What is the point of diplomats?

Years ago, I was half-alarmed and half-bemused to hear a primary candidate for a U.S. Presidential campaign say that, if elected, one way he would save money would be to abolish the State Department.

“If I want to speak to a foreign leader, I can pick up the telephone,” he said.

First, it wouldn’t have saved much money.  Taken from a pie chart of federal spending, the entire State Department wouldn’t make a big enough slice to be worth serving to anyone.  Second, I couldn’t help wondering who would advise him what to discuss with foreign leaders?

The world is small enough that, with enough time and money, a disciplined traveller could see most countries in the course of a lifetime.  It’s small enough that most people can roughly sketch out the continents and generally fill in the deserts, rain forests, major rivers and biggest cities.  It’s a comprehensible size.

What is beyond anyone’s ability to grasp is the range and diversity of ethnic tensions, territorial disputes, resource shortages, historic grievances, criminal activity, and potential for military miscalculation that criss-cross the continents.  And no one should dare to make confident assumptions about the meaning of words or actions in a foreign country without spending a substantial amount of time there.

When I was serving in the Balkans in the late 1990s, just after the end of the first Balkan war, I had a thoroughly unproductive meeting with a local political party official in Sarajevo.  We at the embassy were trying to gauge how representative upcoming local elections would be, so I had one question for him: Would his political party participate in upcoming local elections? He would not answer and I could not get him to tell me why he wouldn’t.  I left the meeting frustrated.

Then, I called a Foreign Ministry colleague who worked for the country in which I was serving, described how unsatisfactory the meeting had been without naming names, and asked him what might have gone wrong.  I trusted him enough to ask him the question and he trusted me enough to give me an answer.

What he told me was: “That local official you were speaking with – whoever he is — has never done anything in his career other than carry out instructions from Belgrade (during the time of Yugoslavia).  He prospered by accurately calculating what was expected of him.  No risks.  In his mind, Washington is the new Belgrade.  He wanted and expected you tell him whether you wanted his party to participate in local elections.  He was looking for instructions, and you weren’t cooperating.  Of course it was a lousy meeting.”

Using that insight, I began subsequent meetings with local officials by explaining clearly that there were some issues where we had strong preferences, and others where we just wanted to know what people were planning to do.  The meetings were much more successful once that was out of the way.

If a big problem emerges, the Secretary of State should have someone on hand in Washington who can describe the issue in context and suggest a course of action.  But do you have to send diplomats to live overseas?  Couldn’t you manage from home using modern communications and occasional trips?

You could, but not very well, as I think the Balkan anecdote demonstrates.  Other cultures depend on personal relationships more than American culture.  The American melting pot of cultures and languages evolved a very plain and comparatively simple use of language – known as a ‘low-context’ culture – that underestimates the complexity of historical and cultural context in other countries.  Anyone from any culture is more likely to trust someone they know personally, and trusts someone that knows their country more than someone who has neither visited nor lived there.

“You had to be there,” has a lot of truth to it.  Getting people to talk to you, and then being able to understand what they are really saying, is much of a diplomat’s job.  In sum, American diplomats have two basic functions: to explain the U.S. to foreigners, and to understand and communicate the place they’re working in to Washington.  Put simply, they carry messages and receive messages.  That works better in trusting, personal relationships where discretion is assured.  Absent such relationships, we would be forced to rely on guesswork rather than knowledge regarding other countries’ needs and interests.  It’s better to know than to guess.