Is Diplomacy A Profession?

by January 2022
George Plimpton 1981. Photo credit: MPTV

When I think of the tension between professionals and amateurs, the first name that comes to mind is the late George Plimpton.

George Plimpton wrote about sports starting in the late 1950s in a form called “participatory journalism.” Using his Harvard connections, he would talk his way onto a professional playing field and later write about the experience from an amusing amateur perspective. A tall, athletic blue-blood New Yorker, descended from the Mayflower on both sides, he sparred with heavyweight champion boxer Archie Moore, played goalie for part of one game of the Boston Bruins, pitched in a Major League Baseball exhibition game, and joined the PGA tour with golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Most famously, he played quarterback in a professional football game for one set of downs (and lost 30 yards). Plimpton was a good writer and editor, the founder of The Paris Review, but he is most remembered today for these bravado adventures in sports. (For the record, he also played percussion once with the New York Symphony Orchestra, performed in the circus in tights on the flying trapeze, and acted in films, as a Bedouin in Lawrence of Arabia and a psychologist in Good Will Hunting opposite Matt Damon.)

>> Diplomatic Dispatches: Read more from Robert Silverman

No one mourns the demise of participatory journalism. Plimpton’s peculiar form of charisma—a talented amateur with “the right background” and insouciant attitude who enters any arena and holds his own—is of an age now long past, derived from the English gentleman ideal (Plimpton affected a sort of English accent and patrician air.) But he played the role with an American twist, satirizing the ideal by taking it to extremes. He let his audience in on the joke that what he was doing was a preposterous charade liable to collapse at any moment. And it often did.

Diplomacy is a profession, though not a technical one. A diplomat, like other professionals, must learn the skills of the trade.

The problem of American diplomacy for many years now is that instead of one or two Plimptons surrounded by professionals, there are an awful lot of Plimptons, all acting in deadly seriousness and without any hint of the original Plimpton’s sense of self-deprecation.

Wait a minute, one might say in response, who’s to say what is and what is not a professional in the field of diplomacy? Diplomacy is not like a professional sport. Complete amateurs with no prior training in diplomacy are appointed to the most senior and sensitive positions representing the interests of the most powerful country on earth. Some of them are widely regarded as effective emissaries. This raises the question of whether diplomacy is a profession.

The answer, I believe, is that diplomacy is a profession, though not a technical one. A diplomat, like other professionals, must learn the skills of the trade; these skills improve through accumulated experience and dedicated practice, just like in other professions. But diplomatic skills are not technical in nature, like those of a dentist, surgeon, or captain of an aircraft carrier. (A New Yorker cartoon of the 1970s shows a masked surgeon in the operating room with the patient raising his head from the table and asking, “How do I know you aren’t George Plimpton?”)

Okay, so what are these non-technical diplomatic skills? I once led an effort to describe them succinctly in a three-page document, entitled “Guidelines for the Successful Performance of a Chief of Mission,” when I was the president of the American Foreign Service Association. The guidelines were published in the April 2014 edition of The Foreign Service Journal. In short, there are three overarching skills applicable to all diplomats:

Understanding of a Host Country and International Affairs from an Operational Perspective. A diplomat learns the language, history, culture, institutions, politics and economics of the country of assignment, in order to help shape public and private messages from one’s capital to the host country and to influence the host country.   This is a different kind of understanding from that of a university academic or an intelligence analyst. The diplomat has access to the academic’s publications and the intelligence officer’s analyses, but the diplomat’s understanding is also informed by having worked with the host country’s elites on governmental problems.

Understanding of One’s Own Country and Its Policy Interests, together with the ability to communicate them and negotiate effectively in a foreign setting. A diplomat learns to participate constructively in the formulation of policy in one’s own government and implement policy in a creative manner that yields positive results for one’s country, and to communicate persuasively with one’s own and foreign governments and with business circles and wider publics.

Leadership, management, moral character and interpersonal skills. A diplomat of any kind, from the ambassador down to the visa officer and the motor pool supervisor, must work effectively as a member of a team. He or she must show moral courage and manage in often difficult circumstances. Diplomats supervise locally hired employees starting in entry-level assignments and, if effective, they might eventually lead government agencies at home and missions overseas of many hundreds, even thousands of employees.

Those are the overarching big three skill sets of a diplomat, parts of which are found in other fields and which explains why non-professionals can sometimes succeed as diplomats.

But these skills are sharpened through experience in the field. A good diplomat cultivates a problem-solving mindset that seeks the “sweet spot” of enlightened self interest, based on knowing how to get to the possible overlap of skill set one (the other country’s interests) and skill set two (the interests of one’s own country). In my experience, political appointee ambassadors have a hard time finding that sweet spot. I have seen them become combative or go into virtual self-isolation when the host nation “doesn’t get it,” or at the other extreme, they regard themselves as their host nation’s best insider advocate in Washington.

In the US, the demand for patronage and government jobs grows with each succeeding administration and translates into increasing numbers of non-professionals in the top diplomatic jobs. The national interest in effective American diplomacy takes a distant second place to the need to reward campaign donors, staffers, and others seen as loyalists. In short, with every administration we get a larger batch of Plimptons seeking to learn how to be ambassadors and increasingly demanding to be posted to the most important overseas missions.

There are various rationalizations promoted in the American media to cover up the practice of rewarding campaign donors and staffers with diplomatic jobs. The latest rationalization fits nicely with this issue of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune’s theme of diaspora politics: sending an American (donor or staffer) to represent the US in his or her ethnicity’s country of origin. This practice is long-established and fairly benign in some cases, for instance, an Irish American campaign donor as US ambassador in Dublin. US–Ireland ties are unlikely to be damaged severely by this practice, even though it has the effect of inserting Ireland into the US patronage system.

In other cases, however, sending an American ambassador because of his or her ethnicity to the home country of the ethnicity can have unintended negative consequences. The announcement that the Biden administration intends to nominate hotelier (and Democratic Party donor) George Tsunis as ambassador to Greece resulted in negative feedback like this in the Greek press: “The children of poor immigrants who somehow found success in the US are not seen as qualified to advise today’s elected leaders about current Greek political life and foreign relations.” Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan–American, reportedly had special difficulties as Special Envoy to Afghanistan because successive Afghan presidents saw him as a potential political rival in Afghanistan. In Israel, when relations with the US get tense, Jewish American ambassadors are sometimes baited as turncoats and called “Jew Boy” (a taunt first applied to Secretary of State Kissinger and borrowed from the Nixon tapes.) When that happens, the US embassy staff has a new priority of working on ambassador–Israel relations rather than US–Israel relations.

Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee. Photo Credit: REUTERS
Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee. Photo Credit: REUTERS

Another example of unintended consequences is sending Indian Americans to represent the US in India. Many Indian Americans are descendants of the Brahmin caste. Brahmins had often collaborated with the British colonial administration. When India became independent and began implementing policies of affirmative action to help the lower castes, some Brahmins emigrated to seek opportunities in the US. Sending the descendant of a Brahmin back to India as ambassador can, instead of engendering goodwill as intended, further complicate the US–India relationship.

The solution is to fill ambassadorial positions with diplomats who meet the highest standards of the profession together with occasional non-professionals who have the necessary skill sets and who also bring also a fresh perspective to diplomatic problems.  But that is not how US diplomacy is generally staffed these days.  

A senior career official recently told me, quite proudly, that the State Department training course for new political appointee ambassadors, who have no prior experience in the profession and who are increasingly being sent to our biggest and most important embassies, was recently expanded from two to three weeks. According to a video of his performance, the original George Plimpton spent more than three weeks training to perform on the flying trapeze.

There was always a moment in the Plimpton performance art when, about to face the prospect of serious injury or crushing defeat, a troubled look would replace his usual confident demeanor. Thus, about to take a snap from the Baltimore Colts center in 1972, he looks across at the opposing Detroit Lions and spots the ferocious linebacker Alex Karras pointing at his head. It reminds one of the similarly troubled look that crossed the mien of the Trump administration’s ambassador to the European Union, the campaign donor Gordon Sondland, as he was about to testify under congressional subpoena about his role in the Ukraine scandal. Thus Plimpton-esque farces have become translated into the world of American diplomacy as national tragedies.

To answer the question of this column’s title: Yes, diplomacy is a profession, though rarely as practiced of late in the United States.

Robert Silverman
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
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