The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

offense, having learned how long and loudly a misstep can reverberate in bilateral relations. This can lead to a cautious pace that people from the business world find somewhere between irritating and infuriating — but which they fundamentally can’t change. This is not because their American staff is resistant to guid- ance, but because by definition diplo- macy operates outside America, and must take into account the culture and customs of the host country and region. Though we represent a super- power, we aren’t free actors. Third, political appointees, who are often CEO-types, are shocked to discover the limitations on their posi- tion when they actually arrive at an embassy. On the policy side, except in a few hot spots (where political appointees only rarely land, with Iraq and Afghanistan representing excep- tions that prove the rule), policy is set, and news made, back in Washing- ton. Ambassadors are essentially seen as messengers, and thus of little interest unless they can truly build credibility on certain issues — a wor- thy goal but one most appointees can’t achieve, because they don’t have the background. And far from running the mission, the new ambassador typically discov- ers that the entire staff is already tasked with a range of reports and requirements fromWashington, from their home agency or department, and various subdivisions thereof. This can be profoundly disillusioning for a political-appointee ambassador, who naturally assumes that his or her staff works only for the front office. Financially, ambassadors can direct only a modest portion of the funds spent at the embassy, and have tight limits on their ability to deploy staff in different ways. Political appointees generally spend substantial time struggling against these constraints, and nearly always lose. The outside view of bureaucratic rigidity isn’t entirely wrong, to be sure. It frustrates those of us inside the system as well. (The difference is that most of us realize that a single ambassador cannot change a system as complicated as our foreign affairs representation struc- ture, especially from what amounts to a branch office-manager position in a probably not terribly important coun- try.) But political appointees often spend vast amounts of time and ener- gy trying to make the embassy work like the individual’s last executive office in the private sector, instead of utilizing the staff’s skills to advance U.S. policy. Short-Timer’s Disease Fourth, at a human level, moving overseas and taking on a new leader- ship position in what usually is a totally new place and field of work would challenge anyone’s adaptive capabilities. Career diplomats, who move frequently between home and abroad, from culture to culture, know that each move is a challenge, with a substantial learning curve concerning daily life as well as pro- fessional responsibilities. Naturally, the process presents even greater challenges to those who, in many cases, have never lived outside the U.S., and who may well not have moved for decades. Among other problems, there’s an obvious tendency to continue to rely on U.S. contacts — one ambassador sent his speeches back to his office in New York for formatting! — rather than settle into the new place. And because the ambassadorial assign- ment is almost always an interlude in the appointee’s “real life” back in the U.S., there is an inevitable tendency not to truly connect with either the country of assignment or the new cul- ture of the U.S. embassy. As a consequence, perhaps, of all these points, many appointees don’t remain at post for the entire three- year tour they accepted. Family ties, campaign schedules, homesickness and frustration with the federal sys- tem all make an early exit attractive. Yet many observers consider even the standard three-year U.S. diplomatic assignment the minimum for anyone to learn a new position and be effec- tive. And that’s for people who know the profession and the process of set- tling in to a new position. What does that say for a one- or two-year assign- ment for those who know little or nothing about the new job? Note, please, that I have not writ- ten at all about the burden non-career ambassadors place on their staff to educate them to their work; the num- ber of faux pas that have to be averted (if possible) or smoothed over after the fact; or the time spent explaining everything from basic procedures to the host country’s history to high poli- cy. I’m only looking at the inevitable, normal, objective challenges that face a non-career ambassador. Can these challenges be over- come? Sure, sometimes. But only with great personal commitment, and at substantial cost to the coherence of our foreign policy execution and the time and energy of the professional N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 / 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 The temptation is to try to make the embassy work like the private sector, instead of utilizing the staff’s skills to advance U.S. policy.