On Diplomats and Diplomacy
Diplomacy, and the role of diplomats, is often not clearly understood, especially in the highly polarized world we inhabit today.
The dictionary gives three definitions of diplomacy:
- The management of communications and relationships between nations by members and employees of each nation’s government.
- Skill in managing communications and relationships between nations.
- Skill and tact in dealing with other people.
While the third definition refers to the general conduct of relationships between people, the first two refer to the profession of diplomacy and diplomats; those people sent abroad by their government to manage relations with the nation to which they are dispatched. It goes without saying, however, that skill, as defined by number three, is an essential for professional diplomats.
Many people, however, misunderstand the role of diplomats. They are often thought of as officials who spend their time at cocktail receptions, making small talk with others of their ilk; who never disagree, and who are never involved in controversy. This is unfortunately a common misunderstanding.
The profession of diplomacy got its start in the Italian City States, when the kings sent emissaries to neighboring states to manage the complex political and economic relations on their behalf. The emissaries, or ambassadors, were empowered to speak for and act on behalf of their sovereigns. While their task was to build bridges of understanding between their masters and the sovereigns to whom they were accredited; they at all times were charged with representing the interests of their sovereign.
Modern-day diplomats are no different than their ancient predecessors. The function of a diplomat in the 21st century is to represent and protect the interests of the state that sent him or her abroad. This includes, inter alia, protection of their own nationals who are present in the country, promotion of their nation’s economic and political interests, helping the host nation understand their nation, and helping the senior officials of their nation understand the host nation.
Diplomatic relations are, for the most part, carried out with tact and courtesy. But, when the interests of a diplomat’s nation are threatened, the first priority is to protect those interests. This might require, on some occasions, actions that under normal circumstances might not be considered courteous. At the end of the day, however, the diplomat’s objective is not to burn bridges, but to build bridges of understanding – and hopefully, mutually beneficial cooperation. This requires, in all instances though, honesty and forthrightness. There will always be disagreements between nations and people. The important thing is not that we always agree, but that we deal with disagreements in an honest and open manner.
Diplomacy, like the legal profession, is often caricatured in a humorous vein. One definition of a diplomat is “someone who can tell you to go to hell, and make you look forward to the trip.” One would hope that this is only humor; a diplomat or official who makes a habit of such verbal behavior would soon lose all effectiveness. A better definition perhaps would be “someone who can tell you to go to hell, without telling you to go to hell.” That, my friend, requires real tact and verbal agility.
Truly skilled diplomats always endeavor to act in ways that contribute to better relations between nations. Good relations are built on respect and courtesy. These are, however, two-way streets. And that is something that, when considering the role of a diplomat, that should never be forgotten.