president.

While these individuals typically get assigned low-risk posts in cushy, tourist-friendly places like Europe or the Caribbean and the standard free lodging, there’s still opportunity for them to risk embarrassment. Mark Austad, Ronald Reagan’s appointee to Norway, was fired for overt womanizing; other appointees quizzed by the Senate before their official hiring have expressed only minimal fluency in the requisite foreign language. In one instance, one wannabe Ambassador to Argentina admitted he had never actually been to the country.

The argument for such reciprocation is that donors are typically wealthy and can afford to bolster weak Congressional spending when it comes to an embassy’s "representational entertaining"—the bureaucratic term for "lavish parties." But Jett feels that it’s a poor excuse for a tired and unfair system. “We need capable, competent people who speak the language and can carry out the job, regardless of whether they’re rich,” he says.

Ambassadors typically resign following a new president taking over the Oval Office. Appointees typically slip back into the private sector, while career diplomats either return to Washington or consider another ambassadorship.

As for those dramatic interventions on behalf of jailed Americans: Don’t expect to see Jett or his peers stage a spirited rally on your behalf.

 “We don’t have the ability to bring that kind of pressure,” he says. “You’re subject to the laws of that area. We can get you the names of some lawyers. Maybe some better food. That's about it.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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