Diplomatic Dance: Back to School for New Ambassadors

by Editorial

Diplomats-in-training are surprised to discover that prepping for a new post involves much more than language lessons and protocol seminars.
By Roland Flamini


As prominent Washington real estate developer Stuart Bernstein remembers it, he was sitting in a bus looking out at the tree-lined road when the vehicle scraped to a sudden halt. Armed men with ski masks covering their faces forced open the door and burst into the bus, shouting and menacing the passengers with their weapons. But this was Fort Bragg, N.C., and the terrorist attack had been staged to give the dozen or so newly nominated U.S. ambassadors in the bus a foretaste of what could happen in their respective foreign posts (but hopefully would not). Even knowing it was a simulation, recalls Bernstein – a George W. Bush ambassador to Denmark – the attack “was still very real. The Special Forces who carried out the hostage taking and the rescue did a wonderful job.”

Fort Bragg was then the envoys’ field day (now it’s McGill Air Base, Tampa) in a two week crash course officially known as the Ambassadorial Seminar, but referred to at the State Department somewhat derisively as “The Charm School.” The seminar is crucial because since the Kennedy presidency around 30 percent of ambassadorial posts are regularly filled from outside the U.S. Foreign Service by White House appointees.

“The purpose of the course is really to help nominees to learn about the ambassadorial role they are going to play,” says Tracey Jacobson, deputy director of the Arlington-based Foreign Service Institute, which holds the seminar. In accepting to serve as American ambassadors most of the nominees are as much venturing into the unknown as if they were walking into a dark room; the course helps them to locate the light switch. The amount of information packed into the two weeks is voluminous – rather like trying to speed read “Moby Dick.” Participants are briefed on foreign policy by an undersecretary and attend a two-day media course that includes facing hostile reporters at a mock press conference, making a speech before an unfriendly audience, and learning to handle television appearances. They also meet top officials from other government agencies with overseas interests, such as the Agency for International Development (AID) and –inevitably – the CIA.

Newly appointed career ambassadors are also required to take the course, creating a mix can be an awkward experience, but, according to participants, rarely is. State Department professionals have long resented a political system that hands out the plum posts to major campaign contributors and presidential friends. This is not to say that many noncareer ambassadors haven’t distinguished themselves in the past, ot don’t continue to do so. But career diplomats “understand from early on that there is not much chance we are going to get a call for an embassy in Europe,” declares Thomas B. Robertson, a former ambassador who until recently was a senior member of the Foreign Service Institute.

“There is a little bit of tension,” concedes attorney Sue McCourt Cobb, a former George W. Bush ambassador to Jamaica and a onetime co-chairman of the seminar. “But the ambassador’s role is all about leadership. The outside intake (i.e. political appointees) brings tremendous leadership from other areas. Leaders have skills that are transferable.” She and others say that blending career nominees with political appointees in the course has been mutually beneficial. Careerists get a fresh perspective, and the political appointees pick up useful information from the professionals.

A variation of the bus hijacking that really pumped the adrenaline was a mid-air hostage taking attack described by Penne Korth Peacock, George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Mauritius. Shortly after taking off in a small plane to Jekyll Island, Ga., for the security part of the course, “the toilet door was suddenly whacked open,” she recalls. An armed man clad in black raced down the aisle, yanked her to her feet, and forced her to read a statement denouncing the U.S. government. “Intellectually you know they’re trying to make you aware of the dangers you might face,” Korth says, “but it was still very frightening.”

Bernstein recalls “being taken into a room where there were four chairs. I sat on one, and they placed dummies on the other three. Then the room went black, there were a lot of gun flashes, and when the lights came back on the dummies were lying on the floor.” Then-Senator Barack Obama caused a flutter of anticipation during the 2008 presidential campaign by saying that, “Too often ambassadorships have served as political rewards for unqualified candidates.” Many took this to mean that he planned to end the diplomatic spoils system as part of his proclaimed climate of change. But the key words – the lawyer’s escape clause – were “unqualified candidates.” The Obama White House has doled out as many ambassadorships to political appointees as previous administrations had done, and for pretty much the same reason. According to an analysis by the Center for Responsible Politics, 21 ambassadorial nominees, including wives and children, contributed $117,100 to Obama, and bundled around $4 million for his presidential campaign.

The course is obligatory, Jacobson says, because the nominees “get the best information, the best contacts– and food for thought.” A former career ambassador to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, she is an alumna of the seminar. But is it enough to turn a neophyte into one of the nation’s ambassadors? Bernstein, a long-time fund raising powerhouse for the Republicans, says the course “opened up a new world. I know how to run a business and how to deal with people, but the seminar got me to know the way the system works,” he says. But Kathryn Proffitt, a former communications executive from Denver who was Clinton’s nominee as ambassador to Malta, feels the program was short shrift.

“It was good: it gave us a real working knowledge of how the State Department works, what happens in a crisis and what to do about it – and the networking was invaluable,” was her summing up. “We were in a class of about 20 nominees, and we really bonded.” Yet despite the volume of information, “the program is pretty minimal, and not that intense. There were many more things that we needed, like protocol. We had a lecture about it, but it wasn’t country specific. Not enough time was spent focusing on such issues as the importance of the political opposition. By the end of the seminar you hadn’t learned enough to ask the right questions.” Proffitt said each nominee had to supplement the course with a lot of personal interviewing and research to be up to speed – and not everyone did. She thinks the seminar should be twice as long, four weeks instead of two. Alternatively, there should be a follow-on six months later.

And here’s an amazing fact about the seminar: in more than four decades of ambassadorial courses, not one nominee has ever said, “This is too much for me: I want to go back to Goldman Sachs (or wherever).” Perhaps if the two weeks at the Foreign Service Institute were more of a screening, as well as a learning process, some of the less successful (let’s not be coy: disastrous) ambassadors, political or careerist, would never have reached their posts to do damage both to their country’s image and reputation and to the system.

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