On a tour of Alaska with a dozen ambassadors to the United States, T+L gets a rare, unvarnished glimpse of the 49th state through the eyes of the world.
Credit: Jake Stangel

One by one, the ambassadors make their way up the narrow stairway to the flight deck of the USAF C-17 Globemaster III, a $200 million monster of the sky often tricked out to accommodate 100 paratroopers and M-1 Abrams tanks. Outside the cockpit window, seemingly close enough to touch, is the summit of Mount McKinley, the tallest point in North America, 20,320 feet of jagged, snow-covered rock. When the pilot, as much of a hot dogger as one can be steering the Air Force’s flying behemoth, dips his wing to afford a view of the vast peak, the diplomats, hailing from disparate corners of the planet, stand united in awe.

“Incredible,” remarks Her Excellency Faida Mitifu, the distinguished ambassador from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Remarkable,” says Nepal’s Shankar Prasad Sharma, a man who has seen a mountain or two in his life, as he pulls out his pocket camera. However, it is Cornelius Alvin Smith, ambassador to the United States from the Bahamas, where the highest elevation is the 206-foot Mount Alvernia, who provides the perfect review.

“Wow,” he says, diplomatically.

When the U.S. State Department plays tour guide to 37 visiting dignitaries (and one domestic reporter), the trip had best include a few “wow” moments. Started in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, the Experience America program is one of the premier goodwill efforts of the Office of the Chief of Protocol, whose tasks include tending to the foreign diplomatic corps, arranging state functions, and selecting appropriate gifts for dignitaries. The office is currently headed by Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, a woman who seems to have protocol down to a no-nonsense but still warmhearted science: no white-glove fussiness here. She envisions the Experience America trips, wildly popular with visiting dignitaries (and subsidized, she’s careful to note, with private donations), as a chance to “get diplomats outside the Beltway and see what America is really like.” And to dazzle them, of course, with moments like the McKinley flyby.

They also offer ambassadors relief from the tightly orchestrated ceremony and etiquette (not to mention politics) that prescribe their lives in Washington. Marshall points out that Alaska was the diplomats’ first choice of destinations—something about the otherworldly landscapes, the remoteness, appealed to them. That the four-day-long Alaska foray was scheduled to commence on June 21—when the Klondike midnight sun shines most brightly, even through hotel blackout curtains—promised to add an extra, decidedly non-Beltway surrealism to the excursion. All the better, it would seem, to win diplomatic hearts and minds. I was there to see if this would happen—to see if the simple act of traveling really can, as so many claim, break down barriers in this increasingly complex world.

Tour group dynamics are always something of a crapshoot. You never know exactly whom you are going to get. When your fellow travelers include people from places like Bangladesh, Belize, Brunei, Croatia, Guyana, Latvia, Macedonia, and Sweden—individuals who really are accustomed to being called “Your Excellency”—that raises the stakes.

While politics remain largely off the table among the ambassadors (amazingly, the name Sarah Palin never comes up), certain anthropological tendencies are apparent from the start. On the first night, as the diplomats and their spouses gather in the lobby of Anchorage’s Hotel Captain Cook, a surprising schism emerges. The West Indians, Africans, and South Asians mostly congregate on one side of the room while the Europeans speak among themselves. There is something shocking about this, a reverb of the self-segregating high school lunchroom.

This stiffness persists through the early stages of the tour, as the ambassadors are fêted by the local business community. In Alaska, business means oil, and representatives of the petrol multinationals arrive to plead their cases. The ambassadors, several representing low-lying island and coastal nations, are polite, though some are skeptical. Not that issues of natural resource management are going to be solved on an Experience America tour. It isn’t that kind of a trip.

One thing everyone does agree on is how much the world has changed since Alaska was admitted into the union as the 49th state in 1959. Of the 38 nations represented on the tour, 23 were not in existence at the time.

“Twenty-five years ago, I would not be here,” says Russian ambassador Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, who likely would have been suspected as a member of the KGB—or worse. Nonetheless, the 61-year-old Kislyak is still a Russian, which in Alaska, long America’s Cold War front line, imparts a special celebrity. After all, the place once belonged to Czar Alexander II, who sold 586,412 square miles of apparently worthless ice and snow to the United States for $7.2 million in 1867. When I ask if his countrymen regretted selling cheap on what became nearly one-fifth of the U.S. territory, Kislyak delivers a dismissive Russian shrug: “We have plenty of this.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he repeats a story he clearly delights in telling—that the United States never ponied up the cash for the land. In socialist times his countrymen probably did not compute interest, but now they do.

The next day, aboard the C-17, Kislyak will play a role in finally breaking the rapidly thawing ice between the ambassadors. This occurs at 28,000 feet when Temuri Yakobashvili, the quick-witted, cigar-puffing representative from Georgia, announces to his fellow passengers that he has both good news and bad news. “The good news is, I have brought the cups; the bad news is, the Russians are still occupying 20 percent of my country,” he says, drawing a bottle of excellent Georgian cognac from his carry-on. He proceeds to dispense helpings to a far-flung coalition of the very willing, including Kislyak, who accepts the offering with a big smile before returning to his book, Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan, second cousin of George F. Kennan, architect of America’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union.

By the time the C-17 touches down in Barrow, a village of mainly Inupiat Alaska natives more than 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle (it is the northernmost settlement in the Western Hemisphere), full solidarity has taken hold. The diplomats had spent the morning being driven around the massive Prudhoe Bay oil fields by Conoco Phillips representatives and taking group shots in front of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Now they are with the people.

Respect is due the State Department planners for putting Barrow on the itinerary, because if the goal of such tours is to present “the real America,” here is a close version of the unvarnished truth. Nearly 500 of the village’s 4,000 residents have gathered to gawk at the visitors from such unthinkably remote places as the Gambia and Montenegro. Mayor Edward S. Itta does a traditional dance and forges common cause with Hjalmar W. Hannesson, the Icelandic ambassador, over their mutual preoccupation with the hunting restrictions of the International Whaling Commission. A giant spread including mikigaq, fermented whale meat, is set out.

It is a remarkable hour because despite the relative wealth of the Alaskan indigenous people, garnered through the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Barrow is not much to look at. Although outfitted with indoor plumbing and hot water, a rarity in many rural villages, the settlement has a haphazard, dilapidated feel. Broken and bent machinery is everywhere. The place is, simply, as-is. It is a verisimilitude much appreciated by the ambassadors, who can’t stop talking about the place, its incongruities, and the heartfelt greeting they received.

From there, it is pretty much vacation. Bureaucratic body language softens, BlackBerrys are gradually silenced. Back down south on the Kenai Peninsula, the ambassadors are treated to a boat ride on Resurrection Bay. Humpback whales flick their tails, sea lions bray on the shoreline, dolphins play tag in the impossibly dark-blue waters.

Peering over the rail of the boat, Olexander Motsyk, the seemingly laid-back ambassador from Ukraine, tells me that the Alaskan countryside is perhaps the most beautiful he’s ever seen.

Then, unprompted, he smacks me on the arm and says, “I have joke, from Soviet times …. There was a young man, from Siberia, a very little town … Skyktyvkar, which means a place forgotten by God. This boy was sent to Moscow for school. The professor asks him, ‘Tell us what you know about Lenin.’ The boy says he has never heard of Lenin. This is impossible. How can anyone not know Lenin? The professor asks the boy, ‘What do you know of the October Revolution?’ The boy says he knows nothing of the October Revolution. ‘What about Karl Marx?’ Again the boy says he doesn’t know. So everyone in the class is thinking, this boy will be punished, sent to the gulag. But all the professor does is ask the boy what town he is from. The boy tells him. Skyktyvkar. The professor looks out the window and says, ‘Maybe I will move to this Skyktyvkar ….”

With that the Ukrainian ambassador surveys the landscape once more. “Perhaps that is what we all look for, this Skyktyvkar, a place to forget the nonsense we know. A place like this, maybe. Heaven, if heaven has snow.”

The trip back to Anchorage is via the Alaska railroad. The Alaska host committee has hired a local band to play, dinner is served, wine flows freely, and the sun shines through the glass roof of the observation car. Arturo Fermandois, the Chilean ambassador, a genial ham, asks to sit in with the band, bringing the house down with a throaty delivery of John Denver’s 1971 hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Since almost everyone present, from Trinidad to Estonia, knows the lyrics, a sing-along breaks out. Listening to the joyful noise, it is possible to revel in the fact that, issues of fossil fuel and global capital aside, one of America’s most enduring products is the experience of its music, pop and otherwise. In the right midnight sunlight, with the right company, one man’s cultural imperialism easily transmutes to the glorious universal. It makes one wonder: Why isn’t the UN more like this?

Mark Jacobson is the author of the memoir The Lampshade and a contributing editor to New York magazine.