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2014.01.30

Dear Ambassadors, Be Diplomats

JBPress on January 24, 2014

  • Kunihiko Miyake
  • Research Director
    Kunihiko Miyake
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

An ambassador's primary job is to maintain and enhance bilateral ties with the host nation. Recently, however, some ambassadors representing major countries have irrelevantly defamed third parties for their own propaganda purposes, or even publicly criticized their host nation on Twitter. To my greatest disappointment, these people cannot correctly be called professional diplomats.

An ambassador to London from one of Japan's neighbors, for example, like his colleagues elsewhere, initiated an open and one-sided criticism against Tokyo and its Prime Minister. If they have something to say, why don't they tell him directly? This reminded me of the Arab ambassadors in the 1970-80s who ganged up and repeatedly denounced Israel in major capitals around the world.

Another example was a Twitter message on January 17 by a well-known ambassador in Tokyo, who said that she is "Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. (Her government) opposes drive hunt fisheries." I have never heard of a more insensitive public statement by an ambassador to Tokyo. Even our ambassadors from neighboring countries don't do this.

I do not say this because I was never made an ambassador. On the contrary, professionalism had been my motto in the 27 years of my foreign service career. Although ambassadors are neither extraordinary nor plenipotentiary any more, most of them still retain the highest level of professional skills to serve their home country and the international community.

I am in no position to dictate to or remind those ambassadors but the following are some of the tips I hope they will keep in mind.

Ambassadors are a symbol-- Residing ambassadors are the highest ranking official representative of their country. Whatever they say or do means a lot, much more than some imagine, and is not easily forgotten. Therefore, most professional ambassadors try to be gentle, calm and not excessively eloquent, especially in public.

Ambassadors must be respected-- This is obvious. In order for a dispatching country to win the respect or "hearts and minds" of the people of the host nation, ambassadors must embody the good will of his or her home country. People don't wish to see foreign ambassadors' irrelevant propaganda campaigns against third parties.

Ambassadors are the last resort-- Ambassadors can play a central role in the final stage of bilateral negotiations, and their contributions can be decisive especially if he or she is close to the president or prime minister of a dispatching country. For this reason, experienced ambassadors avoid being over-hasty in drawing conclusions.

If negotiations are tough and complicated, political consideration is needed to strike a deal. The more politically sensitive the issues are, the more important an ambassador's judgment will be. In many cases, only those ambassadors who can directly talk to the top of their government can make a difference while bureaucrats are bogged down in endless negotiations.

Ambassadors must also be circumspect. As every coin has two sides, every issue has pros and cons. Likewise, nothing in international relations is 100% good or bad and most negotiations are only tentative and likely to be continued. That's why good ambassadors are very careful about being too direct in anything.

They are instinctively aware that excessive directness, especially when criticizing persons or nations, will often backfire. History shows such directness is only effective in praising or commending others. Those who prefer direct criticism to the traditional more prudent approach often defame themselves.

Finally, you don't have to be a professional career bureaucrat to be a professional in diplomacy. Many political appointees have been successful ambassadors, not because they have been close to the top of their government, but because they understand subtle politics. A politically sensitive ambassador will not act like an NGO activist on Twitter.

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