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Diplomatic Community

L.A. was once the place consuls came before retiring. Those days are over.

June 24, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stepping out onto the wide green lawn behind the Getty House, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn looked shellshocked. He had just spent several grueling hours in what would soon be proved a vain attempt to keep the secession of the San Fernando Valley off November's ballot. Then he got stuck in traffic, so he was a half hour late to his own party.

But in a way, this particular party was the perfect ending to an imperfect day. Because the guests helping themselves to turkey burgers and Chinese chicken salad in the mayoral backyard were the city's foreign diplomats and it would be difficult to find a bigger group of L.A. boosters not wearing Laker colors.

"This is where it all happens--industry, style, film, high tech--it all begins in California," said Colin Robertson, consul general of Canada. "This is one of the most important cities in the world."

"This is the most international city in the world," said Luis Kreckler, the consul general of Argentina who was recently named dean of the corps. "There is no other place like this anywhere."

Certainly such words were balm for the mayor's soul, but beyond the enthusiasm that might be expected from a diplomat for his host city, these sentiments and the assembly in which they are spoken, symbolize how the world has come to think of L.A. The city's consular corps has changed, just as the city has changed.

Just 10 years ago, Los Angeles was considered by many members of the international diplomatic corps as a "retirement post," a place to enjoy the sunshine, improve one's tennis game and perhaps coax celebrities into appearing at celebrations. Here, career diplomats could rest up, get a nice tan before being pensioned out.

One look at the group gathered at the Getty--men and women in the prime of their careers--makes it clear that this has changed. Those posted to L.A. these days are senior enough to handle what is an assignment on par with heading an embassy--many are, in fact, ambassadors--but young enough still to be hungry for action, for currying trade and tourism, for alerting the home office about trends in everything from footwear to tax assessment. Young enough to want to redefine diplomacy and to do it in the city they realize is on the vanguard of just about everything.

Ten years ago, Los Angeles had fewer consulates than San Francisco and Chicago. Now, with 86 career and honorary consul generals, L.A. trails only Washington, D.C., and New York. But while in the latter two cities a large diplomatic community is virtually a requirement--what with Embassy Row in Washington and the United Nations in New York--the community in L.A. has grown because a variety of foreign governments sees the West Coast as the center of the new economy and L.A. as the center of the West Coast.

Industry, Technology

"We are indeed a gateway city," Hahn told the diplomats as evening fell. "To the Pacific Rim, to Asia, to Mexico and Central and South America. But now in the age of the Internet, we are also a gateway, through industry and technology, to Europe, to the world."

"It is now one of the Top 10 postings in the world," said Elga Sharpe, director of protocol for Hahn. "The economy is booming; it's a diverse community and that makes it interesting. The diplomats here are very senior, many are ambassadors. They come here to see how we do business."

And to see what the world of the 21st century might look like. According to census data, almost 40% of people living in Los Angeles are foreign born. As the leader of the corps, Kreckler wants to raise awareness and understanding of his job and that of his colleagues, and in doing so make even native Angelenos more appreciative of the role this city will play--is playing--in the new economy.

"People think we are all about protocol, about parties and dinners and issuing visas," Kreckler said. "But we are doing business; diplomacy now is business and that is especially true in Los Angeles."

Robertson describes what he does as a new diplomacy for a new economy--the job is less about image and more about real connection. "We are really post-political diplomats," he said. "Politics doesn't matter as much as regulation, who's in office doesn't matter as much as who's running the companies."

The recent growth of the corps in Los Angeles is especially striking since it occurred during a decade of budgetary streamlining and new standards of bottom-line justification in the diplomatic corps worldwide. Gone are any echoes of the Graham Greene consulate, open three days a week from 1 to 4, when diplomats conducted their business on the tennis court or over a gin and tonic, and reserved their charm for visiting dignitaries.

Now, members of the foreign service say almost to a person that their governments want to know exactly what they're up to--how many citizens are being served, how many foreign trade groups have been hosted, how many deals have materialized and what it means in dollars, or yen, or dinars.

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