For those few of you who may not know, around 30 percent of American Ambassadors “earn” those positions through patronage. They buy these usually cushy European, Canadian and Caribbean posts by contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Presidential candidate’s election bid. It used to be that the spare change came out of an individual’s pocket, but more recently the key has been successful campaign fund-raising among the party faithful. George Mascolo’s “Embassies for Sale: Want to Become Bush’s Next Ambassador?” in the June 27 Der Spiegel reminded me once again of the pitfalls of this quaint, largely made-in-the USA custom.
American political appointee Ambassadors are usually neophytes – all too often innocents abroad – as opposed to career people who have worked their way up the ranks of the all too hierarchical U.S. foreign service and have had extensive exposure to the country, language and culture to which they are being assigned – e.g. the professionals usually know something about the country of their posting, or if not, know how to make an Embassy function, the policies of whatever the administration is in the White House and how to deliver them as well as basic Ambassadorial does and don’ts.
As someone who worked for both political and career Ambassadors in a number of European and Southeast Asian posts, here are a few - albeit unsolicited - pieces of advice to the neophyte. I call them – for lack of a better term - ten rules for U.S. Ambassadorial political-appointees:
1. Eschew substance. You probably don’t know the issues and won’t be able to explain them properly to experienced career diplomats at the foreign ministry or in the President or Prime Minister’s office. Its embarrassing to botch it up; so don’t try. That’s why you have career staff – including a deputy chief of mission and political and economic officers who have spent their lives learning the intricacies of this arcana and can read and understand State Department bureaucratize. Let them take care of it. Besides, do you really want to spend your time writing reporting cables back to Washington on a topic you don’t understand? Like the U.S.-Finnish coated-paper dispute, for instance? I doubt it.
2.Entertain and expect to spend a considerable amount of your own money to entertain properly. One of the best things you can do is provide a comfortable setting in your lovely-residence-behind-bars for the substantive people on your staff to meet with the movers-and-shakers in whatever foreign country you happen to be in. Playing gracious host or hostess can go a long way to establishing cordial personal relationships. That’s what the residence and its staff is for. And they make it incredibly easy for you to do just that. All you need to pay is for some of the food and drink because Congress never provides adequate representation funds to cover the entertaining required of your position. Besides, you’re drawing a tidy six figure government salary plus numerous perks for living abroad that include free housing, a paid staff, a car and driver, and international air travel. If you could afford to buy the title and what comes with it, you can certainly expend some of your own fortune on entertaining.
3.Travel. Show the flag. Take advantage of those invitations to visit the backwoods of whatever country you are assigned to, but make sure the trip is coordinated well in advance by an Embassy staffer, or staffers who can make your trip proceed seamlessly. And take that staffer along – you never know when you’ll need him or her to handle an unexpected detail or cope with a logistical glitch. An accompanying spouse can be an asset; but find out from your hosts how welcome yours is to tag along.
4.Don’t become a slave to embassy security. You’re probably assigned to a relatively safe country with its very own competent national police and security. It’s not you, but the career people who draw the hell-holes mired in civil war and bathed in infrequent electricity. If you allow your security detail to imprison you – as is their wont – you’re a) fenced in behind those wretched bars and you might as well be back in Peoria; and b) not doing your job because you won’t be available to meet people; or show the flag - even if you and the “Stars and Stripes” are largely viewed akin to traveling traders during the plague thanks to the Bush Administration’s ill-conceived and executed Iraq policy.
5.Don’t expect the Public Diplomacy staffer(s) to: a) be your protocol secretary; b) be your spouse’s protocol secretary; c) an art restorer, exhibit curator or picture hanger; d) your gift package wrapper; e) your caterer; f) your bag carrier; or g) your speech writer for personal functions. PD should, however, provide you with guest lists of cultural, media and sometimes political and economic types well worth knowing and entertaining. Someone in Public Diplomacy should also be able to connect you to a professional and local art restorer – if your carefully selected “Art in Embassy” collection arrives in less than mint condition.
6.Learn the names of Embassy staff and their spouses regardless of rank or position. This might really come in handy if you need to have your toilet unstopped or make introductions at a party. But don’t allow your spouse to call upon Embassy spouses or employees to do his or her personal bidding. The days of the regal Madame “Ambassadress” disappeared in the early 1970s. Spouses these days do not roll bandages or bake cookies for anyone’s pet charity bazaar – unless they so choose. Most spouses are professionals in their own right. They may also be half of a tandem – a career Foreign Service couple both of whom are Embassy staff and on the country’s Diplomatic Registry. Regardless, no Embassy spouses are sources of free labor to be tapped by either you or yours. Yet, if you treat them as equal and intelligent human beings, you’ll find some are a wealth of information and support. And you might even like their kids.
7.Don’t get trapped into substantive media interviews or speeches. If you must make such a speech, be sure it is written by someone on the staff that knows the policy and writes speeches well. Also if a speech needs Washington clearance, give yourself enough time to obtain the requisite approval from the powers that be at State. Your public diplomacy staff can do this and also rehearse you before delivery. Don’t engage in a question period – this is where your lack of substance knowledge shines through. A faux-pas can embarrass the U.S. and you personally. Media interviews can be far trickier than speeches. If you’re weak on substance, avoid substantive reporters and interviews. Assign someone else on your staff to handle them.
8.Don’t engage in potential financial improprieties: it’s against the law to trade in financials of the country to which you are posted because of your access to privileged embassy information and analysis. This is not a perk for private gain.
9.Don’t expect everyone to like you because you’re the American Ambassador. In fact, because you are the personal and official American representative of this country’s least popular president, don’t expect everyone you meet to cozy up. Depending on the country, you might want to foregoe flying those cute little flags on your Ambassadorial limousine as you drive about town. Better yet, you might try to persuade the department to allow the Embassy to purchase a smaller, less ostentatious, more fuel efficient non-American car to cart you about.
10.Finally, read all the books and articles you can get your hands on about the country to which you are being assigned - this includes fiction, film, drama, poetry, art, music, religion, travel as well as history, politics and sociology. Think of the position as an adventure. But maybe on one of those long, dark afternoons, if you need some comic relief about past diplomatic life written from the viewpoint of a sardonic British Press Attache assigned to the Balkans in days gone by – try Lawrence Durrell’s Esprit de Corps or Stiff Upper Lip - preferably while sitting in an easy chair next to the roaring fire with a double vodka martini in hand while the career staff does the work.