A changing role has dictated a change in what recruiters look for in aspiring diplomats. There is less emphasis on table manners and skill at reversing in the waltz and more, much more, on a good grasp of international affairs and global economics. A knowledge of French – once the indispensable language of diplomacy – might still come in handy, but fluency in Mandarin or Arabic is now the golden key to the door of a diplomatic career.
In the age of the internet and the cell phone, a mental, strategic, and political agility is another must. “We are making decisions in real time,” says Elena Poptodorova, Bulgaria’s departing (in October) woman in Washington. Time was when an ambassador waited for days for instructions from his government to arrive in the diplomatic pouch. The good news today is, as one foreign ambassador put it, “you don’t have to make it up. You really know [because] you’re in constant communication with your capital.” The bad news: the curse of the Blackberry. Home capitals can find their diplomats anywhere, at any time.
The frequently asked question is whether the speed of communication and the ability of leaders to talk direct or video-conference with their counterparts, plus the advent of world-wide, 24-hour news cycles, has removed the need for expensive embassies – made them “relics of the days of sailing ships,” as independent presidential candidate Ross Perot once put it (he wanted to abolish them).
Speed and technology have certainly transformed the way diplomats do business; but relics? At their best, they provide the quality and context without which information delivered fast has little merit. While CNN reports the news faster than any embassy can, “governments these days rely on you for an accurate assessment of what the news means,” Vimont says. “They already have the facts. What they want is to have them placed in context.” Besides, as the anonymous diplomat quoted earlier pointed out, an ambassador “tries to involve himself in the decision-making process before the decision is taken.” Once CNN has the story, the diplomat’s room to maneuver becomes limited.
And an ambassador can still argue with considerable justification that despite the changes, the essentials remain the same. “My role is to promote my country to the United States in its entirety,” says Estonia’s Vaino Reinart.
Sir Christopher Meyer, the genial former British ambassador, was even – typically – more blunt. In his revealing memoirs, D.C. Confidential, Meyer declares, “An ambassador and an embassy exist to advance the national interest. There is no other justification for their existence. Stripped to its core, this means safeguarding British security and British prosperity.”
This multi-purpose activity has taken many forms. For a long time, the British Embassy had a diplomat whose main job was to lobby members of a congenitally pro-Irish Congress on London’s perspective on Northern Ireland. For years, the embassy successfully blocked Sinn Fein leader Jerry Adams’s yearly efforts to obtain a U.S. visa. More recently, the embassy persuaded the administration to postpone the introduction of biometric passports until Britain was ready to issue them.
Poptodorova says the toughest task of her five-year assignment was “to break down the prejudice of some key members of Congress against Bulgaria’s membership in NATO.” She adds – “I recall Sen. [John] Warner telling me to my face, ‘I don’t see any reason for enlarging NATO, and still less for admitting Bulgaria as a member.’ ” It took “different stages of persuasion,” to get the skeptics to support Bulgaria joining the Atlantic Alliance, but three years later – in 2006 – no voice was raised against the U.S.-Bulgarian bi-lateral defense cooperation agreement that led to setting up three U.S. military bases along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.
All of which points to the intense competition in the Washington diplomatic environment. Twenty years ago there were barely a hundred foreign embassies; today, the number has jumped to more than 200, all vying for the attention and cooperation of the U.S. administration and the U.S. Congress. “We are in the market like everybody else,” Poptodorova adds. “When I try to measure my success I count the people whom I know rather than the people who know me.”
To cover all the bases, foreign ambassadors put a lot of effort into cultivating as many contacts as their entertainment budget accommodate. As a result, Washington’s embassies have always been closely woven into the capital’s social fabric: they are part of its economy, its culture, and they even provide some of its juicier scandals. The constraints of more work and tighter budgets have recently resulted in a scaling down in embassy entertaining, but the diplomatic party circuit remains an important component in Washington social life.
Ambassadors also spend more time on the road than they once did. “Washington can keep you busy seven days a week, but in addition to the political engagement here, you have to reach out to the different states as often as you can,” observed Estonia’s Reinart, who in his one year in Washington has already visited California, Florida, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Illinois.
Like most of his colleagues, Reinart is one of his nation’s top diplomats. Which is why foreign envoys raise a quizzical eyebrow at the peculiar American practice of training diplomats to be ambassadors and then giving the plum posts to political appointees with no training. Rarely does a professional U.S. ambassador find himself in London, Paris, or Rome. While foreign governments appoint their most seasoned professionals to Washington, reflecting this country’s importance, the U.S. – with varying results – routinely sends businessmen and women to key capitals with the sole qualification of having written a fat check to the president’s election campaign. Their task – “to lie abroad for the good of their country,” as the famous saying goes.
Political appointee or not, is the charge of lying a bum rap? “We [diplomats] never admit that we lie, and that is a basic rule,” says Indian Foreign Minister Shiv Shankar Menon, himself a former ambassador to China and Israel. “But more than that, falsehood or agreements based on falsehood just don’t work … pretty soon the falsehood will be exposed.”
More to the point, it’s a two-way street. Diplomats will point out in their own defense that they are in any case as much lied to by governments as lying.
Because it tends to be the pinnacle of a diplomat’s career, the high-powered life in Washington is often followed by the anti-climactic calm of retirement. “You miss the diversity of experience,” says Vimont, looking ahead, and “the excitement of being in foreign countries.”
And, of course, the perks of office. This reporter once asked Sir Oliver Wright, a popular former British ambassador to the United States, what his retirement was like. His reply: “Last night my wife and I went to the theater. When we came out, it was raining, people were scrambling for taxis. Then a big Rolls-Royce drew up outside. But it wasn’t for me.”