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A Short List of Key Qualities
Lord MacLehose of Beoch, British Ambassador to Vietnam and Denmark, and British Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Hong Kong

"Don't let it occur again." This concluded my first contretemps with a British ambassador, on the morning after my first dinner in his residence in my capacity as his newest first secretary. "Continentals don't like being nudged towards the lavatory after dinner; it is a purely English custom; why didn't you know?" Clearly my upbringing had been neglected, but I tried to fight back. "But Sir, what about me?" "Well you mustn't and that's all there is to it." The reaction carried me continent through thirty years of diplomatic dinners. He was an excellent ambassador and did not confine himself to such trivia, but the anecdote illustrates one side of an ambassador's life: whether his embassy is large or small, he is the head of a family consisting of his staff, and he and its senior members must train, drill, direct, rebuke and encourage them so as to make the embassy a smooth-running machine that can be relied on to handle efficiently any situation, however important or however trivial. Consequently a good ambassador must have personality and be a leader, be someone whom it is natural for his staff to look up to, and someone also for whom looking down at his staff in friendship and in collaboration is natural.

In this essay describing some of the key qualities I have seen in successful ambassadors, the list is necessarily short. I have taken for granted the essential minima expected of someone who must work in close contact with national political and commercial leaders and national media, such as experience, grasp of affairs, and facility in the spoken and written word.

The best embassy I served in was in Paris under an ambassador who was a towering personality and natural leader as well as a master of diplomacy. Those of us in charge of sections met him at 9:30 a.m. every morning. We discussed the morning papers, and he told us anything of interest said to him the previous day. On any matter within our province we were expected to give an immediate explanation of what it was all about, or say whom we knew who could tell us, or whom we knew who would not tell us but might tell him, the ambassador. Not to have the facts by 9:30 was bad; but not to have the contacts that would have them was a cardinal sin. Some ambassadors or their wives treat invitations to their staff like Royal Commands, and prior engagements have to go by the board. However, in that embassy a prior engagement to someone of the country was always an acceptable excuse. The ambassador knew that without those contacts his embassy could not function.

This brings out another aspect of a good ambassador. He must make his staff feel part of a team in which each knows what is expected of him; and to get the best out of the team, he must not only lead it but be part of it himself and not above and remote from it. There is great satisfaction in being part of such a team, knowing that is is equipped to deal with anything that comes.

Apropos of an embassy team having to be ready to cover all issues of interest and to be clear about who covers what, when I was ambassador to Denmark the British press made a great to-do about the prevalence of sex shops and the degeneracy of youth. Visitors invariably asked about it. "Is something rotten in the State of Denmark?" the bigger bores would enquire. The whole thing struck me as ridiculous, but to keep the visitors at bay I suggested to a young second secretary that the subject should be his. Subsequently, an earnest and humorless mission from the U.K. came to observe this allegedly permissive society, which they were either for or against - I forget which. But at their final press conference they complimented the young second secretary by name on his help and expert knowledge. He took years to live down this kiss of death.

Of course it is ruinous to the work of the team and the effectiveness of the embassy if the ambassador cannot use its products. He is equipped with entree to the highest political, commercial and intellectual circles, with a house and servants and allowances to ensure he has easy relations with all who can influence his country's interests; so his staff have the right to expect he will use this paraphernalia, as well as his greater experience, to give point and substance to their work and to discuss with them how this should be done. He must be prepared to go out front and do and say what is necessary whether to minister, tycoon or editor, and indeed to relish it. He must be robust. Diffidence never got an ambassador anywhere.

And as he must be robust with the leaders of the country to which he is accredited, so also must he be with leaders of his own country. Ultimately it is his Minister who is master, but the ambassador has and must use to the full, his duty to warn, argue and protest in the light of his local knowledge, as well as to inform, advise and ultimately to act on instructions, But there is no more unpleasant task for an ambassador than to argue on his country's behalf a policy which he believes is unfair or misguided, and nothing is so destructive to an embassy's morale.

So in addition to officials in his Foreign Ministry, an ambassador must get to know the Ministers and the Members of Parliament and businessmen and journalists of his own country who are interested in the country to which he is accredited. To the leaders of that country he carries Letters of Credence asking that he be believed, but it is often just as important to his country's interests that he be believed at home. So it is helpful if in addition he cultivates his personal credibility and even something approaching a power base in interested circles in his own country. Once a Secretary of State went so far as strongly to encourage me to do such essentially domestic political work so as to take some of the pressure off him and his Ministers on a then unpopular cause. So here is another facet of an ambassador: he must be able to operate in the area where bureaucracy, public relations and politics all meet.

When accused of an undiplornatically blunt riposte to President de Gaulle, a British ambassador (and an outstanding one) is credited with replying "Do you want me to be man or mouse, politician or diplomat?" To be good in a hot embassy an ambassador must be prepared to act the politician and publicist at his own discretion and take the consequences. Of course to do this he must have the confidence of his own government and represent their policy accurately, but the method and timing must often be his own. If relations between countries can be dealt with in confidence in quiet rooms, so much the better, but often they cannot be, and the ambassador must be ready to get movement by going public.

In all these activities the ambassador must retain the confidence of the government to which he is accredited. When the policies and interests of the sending and receiving states diverge in important respects, it is the ambassador's duty to warn against it and explain the consequences. This usually involves the speaking or writing of disagreeable truths. It is not enough, however, to be truthful - the ambassador must also be believable. He may have to be clear at the expense of being tactful, since he must above all make sure that each government doesn't misunderstand what the other's intentions are, and the ambassador must see that the dialogue is maintained in a way in which it can continue. This task can be appallingly difficult, but personal integrity can carry an ambassador through. Ellsworth Bunker's embassy in Vietnam, and Henry Kissinger's negotiations with both China and the Middle East states are examples of how this problem can be surmounted.

So we have a further facet of a good ambassador-integrity. One who attempts to persuade by overstating his case - or who seeks to please by understating problems will eventually lose all credibility, and how often has one seen this happen with the self-appointed unofficial intermediaries who too often muddy international relations!

In conclusion, what about the merits of political as opposed to career ambassadors? Though not infrequent, political appointments are not in the British tradition, but with some notable exceptions they have usually been a great success. But as this essay suggests, to be an ambassador requires special disciplines and a knowledge of dos and don'ts most easily acquired by the long experience that goes with career. Moreover it is difficult for an outside appointee to perform the leadership-of-a-team function that gets the best out of an embassy - though some political appointees have done it with marked success simply because they were that sort of person. And this is the crux of the matter: appointments to important embassies should be made because appointees have the right characteristics to fill the job, either through career experience or other qualifications, but not because they are either career diplomats or politicians.

Nevertheless, a well-run diplomatic service ought to be able to field suitable career candidates for virtually all embassies, though there have been and always will be exceptions. Indeed some of the great names of post-war diplomacy have been political appointees - though so have some of the outstanding failures. However, if political appointments were to become the rule rather than the exception and fill the majority of embassies of importance, the career service would cease to attract or retain the right caliber of entrant, and the country would reap double trouble from inexperienced ambassadors supported by deteriorating staff.

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