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The Ambassadorial Imperative Endangered

Review by William N. Dale

First Line of Defense: Ambassadors, Embassies and American Interests Abroad.
By Robert V. Keeley, ed. (Washington, D.C.: The American Academy of Diplomacy, 2000. Pp.viii, 124. $9.95 paper.)

First Line of Defense is the result of the combined efforts of approximately thirty former United States ambassadors who participated in a symposium hosted by the Brookings Institution on 8 February 1999. Their background includes extensive service at diplomatic posts and top positions in the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council, Congress, and other government offices. The book is a project of The American Academy of Diplomacy, a group of a hundred retired chiefs of mission and other distinguished former officials, including secretaries of state, who have held key foreign policy positions. Aware of the post-Cold War public’s waning interest in foreign affairs and the popular argument for streamlining America’s diplomatic presence overseas, the contributors to this volume hope to demonstrate that America’s national security interests do require embassies abroad in spite of improvements in communications and the end of the Cold War.

Recounting numerous actual experiences of ambassadors dealing with foreign challenges, the authors intend to prove that their many successes were largely due to their training, experience, and location abroad. For example, one account describes how Secretary of State George Shultz ordered Ambassador Robert Oakley to take over the job of ambassador to Pakistan on a few hours notice following the death of Ambassador Raphel and Pakistani resident Zia al Haq in an air crash in August, 1988. En route to Zia’s funeral, the secretary, key Defense Department officials, and the newly designated ambassador determined what U.S. objectives should be. With Washington’s blessing, Oakley persuaded the interim Pakistani government to proceed with previously scheduled elections, continue to aid Afghan rebels, and curtail its nuclear weapons program–all American goals.

Additional examples of how ambassadorial activities successfully promoted American interests abroad (often at the expense of the host country’s sovereignty) included: Ambassador’s Rowell’s efforts to interdict the cocaine trade in Bolivia, Ambassador Armacost’s success in persuading President Reagan to reassess his support for Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Ambassador Frank Carlucci’s use of his excellent Washington connections to help restore stability to Portugal, Ambassador James Bishop’s persistent efforts to reestablish order in Liberia and Somalia, and Ambassador Richard Gardner’s use of economic and commercial diplomacy to assist American businessmen in their overseas operations.

The authors utilize these personal contributions in a series of contexts. First is the general role of ambassadors and their staffs and the challenges they face. The second context evaluates the influence that an ambassador can have on Washington policymakers and on foreign governments. Next concerns an ambassador’s activities in crisis situations, ranging from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. The final context involves an ambassador’s role in promoting the interests of American business abroad.

Finding fault with the Clinton administration’s failure to secure congressional funding sufficient to protect America’s global interests, the authors point out that White House streamlining of State Department-submitted budget requests have resulted in the closing of overseas posts and the reduction of personnel. Consequently, these actions have reduced State’s ability to serve the nation’s interests abroad.

Robert Keeley’s well-edited synthesis of ambassadorial wisdom contributes greatly to our understanding of how diplomacy is actually practiced today. For instance, Ambassador Robert Dillon’s account of the lessons he learned in managing hostage crises from his experiences in Kuala Lumpur and Ambassador Craig Johnstone’s list of activities an embassy should undertake to promote American economic interests are especially timely. Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering’s moving arguments in favor of additional resources for diplomatic activities and Ambassador William Harrop’s plea for improved security on U.S. posts abroad also illustrate some current problems for America’s diplomats.

First Line of Defense’s arguments for retaining embassies, providing them with the resources needed to operate effectively, and of assuring a steady supply of qualified personnel should be very persuasive among people who are aware of the world beyond America’s borders. It may not, however, be as effective in creating an interest among those with little or no knowledge of the world to begin with. Whatever impact this work will have depends a great deal on the Academy’s ability to reach a broad and influential audience.End.

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