Bar News - October 20, 2006
A Lawyer’s Life: Diplomat’s Tax Law Background Proves Useful
By: Anita S. Becker
The US Ambassador to the Republic of Congo sometimes tries to imagine what his life would be like if he hadn’t made the choice to leave New Hampshire and turn his back on a fledgling career as a tax attorney.
Robert I. Weisberg
“After working at Dartmouth College [as development officer at Dartmouth Medical School from 1977-82], I decided it was time to try my hand in the legal profession; which meant taking the NH Bar exam, even though I was already licensed to practice in New York,” says Robert I. Weisberg, an inactive NH Bar member since 1982 and a newly appointed ambassador. “A close friend suggested that I take the Foreign Service exam, which I decided to do; more to practice taking a test before attempting the NH Bar exam than anything else.”
Weisberg took the Foreign Service written exam in December 1980, the oral exam in June 1981, and applied for security and medical clearances by the end of that year. As he waited for the results, the early months of 1982 were devoted to commuting down to Concord from Hanover several times a week for the bar review course. Weisberg took the bar exam that March, but fate offered other plans. “I was accepted into the Foreign Service in the interim and decided to try it. On my last day in Hanover, I got a letter saying I had passed the bar exam,” says Weisberg. “I have often wondered how my life might have worked out if these events had been reversed in timing.”
After living in 11 countries over 23 years as a US Foreign Service officer, Weisberg was sworn-in as ambassador to the Republic of Congo on March 21, 2006. Those not up on geography often confuse The Republic of Congo with its neighbor, the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter has a land area of 876,000 sq. mi. with a population of 62.7 million compared to 132,047 sq. mi. and 3.7 million people for the Republic of Congo.
“I am actually ambassador across the river from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), in the Republic of Congo, capital Brazzaville,” explains Weisberg. “A much smaller country, but one with its own issues: it is still recovering from a brutal civil war in the later 1990s that resulted in thousands of deaths and the ruin of much of the nation’s infrastructure. We are trying to promote transparency and good governance, especially in the energy sector—this Congo is the fourth largest oil producer in Africa. We are also managing assistance programs focused on food security, HIV/AIDS, conservation/environment, and education.”
Now stationed at the US Embassy in Brazzaville, Weisberg most recently came from an assignment as the deputy chief of mission in Helsinki, Finland. A move that would result in culture shock for many is taken in stride by the globe-hopping Weisberg.
“I have served in 11 countries, and have made some extreme moves in terms of climate, culture and politics,” he says. “One of the essential traits for any diplomat is flexibility. In my most recent transition from Finland to Congo, I have transferred from a well-established embassy of 65 Americans to a start-up operation with six, and gone from one of the most advanced, transparent and progressive societies in the world to one of the poorest nations.” One of Weisberg’s first orders of business in his new post is overseeing the construction of a new embassy compound to replace the one that was destroyed during civil unrest eight years ago.
To prepare for this assignment, he spent nearly seven months in Washington, DC, working on his French language skills, and reading all he could gather on the Congo region and on Africa. Weisberg speaks Italian, Spanish, Russian and French. During his preparation, he also received briefings from a variety of US government agencies and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
From 1984 to 1986, Weisberg served at the US Embassy in Moscow, where he was an active participant in the Mission’s outreach to Soviet dissidents and Soviet Jews who had been refused exit visas. In 1992, he helped open two embassies in former Soviet Union republics. He has been commended for leading successful efforts to eliminate host country taxation of US Embassies in Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Venezuela, and Indonesia.
While assigned to Indonesia, from 2000 to 2002, Weisberg oversaw the opening of the US Embassy in Dili, East Timor. Also during this tour, he organized the successful evacuation of more than 200 US government employees and their families from the midst of extreme political unrest and violent demonstrations. During that period, he received a Medal for Outstanding Y2K Service from the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion for significantly contributing to the Department of State’s overall preparedness for the change in millennium.
Every assignment is so different from the next that Weisberg says there is no way to completely prepare for it besides staying flexible. “Foreign Service Officers spend their entire careers not knowing what issue is coming around the corner next. My second tour in Moscow, in the Soviet period, was so rife with unexpected and difficult challenges, that I think for the rest of my career I will be ready for anything!”
A native of Maryland, Weisberg is a graduate of Haverford College, the University of North Carolina’s School of Law, and the National War College. He is an inactive member of the New York and New Hampshire Bars.
Weisberg’s main interests at law school were tax and criminal law, and he worked one summer as a clerk for the New York State Tax Commission. “When I graduated law school and after I took the NY Bar exam, I decided to aim for a career in academia. My first job was in California, and two years later I came to New Hampshire.”
Despite a very brief legal career, Weisberg’s law degree has served him well in his State Department positions. “A legal background is of tremendous help in international relations because much of my work has involved negotiations, understanding of host country regulations and practices (especially as they have affected our embassies and US government personnel assigned overseas).” He continues, “Certainly, the work I did in eliminating host country taxation (VAT and sales taxes) from our missions in Norway, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Venezuela and Indonesia was a direct result of my ability to do legal research (and not only in English!), to look for precedents, and to understand how to apply some very old treaties to modern-day tax situations.”
Over all the years and numerous postings, Weisberg has kept in touch with his old friends. “All ambassadors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. I was nominated for this position in November 2005, confirmed in February 2006, sworn in the end of March, and assumed my duties in Congo in April. I was especially pleased that several close friends from my [Hanover] days journeyed from New England to attend the swearing-in ceremony at the State Department; including Grant Healey [a colleague from the development field], who was the friend who originally suggested that I take the exam. It is no easy task to get this far, and I am grateful for the many people who helped me along the way.”
One of the many people to support Weisberg is his wife, Nergish, who is with him in Congo doing volunteer work at hospitals and schools. The Weisbergs have a son, Cyrus, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has been with his parents on every assignment until now. “We do expect him to visit,” says Weisberg.
Asked if he plans to come back and settle down in New Hampshire after his long journey around the world, Weisberg cautiously plays it safe, commenting, “My retirement plans are still not set, but I certainly would hope to reactivate my [NH] bar membership at some point.”
Passionate about his work, Weisberg is willing to share his knowledge with others. “I would be pleased to talk with anyone in the Bar (or anyone’s children) who might be interested in pursuing a career with the Department of State.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.