When I picture an ambassador, I picture a huge hoard of businessmen stepping off a plane in France or Thailand or Zambia, to shake hands with another group of businessmen. Two lines of businessmen form, they shake hands with the person across, and one line shifts. The process repeats and every businessman has now accepted all the follow-requests from the other businessmen on his finsta– BFF’s only. And world peace commences! However, Ambassador (ret.) Mark Storella enlightened me that while being a diplomat involves a fair amount of “glad-handing” at ceremonies and commemorations with bigshots– whether or not they have finstagrams is still to be determined– it’s much more about making personal connections including with normal people.
Storella was born in 1959. He is a graduate of the Roxbury-Latin School and received his Bachelor of Arts in History of Science at Harvard University and his Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. According to Storella, being an ambassador was not at the very top of his mind. Prior to his assignment as ambassador, Storella did a lot of work with refugees. But it turned out he thought ambassadorship was a wonderful experience once he finally got the chance.
Communication and collaboration are key to being a fine diplomat. Cliché? Extremely. Essential? Even more so. As a former Deputy Chief of Mission in the US Embassy of Brussels, Storella reflected: “[he learned] the importance of maintaining relations with our close allies. This meant attending a million commemorations of WWI, WWII, the Treaty of Ghent, the Battle of Waterloo, often with senior people like Angela Merkel there.”
Most of the interview was indeed discussing his experiences in Belgium. I began to wonder if perhaps his time in Belgium was his favorite posting, but from the steady flow of energy in his voice when discussing his travels to Zambia, I realized he could talk about all his travels all day. There was a bit of nostalgia in his voice when, at the very beginning of the meeting, I asked to jot down his name and official title– he gets to keep the ambassador title, Storella said with a sigh, but with “ret.” in parenthesis for “retired.”
While spending time with officials, Storella also made clear that diplomats must reach out to young people, too. During his time as a U.S. Ambassador in Zambia, Storella and his fellow U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe realized they needed ways to reach a greater audience. Storella remarked that he was, and likely still is, not good at tweeting. However, Storella realized, “pop icons” such as Miss USA were Twitter experts. With the help of the young members of the Peace Corps, Miss USA, and a great number of Zambian youngsters, the U.S Ambassadors were able to educate the Zambian public on a number of important issues, such as HIV/AIDS and sports empowerment for girls (Miss USA was a volleyball All American!). Working with the founding Zambian President and children, they established a “Zambian Freedom Trail” that highlighted Zambia’s own fight for rights and independence.
Storella also spoke especially fondly of the Peace Corps, some of whom he described as extremely courageous, very far from home. I again pictured more businessmen shaking hands- this time with more hair on their scalps- but Storella was quick to explain. The Peace Corps is a U.S. governmental agency that sends volunteers to work on development projects in countries around the world. One example of the work of the Peace Corps was fish farming. Storella seemed slightly baffled by my fascination with fish farming. These fish, a great source of protein, were raised in huge water-filled holes in the ground. Storella recalled visiting these Peace Corps volunteers to show support for their work and walking by these giant fish tanks set into the earth through the work of entire villages, which sounded like some odd tumultuous dream before the AP Environmental Science exam. However, I didn’t have much time to dwell on the fish before Storella name-dropped a world-famous feminist icon, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Storella could not keep a smile off his face– he was grinning like a Cheshire Cat as he said: “Even though she had a large team with her and access to all sorts of briefings and intelligence, before every event she would bring the group together and say, ‘Let’s ask the ambassador to set the scene. What will be important to the Zambian president in this meeting?’ She valued the views of her people on the ground.” His sheer excitement was contagious, and even though it was clear that he had told these stories countless times, this encounter still contained its novelty.
Frankly, I don’t know much about history, so Storella provided me with a little tangential preview of APUSH. The 1944-5 Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. in World War II, around the Belgian town of Bastogne. Ultimately, the turning point came when the Germans asked American General Anthony McAuliffe, on behalf of the Allies, to surrender, to which McAuliffe famously replied “Nuts!” Storella said he was in Belgium on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, so he was there for the annual “Nuts Fair” when the U.S. ambassador and the mayor of Bastogne hurled walnuts to a cheering crowd to commemorate the event.
It is in these moments of intense courage and nut-catapulting that I am truly proud of this country; but these moments pass. Storella believes that although America truly attempts to be fair and respectful, it does have some slip-ups. We discussed the widespread problems with the inequality of humanitarian aid for refugees. For every dollar raised for every Ukrainian refugee, only 25 cents are raised for every other neglected refugee. However, Storella believes that overall, America slays. As a grand finale, I ranted, in essence, about my own fear of public speaking; to which Storella recalled statistics that show how a fear of public speaking seems to be even greater than a fear of death. Storella’s advice was simple: public speaking talent is not genetic; the only way to get over the fear is to simply do it. However, his role as captain of his high school debate team seems to suggest otherwise.