US embassies welcome opportunities for interagency training

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United States embassies from across the globe are stepping up to participate in a unique training opportunity for Airmen known as the Embassy Immersion Fellowship program.

The fellowship places Airmen side-by-side with their U.S. foreign service counterparts in a five-week program sponsored by the Office of the Chief of Staff's foreign policy adviser, led by former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John.

During those five weeks, fellows work inside a U.S. embassy, State Department Bureau or other diplomatic mission to gain a unique appreciation of the interagency process, develop an understanding of key political, economic and cultural issues in a particular country or region and help prepare them to lead in an increasingly interdependent, interagency world.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for the Air Force," said Lt. Gen. Dick Newton, the Air Force Assistant Vice Chief of Staff. "Our people are getting first-hand interagency experience -- developing skills critical to building relationships both within the U.S. government and with our international partners."

Embassy immersions were initially conceived in 2004 as part of the political-military affairs strategist program that annually takes up to 100 officers from across the spectrum of operational and mission support career fields and introduces them to the world of U.S. foreign policy development and diplomacy through specialized education, training and real-world experience.

From this group, the policy adviser's office competitively selects approximately 15 officers to participate in the Embassy Immersion Fellowship. Thanks to past successes and continued support from the State Department's Political-Military Affairs Bureau, the program continues to expand.

"When the program first started out, it was sometimes difficult to find host missions," John said. "But due to the high caliber of Airmen participating and their great worth over the years, this year we had more than 50 missions volunteer to host."

As a result, the program, initially only open to political-military affairs strategists, has now opened to other career fields, most notably the regional affairs strategists and international health specialists.

It also has expanded to a more diverse set of host locations, including new overseas multilateral missions like the U.S. Mission to the African Union, State Department Regional Bureaus U.S. consulates and the first immersions within the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In addition to these locations, officers continue to be hosted by traditional bilateral embassies throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
Because of the diverse backgrounds of participating Airmen and diplomatic missions, each Embassy Immersion Fellowship becomes a unique experience for both the officer and the host.

The only caveat placed on participating missions is that participants may not be placed in any military sections of the embassy, such as the defense attaché or security cooperation office. As a result, Airmen gain better insight and appreciation for the work conducted by the interagency team.

"I worked in a small embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April 2011," said Maj. Richard W. Jokinen, a political-military affairs strategist for the Middle East and Africa Region, Headquarters Air Force. "It was a small embassy with about 10 people who worked very closely with the officials from the African Union."

Jokinen said he gained "invaluable" experience during his time in Africa attending high-level meetings, which he said gave him a better perspective on the workings of the embassy and the role officials must play in a diplomatic capacity to ensure strategic goals are met.

"We sat in on security missions with the African Union to discuss events unfolding in Libya when I was there and the role we would potentially play," Jokinen said.

A noteworthy advantage of the embassy immersion construct is that it not only provides important training to participating Airmen, but it can also be a significant benefit to the host embassies. Embassy Immersion Fellows are often placed into sections of the embassy with reduced or no manning. Often they take on a full-time portfolio designed for an experienced foreign service officer.

"Our embassy immersion participants are doing the same work most foreign service officers don't see until 15 years in (service)," John said. "It's truly remarkable what they are exposed to and are able to accomplish in just a five-week period."

The immersion into African culture through travel during his off time and experience working closely with embassy officials during the fellowship is something Jokinen said he has found helpful after completing the program.

"It helps with credibility in performing my current job," Jokinen said. "I meet with attachés from other countries now and some ask if I have ever been to their country. Through this program I can say yes."

Understanding the cultural and political challenges of a region is essential to Jokinen being successful. He said a person can receive all of the briefings and books in the world, but there is no substitution for "boots on the ground."

At the same time, Embassy Immersion Fellows are often Air Force ambassadors to the local interagency team, helping inform the staff on issues of importance to the Air Force and providing subject-matter expertise on particular defense-related topics.

U.S. Ambassador to the African Union Michael Battle wrote, "Embassy immersion provides a mutually beneficial opportunity to cultivate the growth of future leaders and the skill sets necessary to develop 'whole-of-government' solutions to foreign policy challenges facing our great nation."

"I am impressed by the caliber of the officers who participate in this program and excited to see more Airmen -- including international health specialist noncommissioned officers --taking advantage of this unique opportunity," Newton said. "I wish I could have done this at some point during my career."

With increased emphasis on interagency expertise for military leaders and planners, the Air Force is pioneering formal interagency training today for our military leaders of tomorrow. The Embassy Immersion Fellowship provides a critical component of that training.

(Courtesy of the Air Force Foreign Policy Adviser Office)