George W Bush's Key Man Inside Wales; Profile: Mark Burnett

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Byline: ROBERT JONES

The events of September 11 have left an indelible mark on Welsh-American relations.

"There was a sense of Welsh solidarity with the US, " said the Welsh Affairs Officer at the American Embassy, Mark Burnett.

"Messages and cards came pouring in from all over Wales and fund-raising events were staged like the one at Bridgend where local fire-fighters raised money for their colleagues in New York."

One senses this is a little more than the language of diplomacy. It is a genuine reaction to the events of that time.

"It helped bring us comfort at a difficult time, " he said.

Thirty-two year-old Mr Burnett was appointed Welsh Affairs Officer in July last year, after the departure of Bostonian Sonya Tsiros, who was the first to hold this office.

His responsibilities are to co-ordinate the Embassy's activities in Wales by spending several days a month here.

He said, "My time is spent following politics in Wales at the National Assembly and on the commercial side learning about the business prospects in Wales by having meetings with business people, both Welsh and American. I liaise with the Welsh Development Agency to find out how Objective One funding is working and the role played by the European Commission."

Raised in the sunshine state of California, Mr Burnett grew up on the fringes of an agricultural community where grapes, fruits and nuts were the major crops.

He left home at 18 to experience life on the east coast, enrolling at the foreign service school of Georgetown University, Washington DC, with the view to pursuing what he called "an international career".

It was, he recalls, a structured programme in international affairs, trade and economics to which was added the study of French and Russian.

After completing his degree, he decided to take the foreign service exams and joined the State Department in 1992.

"My first assignment was a post at the US embassy in Kazakhstan, " he said.

The suggestion that this was an ideal training ground for his future work in Wales, does elicit a laugh before diplomatic relations are restored.

"So I spent a great deal of time travelling around central Asia engaged in economic and environmental work, and assisting the ambassador."

From central Asia to central London is the kind of cultural leap a diplomat is expected to take in his stride.

On his posting to the UK, Mr Burnett found himself engaged on consular work involving the issuing of non-immigrant visas offered by the US government to British businessmen and women looking to invest in the US.

This was a chance to learn the mechanics of promoting trade and investment between the two nations based on the existing bilateral treaty.

"I can recall very few Welsh investors applying for this visa, " he said.

"Now one of the projects I am working on as WAO is to arrange workshops between our commercial department and Welsh investors who are keen to learn about the opportunities available to those thinking of setting up in the US and international trade links between the US and UK."

This is, he believes, one way the WAO role can be positive in promoting business and commerce, in addition to speaking at chambers of commerce and business schools.

When he began his year as the American Embassy's man in Cardiff, the foot-andmouth crisis was still a problem in Wales, with much of the countryside closed and farmers suffering. This brought home the impact it was having on tourism along with the September 11 factor.

These are the observations of an emissary at large.

Returning to the long-term reasons for his presence in Wales, he explains it was the embassy's desire to follow devolution and its impact on the course of people's lives.

"The Assembly is something I spend a great deal of time following, " he said. …