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The Indispensable Catalyst
Egidio Ortona, Italian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Italian Ambassador to the United States

It has been observed that in the history of diplomacy the most prominent and effective early manifestations were the reports of the Venetian Ambassadors to the Republic at the threshold of the modern era. A recent thorough study of the state archives of the Republic of Venice show that already in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the accurate presentation of political situations was not the main purpose of those reports. The ambassadors used to inform the Doge not only about the political environment and events, but also about concrete and practical economic and social developments like the crop of cereals, the price of gold, the fiscal system, or pauperism in the South of Italy. If assessments in those fields were already the aim of diplomacy centuries ago, how much more is to be expected of diplomats in this day and age! Today the number of problems which have to be solved by international negotiations is of such magnitude that unavoidably they have to be entrusted to the work of eclectic individuals who must be acquainted more than in the past with finance, banking, trade, energy, armaments, computer technology, etc. The subjects to be dealt with under these headings, long before reaching the stage in which they are debated in negotiations, have to be the object of constant, thorough, exhaustive search and learning. The heads or members of government, in other words the individuals devoted to political activity in their own countries, can intervene only to give the final touch or the political consensus to what has been previously worked out through negotiations. In fact, the increase in commercial and cultural exchange throughout the world, and the ever more frequent meetings between chiefs of governments and other top government officials, do not outdate or diminish the role of a diplomat, but to the contrary, demand of him vaster, more articulate specializations, as well as a deeper application of public relations techniques.

With the multiplication of summit-level meetings (including minister-to-minister meetings), the work of diplomacy certainly has acquired new and augmented responsibilities. Meetings at those levels require meticulous preparation which can be successfully achieved only through the work of technicians in foreign relations. Suffice it to say that a notable part of the work done before such meetings concentrates just on preparation of the "final communique," and the agreements and disagreements on that document determine to a great extent how the meeting itself will go. Although the diplomat cannot substitute for the political leaders, he often has to provide for them the knowledge of specific problems that they cannot easily acquire, pressed as they are by their internal political worries or influenced by the demands of press coverage. One hears the opinion from time to time that even if ambassadors were done away with, this would not affect the free and full development of political relations, trade and cultural exchanges, because these would be carried on by means of meetings of chiefs of government, of ministers of foreign affairs, of finance, of commerce, of governors of central banks, of representatives of the arts, all of whom could supply periodically the fabric of the necessary contacts. I hope that this can now be seen to be no more than a brilliant paradox. Even if it is true that the margins of action and power of a diplomat are reduced because of the facility with which instructions reach him through telephone or telex, he still has to act very often without instructions, or with incomplete or contradictory ones, and in any case must adapt his instructions to what will be effective with the local government.

Too often when instructions are written at home they are reflective of the domestic political temper and need to be "translated" into something that will yield useful results in the sometimes tricky foreign environment. And when his prime minister or minister of foreign affairs appears in person to deal with the foreign government, the ambassador has the difficult task of "piloting" the visitors in the foreign environment of which they do not have great knowledge or expertise. The most difficult work that a diplomat must perform is to induce the visitor to act both in line with the interests of his own country and, as far as possible, not in contrast with what the host country can accept. Too often even a well-traveled top politician is blinded by national affairs and motivated by party politics at home. The ambassador is there to check, channel, patch up, temporize, catalyze, buffer.

All of what has been said applies to both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. In the international organizations a deep knowledge of procedural rules provides the means essential to successful activity in that context. According to my own experience, having been both Ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations, the fundamental endowment of the diplomat must be the same in both cases, except for the obvious need in the second case of greater consciousness of international interactions and of the growing needs and collective strength of Third World countries. In both cases an ambassador's task is to harmonize the positions, ideas, approaches of the experts in various sectors of activity, whether they operate in his own mission or come from departments of the central government: He must constantly avoid discrepancies between these various elements so as to produce effective common positions.

While the main elements, characteristics and problems of modern diplomacy are common to all diplomats, there are important differences in the levels of responsibilities, duties and risks between American diplomats and diplomats from other countries. All American diplomats abroad carry a higher degree of responsibility than others, simply because toward every country, friendly or adverse, they project the position of a superpower. A gesture by an American representative can possess more importance, either in encouraging friends or in deterring potential or actual enemies, than a similar move by a diplomat of another country.

At this critical time for the balance of power and alliance systems, an American ambassador should be knowledgeable and steeped in an understanding of past events in other areas in order to integrate a full understanding of the requirements of the present. A deep knowledge of the history, culture, and economy which motivate other countries whatever their size, must become the baggage of American diplomats. Such knowledge manifests itself in the form of respect and objective interest, rather than an attitude of potential interference, the misinterpretation of which is always a risk for a superpower. In other words the American diplomat should be conditioned to avoid any expression of "arrogance of power" and try on the contrary with a deep insight in other countries' complexities to penetrate into their needs and expectations. I would add that the importance of such feelings and attitudes should also be conveyed by American diplomats abroad to the members of congressional committees which often visit foreign countries. In the rigid separation of powers prevailing under the American constitution, I consider essential that representatives of both the executive and legislative branches speak the same language and operate under the same assumptions and with the same approach in dealing with foreign representatives.

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