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The Makings of a Good Ambassador
Hideo Kitahara, Japanese Ambassador to Vietnam and France, and Representative to the United Nations agencies in Geneva

When I started my career as a diplomat before the second world, war, it was under an ambassador who, to this day, seems to me to typify the accomplished classical diplomat. In addition to Japanese, he knew Greek and Latin and spoke English, French and German. He used to say that in order to perform a diplomat's duties satisfactorily, one always had to be in a position to answer three questions: Who? When? What? The meaning of these three questions is that a diplomat facing any given political move must, under all circumstances, be able to tell his government who made a decision, on what date, and what it was about.. This ambassador's threefold question is, I believe, a fair summary of an ambassador's task in the classical era, and of the qualities required to fulfill them. First and foremost, he had to inform his government about the political life in his country of residence so as to ensure proper handling of relations and negotiations between states. Within the framework of their governments' instructions, ambassadors enjoyed extensive representational and negotiating authority. As a rule, inter-state relations were governed by treaties and agreements. International life was conducted on the basis of respect for one's signature: pacta sunt servanda. Today international life and diplomatic relations are completely different. There are many more independent states, and the number of diplomatic missions has grown exponentially. Understandably enough, an ambassador will not do exactly the same work when posted to a superpower as when he is in a country with virtually no land, population or resources. In the days of the League of Nations, the international order was in the hands of a small number of independent states to which were appended the colonial complexes. But in the meantime other forms of interdependence have emerged and have given rise to international legal entities to which diplomats are accredited, as is the case in the European Community, the O.E.C.D., and the United Nations with its many specialized agencies.

An entirely new complex of issues has arisen, involving such issues as the environment, population, science and technology, economic and social development, narcotics, the law of the sea, or nuclear energy - issues of great importance which did not even exist a generation ago and with which a diplomat today must be conversant. Ambassadors accredited to international bodies no longer engage in state-to-state relations but deal with collectivities specializing in economics, international trade, culture, etc. So their competence should be both extensive and highly technical, as they are expected to handle issues involving such matters as non-tariff barriers or EC agricultural regulations.

I think it is obvious that this requires an entirely different type of diplomat than those who engaged only in the traditional forms of international relations. The rise of multilateral diplomacy has been accompanied by a rise in rapid and easy international communications. The number of international meetings of heads of states and governments and of ministers has multiplied since the second world war. This trend, sometimes called direct diplomacy, has also substantially changed the role of ambassadors - changed it but not lessened its utility and importance. Politicians and direct government envoys, and non-professional ambassadors appointed on the basis of political criteria, tend to focus on the short term, if not on spectacular action. Professional ambassadors, acting as advisers to them, are responsible for reminding them of the importance of continuity and stability in international relations and for shifting the emphasis to a longer-term view.

Yet another noteworthy feature of modern diplomacy is its organizational complexity. Major embassies house political, military, economic, scientific, agricultural, cultural and other departments. Thus an ambassador's role is also akin to that of a company manager, in charge of sometimes over a hundred staff members. Consequently, an ambassador must be a good administrator.

The qualifications of a modern ambassador are implicit in this brief description of his duties. First, he must have in-depth knowledge and understanding of major world problems. Superhuman capabilities would be necessary for one to be familiar with all the details of these global issues. So ambassadors should try to form a clear picture of the international situation, to analyze it properly and to evolve their own judgment. They can no longer be content with understanding bilateral relations alone, in view of the interdependence of nations. There are far more factors in this judgmental process then there were in the days of classical diplomacy; consequently, the ability to synthesize should be developed even more than the ability to analyze.

As communications were facilitated - thus giving rise to "direct" diplomacy - ambassadors lost a large part of their role as governmental go-betweens. The days when ambassadors awaited instructions and solemnly conveyed messages are over. Modern ambassadors take it upon themselves to inform their governments about the situation in their country of residence, about trends in public opinion, about possible reactions to measures considered by their governments. Often, because of the very speedup of communications that is supposed to lessen their effectiveness, they can suggest to their foreign ministries how they should be instructed. And because the ambassador is on the spot and knows both the issues and what can reasonably be achieved, he (or she) can have more influence than an ambassador had in the days of slower communication.

Thanks to the information that embassies collect and synthesize, ambassadors, thus prepare the ground for and sometimes influence the initiatives of their governments, and are then in the best position to explain these moves in terms that the host country will best understand. This new role of ambassadors requires them to make many new kinds of contacts, not only in official circles but also in all social groups and more particularly in the media. In this way, ambassadors continue to "convey messages," but they convey them to millions of people.

As regards the human qualities an ambassador should have, it seems to me that the principal one is broadmindedness. Ambassadors should be open to cultural diversity and be able to understand it. They must certainly strive to promote their country's national interests, but should not follow narrowly nationalistic impulses to which people are subject who have not made international relations their career. A good ambassador must be a patriot - that goes without saying; but he must always bear in mind that every country is part of an international system and that the future of the world depends on at least a tolerably good functioning of that system.

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