The Foreign Service Journal, March 2007

I have seen, as have many others in the Foreign Service, how isolated chiefs of mission can be from candid feedback. They never find out that their management style is ineffective, that the American staff bridle at the way they are treated, or that the national staff consider them dilettante Americans who never learned their local employees’ work, their worth or even their names. Of course, an unwillingness to listen to what feed- back the system does afford only exag- gerates this divide. In my experience, the most suc- cessful chiefs of mission understand the value of choosing and working closely with a good DCM. The often- noted division of the ambassador’s executive role vis-à-vis the DCM’s operations job, where the DCM assumes responsibility for day-to-day operations of the mission, is, in fact, an effective one. The ambassador is free to spend time in the other two fields while the DCM stays atop mission direction, depending on his or her competence in assuming operational control and adequate communication and oversight in the ambassador- DCM relationship. I remember one ambassador, in particular, who’d had my job as DCM in an earlier assignment. His aware- ness of how best to use a deputy, and his resistance to the temptation to do both our jobs, made for a tight ship and a successful mission. Conversely, I have seen cases where an ambassador chose a DCM on a basis other than the individual’s management skills, thus reinforcing the ambassador’s own strengths but leaving the executive office short on operational expertise. The entire mis- sion suffered. DCM selection and the terms of empowerment are crucial, as is the chief of mission’s ability to work smoothly with the deputy. In the selection process for a career chief of mission, the candidate’s having previ- ous experience as a DCM can make all the difference. Advocating U.S. Interests This is the second facet of being a chief of mission. Serving as the per- sonal representative of the president, the U.S. government with all its agen- cies and national interests, especially commercial ones, an ambassador pro- motes and defends American posi- tions. More than serving as a conduit for dialogue between Washington and foreign leaders, he or she sells ideas and products, sometimes in both directions. Training and years of expe- rience make this job easier, but the more articulate an ambassador is, the more successful. The Foreign Service has produced many outstanding diplo- mats who have promoted American interests effectively. It has also pro- duced others who should have been better than their record ultimately showed. Political appointees sometimes remain short on expertise helpful for meeting this key responsibility. I remember being a junior officer and accompanying an appointee ambas- sador’s call on a Cabinet minister. After the ambassador struggled through the issues under discussion, to my embarrassment, the minister began to address me rather than the ambassador. (To this day, I am not cer- tain the ambassador realized how awk- ward the situation was.) As one senior foreign official once told a young embassy officer, “The problem with your appointees is that after we explain our position, we often have to explain the U.S. position!” This is not always the case, howev- er. One of the strongest ambassadors I ever served was a political appointee with extensive academic and policy experience, who bested anyone on the staff in articulating American positions in all their nuances. And I’ve worked for others who were quick learners and exerted great energy in delivering effective demarches, selling American products, negotiating new bilateral commercial agreements, and promot- ing American views in the media. More than one political appointee for whom I worked was well enough con- nected to senior administration lead- ers to get attention at the very top for an issue just when it was badly need- ed. Building Relationships It may sometimes be easy to believe that advocacy and articulating an argument are what being an ambas- sador is all about. Certainly those are key parts of the job, but by no means all of it. Ambassadors who “talk the talk” well, but neglect “walking the walk” — instilling confidence and credibility, forging alliances and build- ing local constituencies — lessen the likelihood of reaching diplomatic objectives. There is much more to diplomacy than laying out the best arguments. One senior European Union diplomat once told me that the logic of a particular American position didn’t matter. What did was how his parliament reacted to the issue in question. In fact, the United States’ status as the hegemonic superpower often complicates the job rather than simplifying it, as we sometimes mis- takenly expect. There is an art as well as a science to diplomacy — perhaps more art than exactitude in this very human affair. An ambassador needs to influ- ence the political and economic elites of a country, and doing this may often have less to do with cogent argument than social skills. In today’s world, where U.S. public diplomacy seems in a perpetually defensive, reactive mode, getting our message out often requires the ability to touch people on the ground. In the multilateral con- text, it means building a well-func- tioning rapport with representatives M A R C H 2 0 0 7 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 15 S P E A K I N G O U T