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Common Denominators of Good Ambassadors
Karl Gruber, Austrian Foreign Minister and Austrian Ambassador to the United States, Spain, Switzerland, and West Germany

Having been both foreign minister and ambassador, I have seen the problem of ambassadorial appointments from the side of both those who make the appointments and those who receive them. I have been in a position to judge when and how ambassadors fall flat on their face, and why some distinguish themselves. I believe there is one common denominator for the performance of superior ambassadors, and that is skill in communication. It is communication of a very special kind, which must be learned, but without the basic aptitude for communication an ambassador cannot be successful in his manifold tasks. Contrary to the traditional image of an ambassador as a highly polished individual who is so circumspect in what he says that it requires a special talent (allegedly found only in other diplomats) to figure out what he is communicating, I have found that plain speaking is an essential ingredient for a diplomat's success. He must of course be tactful and sometimes artful in the way he communicates, but the message must come through clearly and precisely. Articulateness in explaining, reporting, defending, and discussing information on his country's position and other matters is, to my mind, essential.

The finest among American ambassadors with whom I have had dealings were Robert Murphy, Charles E. Bohlen, G. Frederick Reinhardt, and Llewellyn E. Thompson. They all had a thorough knowledge of international affairs, they were cosmopolitan and had empathy for the concerns of other countries, and they were not too cautious in the way they explained what was going on and what their country was trying to accomplish. The worst among American diplomats whom I have met - and I would rather not give their names - were those who were exceedingly cautious (not merely circumspect) and who wanted to elicit information without giving anything in return.

For communication among diplomats is a two-way street: one cannot expect to obtain much information unless one is able and willing to convey information. The ambassador with whom everyone wants to talk is the one who is interesting to talk with. This was especially true, I think, of the men whom the United States sent out to foreign countries in the earliest days of the republic, when they were statesmen who had been among the decision makers in their own capital and "men of the world" who moved easily among the decision makers of other countries.

It will be seen from the above that I am not necessarily critical of the custom of the United States to choose some people for ambassadorial positions who are not professional diplomats - but I believe such persons must have unusual stature in order to be successful, they must be well-read, well-spoken, they must have a thorough knowledge of international affairs, and they must be persons of cosmopolitan tastes and attitudes. Provincialism, ethnocentricity, inability to understand nuances in foreign countries, and the belief that one's own country is the best in everything-these are handicaps which, after a certain age, no amount of training or experience can overcome.

In my own country, which has a relatively small foreign service with only a limited intake of new officers every year, almost every diplomat can expect to become an ambassador. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages is that our diplomats need not be afraid that their career will be in ruins if they make a mistake, and that they can consequently be innovative. Among the disadvantages is that there is too little selection of the best people and a consequent tendency on the part of some of our ambassadors to become bureaucratic. Yet excessive competitiveness can also be a liability, as I have seen in the case of diplomats who came from an environment where they had to claw their way to the top: they became competitive also with their peers, both within their service and with their diplomatic colleagues of other countries. Diplomacy requires effective habits of cooperation.

The best ambassadors I have known have been people who, in addition to a thorough knowledge of their own country and the country of their assignment, also have a well-rounded view of the world (Weltbild) into which what was happening could be fitted. Without such a world picture it is virtually impossible to reach a firm conclusion about the significance of developments. Nowadays politics permeates every field of state activity. Any small war anywhere has the potential of leading to a world conflagration. The growing closeness and interdependence of nations and the interaction of their public opinions have had the result that the acid of ideological indoctrination seeps into every cleft of international and internal differences. No wonder that any cool assessment of the moving forces of our times requires increased knowledge, sound judgment, and the ability to attach the proper importance to what is happening in a large variety of fields. A good ambassador must understand the significance also of things that happen outside the area where he is accredited.

Communication, as I have used the term above, includes not only collecting and conveying information to and from one's government; it also means negotiating both in the sense of developing concrete agreements and in the sense of adjusting differences and lining up support outside of concrete agreements. While skillful reporting makes the reputation of the ambassador, negotiating is the real essence of his activity. Negotiating is not just sitting at a table where two or more countries more or less oppose one another. It begins a long time before a date is set for sitting down at the table. The process of softening up the other side is almost as important as the exchange of more or less brilliant arguments at the negotiating table.

The ambassador must convince the other government of the importance of the subject under negotiation, and of a compromise useful to his own country. But he must also convince his own government of the limits within which a compromise can be found (or even whether a compromise is necessary). People at home are often inclined to consider the limits recommended by an ambassador as due to excessive caution on his part, alienation from his own country, or plain muddleheadedness. The worst thing would be to recommend or predict an outcome of the negotiations which turns out to be too pessimistic, for instance if the foreign ministry then sends out someone "stronger" who finds that he could "easily" obtain more than the ambassador had thought possible. To find the right course between these conflicting assessments needs skill, experience, courage, and a cool head. The least desirable outcome from the effort to steer between the Scylla of failure and the Charybdis of overcautiousness would be to send meaningless communications to the home office "in order to protect oneself." One may protect himself or herself for the immediate moment but may damage his further career in the process.

A good diplomat must be precise. Experience teaches us that the higher the summit the flimsier the agreements. Top-level politicians are much too impatient to watch details, important as they may be, and are always in a hurry to shake hands to mark a "rapprochement" or other agreement. As an American diplomat once said to me: On an icy summit there grows only what you have carried up there. So it is wise to send conscientious, publicity-shy individuals ahead to prepare the texts and give the top officials concise information about the points to be especially watched. For instance, the word "support" can mean anything from a timely smile to substantial military support. Specificity is therefore most important. Naturally there are exceptions when agreement for the sake of agreement, even at the cost of vagueness, is desirable or necessary - but such cases are very rare.

A good diplomat also needs a sense of humor. He should always have some remarks ready to ease tension once negotiations get near a breaking point. One example that comes to mind involves a negotiation in which everything went wrong. (It happened to involve agrarian exchanges in Central Europe, a subject that is always tough and intractable). One of the negotiators had a long beard, and his stolid demeanor did not augur well for a successful outcome. His counterpart finally said: Before we part, I have one more question. When you go to sleep at night, do you tuck your beard under the covers or do you leave it above them? There was laughter all around, and for the first time the patriarch allowed a smile to crease his lips. Eventually an agreement was concluded, actually a lot sooner than had been expected. I do not mean to imply that the jocular question was the reason for the successful outcome of the negotiation, but I believe the incident illustrates the importance of the ability to loosen up the atmosphere, of knowing when some levity will help smooth the way to easier discourse and thus to agreement.

A word about discretion. An ambassadorial position should never be given to anyone who is hungry for publicity. In my opinion it is best, even in official reports, to use personal quotations only when absolutely necessary, unless the information conveyed is meaningful only when attributed to a certain high-ranking functionary who conveyed it with attribution in his mind. If ever a "friend" or mere acquaintance reads his name in a report of another government, even if everything in that report is favorable to him, he is much less likely to be candid and open at the next encounter. Any experienced diplomat knows that written reports nowadays can find their way to offices for which they were never intended. To give contacts confidence that their remarks will be held in confidence, I usually preferred to talk with them in informal surroundings rather than in their offices. I also found it prudent even to protect my handwritten notes.

Finally, like anyone who wishes to be successful in a competitive environment, an ambassador must have good judgment. This goes almost without saying, but good judgment today doesn't mean what good judgment meant at the time of sailing ships and horse-drawn carriages. When important things are happening, the ambassador's interpretation of them must be prompt if it is going to do any good because the press will be doing its own interpreting and so will other governments. Therefore reporting and analysis must sometimes be not only timely but almost instantaneous. Good judgment today must come faster than it did a generation ago. And if an ambassador has in his mind a concept of the interrelationship between events around the world, he is more likely to be listened to and his judgments will carry greater weight. This applies both to his written communications to his capital and his oral exchanges with officials of the country to which he is accredited.

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