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Qualifications of an Ambassador
Francis de Laboulaye, French Ambassador to Brazil, Japan, and the United States

The first reaction of most professional diplomats, when they are asked about the criteria to be used in choosing ambassadors, is to describe their own qualifications. This is a very natural reaction, but if anything useful is to come from such an inquiry it is necessary to step back and look at the essential elements of the position of chief of mission, i.e., of ambassador. One simple definition of diplomacy is that it is the oral aspect of international relations. There is an essential difference between what is written and what is spoken, not only because spoken words are essentially more ephemeral (verba volant), but because the spoken language has infinitely more nuances, being both richer and more subtle than written texts.

Consequently, in an oral exchange one can suggest more than one could in writing, and if one knows how to listen can also understand the other side better. It is in the oral domain that not only "interests" can be adjusted or comprehended, but also viewpoints, plans and intentions. But oral. diplomatic communication can only be effective if the conversations are part of an ongoing process, if the talks stretch over a period of time and can be resumed each time when it is necessary. And such conversations will only be effective if the interlocutors, while of a level of responsibility, are not those who hold supreme responsibility. If the top people meet face to face, men or women whose every word risks being the last word, the word without further recourse, most of the time they will not say anything useful because the tension is simply too great. On the other hand, someone who is situated a little lower on the ladder of responsibility can orally explore things much further without compromising anyone but himself, and in this manner he may encounter opportunities which he may either seize or let slip by.

No telephones, certainly not a red or green one, can change the situation. They have their utility in certain cases but they do not do away with the necessity for permanent conversation which, in the strictest sense of that term, is diplomacy. This is how we look at the essential requirements of the position. Let us now look at how and from where it may best be filled.

It seems to us that even with the most rigorous selection a corps of the highest ranking diplomats will not consist only of superb performers. Let us be honest - nobody has to the same degree all the qualities necessary to be a perfect ambassador. The distribution among them is likely to be the same as elsewhere: ten percent who are very good and the rest less good, some of them still less so. It would be a great mistake to seek only one type of personality. Yet there are certain qualifications which strike us as essential.

One qualification is what a French colleague, who is now a well-reputed author, called "the specialty of the general." The ambassador must always have his eye on the most general aspects of what he does, namely on the overriding interests. These of course today cover fields which are more and more specialized: not only strategy and tactics, economics, technology, but also social relations, pure science and, finally philosophy, culture, and religion.

What, then, is to be done? One has to supply the ambassador with attaches or special advisors. What then will be his relationship with them? Either he has confidence in them and delegates his authority, in which case he may rapidly lose control of the operations, or else he will not rely on them but will not be able to tell what is to be done. It is, therefore, highly desirable that he should have his own judgment which comes from experience. What kind of experience? Experience that comes from success in previous operations. In other words, it is not a bad idea that the ambassador should have had in his private life occasion to come to grips with the "real world" and that he should know, in any case, the colossal inertia of social structures and of individuals. In this manner he should be able to judge the quality of his advisors and experts and draw profit from their advice. It is true that he must also have a certain amount of technical knowledge in order to properly appreciate the quality of that advice. We believe that frankness requires us to state that there is no neat solution to this dilemma. There is no perfect way out. And there is no perfect ambassador. If there were such a person he would be highly inconvenient and bothersome.

In addition to the enlargement of the domains of science and culture which makes it difficult to discharge the functions of an ambassador during these closing years of the century, there are other problems which have to do with the transformation of the very tissue of international relations.

There was a time when it was enough to defend the "national interest," which was defined as everything that contributes to the prosperity, autonomy and prestige of the society and the state which is represented by an ambassador. There was no problem; it was understood that the purpose was to maintain the equilibrium between the five or six leading powers and at the same time to obtain commercial advantages, obtain respect for the rights of one's nationals, for one's flag, etc. Everyone's horizon was limited to his own nation. "Wer von Europa spricht," said Bismarck, "hat unrecht" - whoever speaks of Europe goes beyond what is his business. Put in simple words, whoever used themes that spoke of Europe was doing so only for selfish national reasons. That was perhaps true in 1878; it certainly is not true in 1983.

Today the horizon of diplomacy has widened under the influence of the threat of universal destruction, the growing interconnection of economic interests, the vast movements of populations, the diffusion of technical knowledge, the influence of the media, etc. Today, therefore, one has to take account both of national and of collective interests, which means that an ambassador must be alert to the effects that the policies of his government may have on others. Unless he is able to encompass both the national and the collective dimension, he is not doing his job properly. In a sense he cannot intelligently defend his nation's interests, for these encounter the interests of others everywhere. There are of course ambassadors who maintain a narrow perspective, but they are not really effective and thus do not belong to the minority of good ones.

His position, being situated at a high level of responsibility without himself having the power to make political decisions, allows the ambassador to weigh the national interest against the universal interest and to throw his weight into the scales of the latter if that is necessary. Of course this entails the risk of making himself odious to his own government or to the host government or to an international organization to which he may be accredited - or to all three at the same time.

Here, again, one must not expect a perfect solution; there can never be a stable equilibrium. What is essential is that the two concerns, the national and the collective one, be clearly understood and recognized at all times. In this the character - the strength of character - of the chief of mission plays an important role. He must not be narrowly centered on his own country. He must always seek to understand the reasons that dictated policies of his own government as well as those of the government of the host country.

It happens occasionally that an ambassador is accused of representing the interests of his own country less effectively than he represents those of the country to which he is accredited. Of course an ambassador does not like to hear this. And yet, without indulging excessively in paradox, it might be said that the accusation constitutes, at least in part, also a tribute to the intellectual and moral qualities of the diplomat in question.

It should go without saying that there are strict limits, dictated by common sense and the realities of the situation, to how far an ambassador can go in opposing a position of his own government. If a compromise is not possible and once the final decision has been made, he must of course loyally and scrupulously implement it even if it goes against what he had recommended. But until the final decision is made an ambassador owes his government the frankest and most unvarnished advice. In some cases, if he finds it incompatible with his conscience to implement what he believes to be a wrong decision he can of course resign - but such cases should be rare.

There remains the question where one should look for good ambassadors, whether they should be professionals or persons drawn into diplomacy from outside. It is difficult to be categorical: some professionals have turned in amateurish performances, and there are cases where amateurs rather quickly became good professionals. Yet one should not underrate the existence of a "diplomatic technique" which may seem esoteric to outsiders but really bases itself on long experience, There are real problems if one seeks to enrich the diplomatic establishment with talented outsiders from the world of business or finance or education; but those problems would be greatly diminished if the movement went in both directions - if there were a system of rotation whereby career diplomats go out periodically into that world to do practical work at a high level of responsibility and thus to enrich their own experience and the diplomatic service - with a better knowledge of the problems of the nongovernmental world. In this manner there would be a greater likelihood of coming up with the desired type: not "specialist of the general" but specialist and generalist at the same time, which is not so simple.

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