Global diplomacy is not for beginners

By Earle Scarlett

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

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WHAT to make of this latest episodic media flurry over President Obama naming political ambassadors to plush diplomatic postings and limiting the majority of career ambassadors to conflict-ridden and developing countries?

For many years it has been common practice for US Presidents to nominate as ambassadors personal friends and significant contributors to their election campaigns. In this instance, over one-third of current ambassadors are political appointees. As a result, some retired diplomats are expressing indignation and even public outcry.

As expected, aspiring active diplomats are dispirited and presumably grumbling sub rosa about this practice, which diminishes their chances to become chiefs of mission or to land desired senior positions in the US Department of State and other departments with a foreign service, such as Commerce and Agriculture, as well as the US Agency for International Development (before its amalgamation into the State Department over a decade ago, USIA was responsible for public diplomacy). These appointments, with Senate consent, customarily take place early in a new Administration or as vacancies arise, although frequently delayed by the vetting process and
partisan politics.

Nominating ambassadors is a presidential prerogative and not in question here. However, the central issue is whether the choices are based on two pre-eminent considerations: capability and morale. Both are critical for diplomatic readiness as
the US deploys skilled representatives to pursue its national interests abroad. With this in mind, it is imperative that new ambassadors possess appropriate skills and training to promote in a timely fashion the country's objectives even in difficult and dangerous situations. Equally important is that the diplomats grasp the institutional complexities at home to be effective abroad, especially dealing with both foreign officials and publics. Such situations require calibrating embassy mission strategy with complementary advocacy to achieve certain goals in bilateral and multilateral relations.

Arguably, business enterprises set priorities and contingencies and think tanks, and journalists often provide valuable insights. But it's the seasoned US diplomat who Washington charges to provide unvarnished on-the-ground perspectives not for monetary profit or academic accolades but out of professional pride and duty. Similarly, at the end of the day, foreign service officers working on geographic and functional desks in Washington are obliged to sift the plethora of information with colleagues in both the executive and legislative branches. Ultimately the secretary of state needs to be current to brief the president and other members in the national security decision-making process.

Clearly, astute political appointees can learn diplomatic 'trade craft' and become skilful. Some are open to learning and draw from their previous experience as they assume the responsibilites of the new job. This was the case of the President Clinton's ambassador to Ireland with whom I served as deputy chief of mission. While helpful, a crash course in diplomacy is still insufficient to be optimally effective.

By contrast, there are unfortunately political appointees with limited knowledge of issues relevant to US interests and woefully uninformed about the country to which they are assigned. Similarly, they have limited exposure to regional issues and geo-politics, and have no foreign language aptitude or interest. These liabilities can weaken bilateral relations.

Personal intelligence and drive are not enough to enable ambassadors to handle the ebb and flow in countries whose ethos and modus operandi are vastly different from thiers. In such situations, flexibilty, adaptability, and prescience are among the requisite attributes for artful diplomacy. Operationalising is often critical.

Beyond capability, morale and esprit de corps are indispensable for a foreign service officer's effectiveness and career trajectory. Job performance is linked to this. Importantly, the US foreign service culture embraces tireless and purposeful work, and respects fairness and willingness to tackle daunting challenges. Promotions and assignments are connected. With this in mind, as the numbers of political ambassadors increase, the prospects for career ambassadorial positions decrease, thereby creating discomfort among aspiring junior and middle-grade diplomats.

It makes sense that, in selecting ambassadors, the national interest should override personal affiliations and financial contributions for political campaigns. That being the case, the president should give more weight to individual capability, experience, and institutional morale when he nominates ambassadors. The Senate should do likewise when it deliberates on candidates. This approach would enable them select the best candidate among potential political or career ambassadors under consideration. Failure to do that short-changes the American people.

And the caveat still stands: Diplomacy is not for beginners!

Earle Scarlett is a retired senior career US diplomat with gobal experience. He was director of political training at the George Shultz Foreign Affairs Training Center, Department of State; oral examiner of candidates for the foreign service; and Dean Rusk Fellow at The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He resides in Atlanta.




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