An Interview with John Dinkelman, Chargé d’Affaires to the Bahamas
John Dinkelman stepped into the role of Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy to the Bahamas in November 2011 after serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Bahamas since August 2011. From 2001 to 2007, Dinkelman served at the Orientation Division at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, where he trained 2,570 Foreign Service Officers — more than 40 percent of the American diplomatic Corps. For his work in Virginia, Dinkelman earned the State Department’s Arnold L. Raphel Memorial Award in 2006. Before being posted in the Bahamas, Dinkelman served from 2007 to 2011 as Principal Officer in Nogales, Mexico. Dinkelman has also been stationed at Belgrade, Yugoslavia; at London, England; at Majuro, Marshall Islands; at The Hague, Holland; and at Ankara, Turkey. Dinkelman graduated from Brigham Young University with degrees in Business and Spanish and speaks Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Dutch, and Turkish.
The Politic: Your biography is replete with a number of countries that you have been to. How did you first join the Foreign Service?
Well, my friend, mine is neither a noble nor a very highbrow story, I can assure you that. I’m a military brat. My dad was in the army and when I was twelve years old, dad got the assignment to go live in Turkey of all places — because, of course, Turkey is a NATO ally. A small city called Izmir, on the Aegean Sea, is, or perhaps was, the headquarters of the Southeastern flank of NATO, which, during the Cold War, was rather important. And so, for the first time in my young life, mom and dad stuck me on an airplane and I left the United States and I landed in the middle of this exotic place in Izmir, Turkey. While it was one of those typical culture shocks or scare-the-hell-out-a-young-boy experiences, it was probably one of the most formative things that could have ever happened to me.
It just so happened that my mom and dad became very good friends with a man named Sam Case and his dear wife Betty, who were a lovely couple from Iowa. Sam was the Consul of the United States in that city, and one day Sam did something that — I guess, in that day — wasn’t often heard of back then in the 1970s. He let me shadow him in his office in the Consulate, and I sat there absolutely enthralled by this man who not only issued passports and visas and birth certificates, but went to prisons to check on Americans and had to call people to tell them that their family member had died. I was amazed that such a career could actually exist and that you could spend your life doing something like that, representing your country around the world. I was enthralled as a little thirteen- or fourteen-year-old kid.
Then one day I found out that Sam could drive his car as fast as he wanted and never get a speeding ticket and I said, “That’s a career for me!” After all, I was a teenage American boy. So that was the nexus of it. It began with that. I drew away from it when I went away to college. Since I decided that I really wanted to make millions of dollars, I wasted my college years on getting a business degree, which, in the end was useful. But after a few years in the private sector, I realized that I really wanted to serve the United States. I remembered in my gut that feeling that I had with Uncle Sam, ironically, in that little office in Turkey. I decided that I would take that damn Foreign Service Exam, as many times as it took for me to get in — rest assured, it took a few times — and ever since then I’ve never looked back.
The Politic: You prefaced with that as not being an interesting or unique story, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Is there one experience, person, or even event that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
I think to narrow down and identify — in a career filled with working with stellar Americans — a person with magnificent ideals who embodies the term diplomatic in everything they do, would be to rob each and every one of them the credit that they deserve. It has just been an amazing experience for me — a rough kid from the desert West — to come in and see the best of America and have a chance to go around the world.
The Politic: Looking at your biography, you’ve been to all corners of the world. You’ve been to island states and landlocked countries, among others. Would you mind taking me through the places that you’ve been with the Foreign Service and try to mention a highlight from each, if that is not too much to ask?
Keep in mind that when you ask an old man to take you through briefly, you’re automatically posing an insurmountable problem to the guy. I started in 1988 in the Foreign Service. I came in in August of 1988 and by September of 1988, I had been assigned to go out to Belgrade, Yugoslavia as a junior, junior officer. And so I spent that first year of my career in Washington learning Serbo-Croatian and trying to think about what in the world a case ending was and getting prepared to work behind the Iron Curtain. In the summer of 1989, I went out there and my first job was as a Vice Consul, interviewing thousands of people over the course of a year — in really crappy Serbo-Croatian — telling them that they could not go to the United States. Over the course of my assignment to Yugoslavia, I guess it was very educational for me, but also very tragic to watch that nation fall into civil war. For just as I had left there in the summer of 1991, Croatia and Slovenia finally broke off from the rump Yugoslavia. And that whole place started on that spiral that ended so tragically in the mid-1990s.
I was assigned to the American embassy in London thereafter as a staff assistant to someone much more important than I — and, at that point in my career, everyone was much more important than I. I spent a short two years there, but a lot of my time in London was spent back in Yugoslavia because, as that nation fell apart, we had to set up other embassies and we also had to draw down our embassy in Belgrade. And so, a lot of my time in London was actually spent back on the Balkan Peninsula. I actually did spend enough time in London to acquire my most expensive souvenir… in the form of a British wife. She has cost me money every year since then, I can assure you.
When I finished in London, I headed off with my new blushing bride to the American Embassy in Majuro, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. That’s in Micronesia, about equidistant from — oh I don’t know — Hawaii, Australia, and Guam, let’s say. It was probably the best thing that a young couple could do because we got in a fight one day and she told me she was taking the next plane home. But fortunately the next plane didn’t come for another two days, so I got to make up for lost time as a stupid new husband. And she’s still with me, so I guess we survived that.
After two years in the Marshall Islands, I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague in the Netherlands as a General Services Officer. I was in charge of contracting and facilities, procurement, and all of the guts — the operational work that an embassy has to have someone do. It was a very enjoyable four years; we had two children while we were there.
I went for a year of Turkish language training back in Washington, D.C. and then we headed off to Ankara, where I was the Human Resources Officer for the American Mission to Turkey. I came out of Turkey in 2002, and spent five years in Washington D.C. as the coordinator of the training program for new Foreign Service Officers. I was kind of like the boot camp sergeant for all new diplomats who had come through that examination process. It was a very wonderful, rewarding, fulfilling experience to give back to a Service that I have grown to love greatly, and I hope my contributions there will have been good for the country.
From there, I was able to grab a job at a dusty, dirty, desert post south of Tuscan, Arizona on the Mexican border in Nogales where I was the Consul — the head, the chief — of that small little consulate in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. I spent four of what were the most rewarding professional years I have had in my career there. And, once again, at the end of that tour, I was able to hoodwink an ambassador and convinced her that I could be a useful deputy. I arrived here [Nassau, Bahamas] in August of 2011. Unfortunately, that dear lady decided to resign in November of 2011, leading me to warm the seat until the President chooses her replacement. That is where I’ve been for the past twenty months.
The Politic: It seems like each one of your experiences have been stepping-stones for the next one. It is quite amazing that none of these places — barring a few — share similar languages, so it must have been very difficult to learn these different languages. Did you find that to be as difficult as I would think it would be?
Oh yeah. But I will tell you my secret. Like a good American, I figure that if I just yell in English, foreigners will understand me. No, I am kidding. Language training is one of the wonderful things about the State Department. We have this magnificent opportunity to actually learn languages and get paid to do it. It is not easy, by any means, and it is rather intensive, and your brain gets fried after about nine months in some language where you have no idea what is going on for the first few weeks. But, professionally, I can’t think of any greater benefit. Frankly, the American Foreign Service is head and shoulders above any of the other diplomatic corps of our friend and foe nations. We really invest the time making sure that we can speak the language where we are, and it does our nation a true service by doing that.
The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad? Are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change?
I think America is represented overseas brilliantly. As I alluded to earlier, the men and women in the Foreign Service with whom I have had the opportunity to work, for a quarter of a century now, have been, to a person, some of the most fantastic people on this planet. The old adage really holds true that nobody loves the United States more than those who are obligated to lead the United States in its service. And I have found that to be invariably the case. The diversity — the Cajun from Louisiana, the Mainer, the Hawaiian homelander — all comes in. It really is a wonderful vignette of the United States and what we want our nation to be. So I think America is represented beautifully overseas and it is a point of pride for our country.
What do I think the United States should be doing differently? As anybody acquainted with foreign relations of our country, I think foreign relations are woefully under-resourced. I want to say it was Churchill who once said, “The most expensive peace is cheaper than the cheapest ore.” Nothing could exemplify that cost-benefit than were we to be able to put more people out on the ground espousing the diplomatic elements of national power, as opposed to the military element of power. Not to disparage my friends in uniform, but it is something we have to do.
The Politic: How do you think America is represented in the Bahamas?
The United States and the Bahamas enjoy one of the best relationships of two neighboring nations. They often refer to us as their “closest overseas ally and neighbor.” It truly is the case. In all matters over the spectrum of bilateral relationships — whether it is economic, political, social, or cultural — we are cheek to gel. And the professionalism and the interaction between organizations, both small and large, is almost so close that it is no longer international. Bahamians feel a particular kinship to South Florida in ways that the people in our own nation would not. The Miami Heat and the Dolphins are more so a part of their lives than teams in other cities of the United States. And they are passionate about keeping those ties close.
The Politic: That would make sense as many Americans do live in the Bahamas, if I am not mistaken?
Oh yeah, there is a large cadre. And again, it depends on how you slice that pie. In a globalizing world, you always get that “problem” because there are many Bahamians that simply go to Florida, give birth to a child and bring that dear baby home. That baby has got an American passport, but that baby knows little more over their first fifteen or twenty years than their home island. That person is just as much an American and a charge of the embassy as the wealthy American who has just decided to buy a mansion somewhere on Exuma and comes down every six months. So if you lop them all together, just the people who got passports and nothing else, I’d say we have about thirty to forty thousand people who just decide to live here in the Bahamas rather than our own country. It is quite a lot, but [it is] also just a drop in the bucket compared to the six million Americans who come to our consular district every year just to visit.
The Politic: Wow. Would you say that there are some misperceptions that the average American citizen may have towards the Bahamas, or even vice versa?
Misperceptions? No, I think the perception of the average American is that the Bahamas is a tropical paradise worthy of consideration for a visit at least once in their life to drop some money and buy themselves some tremendous memories. And so, in that sense, I think that they are spot on. This place is an absolutely wonderful place to visit and the Bahamians have created a society, a culture, and an economy focused on fulfilling that dream.
The Politic: What sort of exchange or community outreach programs do you think have done the most good, whether in the Bahamas or in the many places that you have been?
Unquestionably, anything, anything — and I underscore “anything” — that relates to education; anything that helps the youth of the Bahamas to lay a foundation and grounding for the future of this country. As with many other places in the world, it is critical that the rising generation not only be educated, but trained and skilled, to become a workforce that is productive and able to sustain a nation. We work with marginalized school populations and marginalized populations in general, even up to the college level. We do this to make sure that those young kids can get a launch into the wealth that is the American tertiary education system and bring back those skills to this country. This will pay dividends to us in the United States in the form of a stable, healthy, and continuous Bahamas.
The Politic: Have you been able to promote this particular educational outreach initiative in the Bahamas? And if not, is that somewhere where we are not meeting our obligations as the United States, a partner of the Bahamas?
Not at all. That is one of the core foci of the Embassy. Whether it is simply encouraging the youth to review the writings and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. to incorporate those basic, fundamental educational tools into their lives in the form of an essay program, or whether it is expediting science, technology, and mathematics education exchanges with United States institutions, that is one of the major things that we do and that I think we will continue to do, regardless of who is running the shop. That is in our basic interest.
The Politic: What did you think was the most effective way in which you were able to promote American values in the many countries you have served in as a member of the Foreign Service?
The best way I have found is simply to deal with individuals overseas how I would deal with them in the United States. We in America are known for being egalitarian, fair, honest, and for fulfilling our parts of our bargains whenever we make them. As I have reinforced that extremely positive and stereotypical vision of America and Americans among foreigners, I think I have helped to lend credibility to our nation with the many foreigners I have had the opportunity to interact with over the course of my career.
The Politic: I’d truly like to thank you for this opportunity and for being so incredibly willing to speak with me this afternoon.
No problem, I was happy to do so. And you ought to think about taking the Foreign Service exam.
Embassy of the United States to the Bahamas: http://nassau.usembassy.gov/