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by Chas Freeman
Remarks to the American Foreign Service Association
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)
The Foreign Service Club, Washington, DC, 11 January 1995


Ladies and Gentlemen:

There’s a door prize being given out today.

Finally, after great struggles, the National Defense University Press has come forth with this book, which is one of two books that I looked for back twenty-nine years ago when I came in the Foreign Service, A Dictionary of Quotations on Statecraft and Diplomacy.

The other book—on the arts of power in statecraft—I am also writing at present. In any event, I have this book here, and since it’s put out by GPO [Government Printing Office] and since all of you are government officials, I can see, following my talk I will be able to give you a copy of this book if you still want one.

But you will have to pay a price. Not only do you have to listen to me talk about the profession of diplomacy, but since I’m hoping this will shortly be out in a commercial version, revised, you also have to undertake to contribute your own favorite quotations to that next edition. So, if you are prepared to bear that onerous expense, I will in exchange provide you with a copy of this book.

I am going to talk today about diplomacy as a profession. Is it a profession? Should it be a profession? I think these are not empty questions.

I’d like to start off by drawing from my own book of quotations, quoting Abba Eban, who, in 1983, observed that “The word ‘ambassador’ would normally have a professional connotation but for the American tradition of ‘political appointees.’ The bizarre notion that any citizen, especially if he is rich, is fit for the representation of his country abroad has taken some hard blows through empirical evidence, but it has not been discarded, nor should the idea of diluting a rigid professionalism with manpower from less detached sectors of society be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, when the strongest nation in the world appoints a tycoon or a wealthy hostess to head an embassy, the discredit and frustration is spread throughout the entire diplomatic corps in the country concerned.” That was in 1983.

Quite a bit before that, about 130 years before that, demonstrating that this is indeed a lengthy American tradition, the New York Herald Tribune observed, “Diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle. A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad.”

These American observations, or observations about American diplomacy, contrast quite strikingly with the views expressed by François de Callières in 1716. I’d like to quote from him before I get into the meat of my topic. He said, writing now almost three centuries ago, “Diplomacy is a profession by itself, which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognized professions. The qualities of the diplomatist and the knowledge necessary to him cannot indeed all be acquired. The diplomatic genius is born, not made. But there are many qualities which may be developed with practice, and the greater part of the necessary knowledge can only be acquired by constant application to the subject.

“In this sense, diplomacy is certainly a profession, itself capable of occupying a man’s whole career, and those who think to embark upon a diplomatic mission as a pleasant diversion from their common task only prepare disappointment for themselves and disaster for the cause that they serve. The veriest fool would not entrust the command of an army to a man whose sole badge of merit was his eloquence in a court of law or his adroit practice of the courtier’s art in the palace. All are agreed that military command must be earned by long service in the army. In the same manner, it must be regarded as folly to entrust the conduct of negotiations to an untrained amateur.”

Now, if that is a statement with which probably most in this room would agree, we have to ask ourselves why it is that the learned professions of the clergy, the law, medicine, and military science have emerged exempt from the practice of political appointments but diplomacy is still subjected to it.

It’s worth going back for a moment and thinking about what professions are. They have some common characteristics: beginning with professed expertise in carrying out specialized functions. They have a specialized vocabulary; they use a common ideology to analyze problems; they apply a common set of skills, technical skills, to solving those problems; they have a self-administered code of ethics or system of ethics.

The professions that I cited—the clergy, the law, medicine, and the military—began in the eighteenth century with entry into the profession being through a process of apprenticeship, that is, on-the-job training. There were no standards and there was no system of professional ethics in place. But over the succeeding two centuries, they all developed professional schools, professional associations that would certify the competence of the members of the profession, and they developed a self-regulating system of ethics.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the systems were somewhat mixed. That is, apprenticeship coexisted with professional education as a means of entering the profession. It was only about a decade ago that my home state of Rhode Island abolished the privilege of entering the practice of law purely through apprenticeship rather than graduation from a law school. The professional associations had been formed, but they were still not formalized as a regulatory mechanism. The codes of ethics were there, but they were far less formal and elaborate than at present.

By the early twentieth century, each of these professions had developed the degree of formality with which we are familiar today. This is when the divinity schools, the law schools, the medical schools, the military academies, the staff colleges, the war colleges, reached their current state of definition.

Why didn’t this happen for diplomacy? There are probably many reasons for that, one being the transnational nature of the profession, which makes it difficult for any one country to lead in the formation of a professional doctrine and system. But in any event, it didn’t happen.

In fact, there are competing images of the diplomatic profession which are held even to this day. Back in 1959, Harold Nicholson observed, “There are those who regard the Foreign Service as a kind of bird sanctuary for elegant young men with the milk of Groton still wet upon their lips, arrayed in striped pants, and spending most of their time handing sugar cookies to ladies of high society in Europe and Latin America. Conversely, there are those who regard diplomatists as an international gang of intriguers intent upon ensnaring the Great White Soul of the United States.” I suspect Senator Jesse Helms might actually agree with both of those statements.

I expect this will continue as long as diplomacy does not follow the course other learned professions have followed. They have benefitted greatly in terms of their competence and in terms of their standing from their formal professionalization. So could diplomacy.

Some might see an effort to achieve greater professionalization of diplomacy as merely a ploy. Jeffrey Jackson, in 1981, anticipated this when he said, “Of survival, it has been said that the bird is evolution’s device for the perpetuation of the egg. Diplomacy, too, must sometimes appear to be the diplomat’s invention for the perpetuation of his profession. Hence, the legendary diplomat reposting to the condescension of the generals that they would have no wars to fight were it not for him.”

Is diplomacy up to being professionalized? Does it have within it the aspects which would allow it to become a profession in the sense that the law, the medicine, and the military have become? I’m quite sure that it does.

Let’s go through a series of questions related to this.

Do diplomats profess expertise in a specialized set of functions? Diplomats are agents, advocates, informants, and counselors of their governments which look to them as the stewards of their nation’s interests abroad. There are, I believe, ten unchanging principal functions of the profession of diplomacy. The international situation gives these content, but it doesn’t alter their contours. Diplomats discharge these duties on their own or sometimes in collaboration with members of the allied professions of arms and espionage.

The major tasks of diplomats, as I see them, are, first, linking their government’s decision-makers to foreign counterparts; second, advocacy of their government’s policies and views; third, negotiation on their government’s behalf; fourth, commendation to their government of ways to advance or defend its interests; fifth, promotion of trade and investment; sixth, protection of compatriots; seventh, management of programs of cooperation between governments; eighth, reporting and analysis of relevant foreign developments and realities; ninth, establishment of facilitative relationships with the officials and members of the elites who influence them; and tenth, cultivation of an image for their nation which is favorable to its interests.

These ten functions are inseparably connected. I cite this because inseparable connection of functions is at the heart of any profession.

When decision-makers have positive feelings toward a foreign nation, they’re more receptive to approaches from both its officials and businessmen. They’re also more inclined to give weight to its interests and views.

When diplomats have access to a wide range of influential people, their understanding of local trends and developments is enhanced. So, then, through their reporting, is their government’s situational awareness.

When programs of official cooperation are well conducted, they facilitate access to those in authority and predispose them to cooperate. When diplomats’ relations with such men and women are easy and informed by good understanding of local affairs and mind-sets, they are better able to help their citizens to do business and to protect those who fall afoul of local custom and law.

When these tasks are properly performed, diplomats have the insight necessary to conceive plans of action to further the interests of their country. Their government will be well informed enough to be able to form its policies wisely. That’s no guarantee that it will, but it will have the information necessary do so, should it choose to heed it.

Diplomats will know how to present their government’s positions in terms that are appealing to local interests and sensibilities. They will be more able to persuade host government officials to conclude agreements favorable to their country’s interests. They will know how to enable effective communication between their head of government and members of his Cabinet and corresponding officials in their country of assignment. They will be equipped to provide uniquely valuable counsel and support to direct dialogue between such officials.

I rest my case on the connection between all of these functions.

Do diplomats have a specialized vocabulary? Well, back in the early nineteenth century, Ludwig Boerne, who was a German diplomat of some renown at the time, said, “Diplomacy is to speak French, to say nothing, and to speak falsehoods.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I think over the years many have observed that diplomats do use language in peculiar ways. John Kenneth Galbraith, in 1969, observed, just by way of example, “There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy, but to one there is no exception: when an official reports that talks were useful, it can be safely concluded that nothing was accomplished.”

I think we don’t need to go on about this. Clearly we have a specialized vocabulary in the diplomatic profession. We use ordinary words in extraordinary ways. Of course, we use extraordinary words in incomprehensible ways as well.

Do diplomats have a common ideology of problem-solving? Arthur Goldberg once observed, “Diplomats approach all problems with an open mouth.” This is not an unfair comment, since, as A. Whitney Griswald pointed out back in 1960, “Diplomacy is supposed to keep things in a negotiable state.” Of course, we all know that some diplomatic professionals, those in the former Soviet Union, added a corollary to that, which is, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” But in any event, it’s clear that there is a common ideology of diplomats which emphasizes the adjustment of differences between nations through negotiation and peaceful, rather than violent, interaction.

Do diplomats have a common set of skills? I think that the basic skills for diplomats to carry out the functions I’ve alluded to are the same in all times and places. Some derive, as François de Callières said, from natural talent, but most, I believe, are acquired only through professional training and experience. These skills are mutually supportive, also, and they fall into five broad related categories: agency, advocacy, reporting, counseling, and stewardship. I’ll run through these very quickly and come to a conclusion so we can eat.

As agents of their governments, diplomats must cultivate, first, mastery of the arts of negotiation. Second, a demonstrated capacity to elicit prompt, authoritative responses from their own government to the views of their host nation. Third, the ability to add at least the appearance of conviction to the messages they communicate. Fourth, precision of expression both in their own and in other languages. Fifth, a sophisticated grounding in their own nation’s history and culture.

As advocates of their nation’s policies and perspectives, diplomats must embody, first, the credibility that comes from intelligent commitment to its interests and to the policies that derive from those interests; second, a gift for political calculation; third, tact; fourth, the empathy and ability to help their host nation redefine its interests to be compatible with those of their own government; fifth, fluency in the dominant language of their host nation and the principal diplomatic language of its capital; and sixth, affability and poise that shrugs at adversity.

As reporters, diplomats must personify acuity of observation and accuracy of memory; second, discretion; third, graceful adaptability to life in alien cultures; fourth, ease of fellowship with a wide range of individuals and groups, such that they readily share confidences; and fifth, facility as tersely vivid but scrupulously accurate writers.

As counselors of their own governments, diplomats must cultivate a reputation for selfless dedication to their own nation’s interests; second, a knowledge of their host nation’s history, including a record of its relations with their own country; third, a finely honed sense of how policy is made in their own government; fourth, the acumen to judge when and how to present to their government recommendations for altered courses of action or requests for new instructions; and fifth, the knack of allowing others to take credit for notable policy innovation or success.

As stewards of their people’s interests and reputations in foreign lands, diplomats must evidence, first, concern about their compatriots and a dedication to serving them; second, understanding of commerce and finance; third, an appreciation of the essentials of military science; and fourth, knowledge of diplomatic practices and international law.

These twenty-five basic skills which I have outlined are born of training and experience. When diplomats come to possess them in adequate measure, they are able to perform the tasks that their homeland expects of them.

Are there professional ethics to diplomacy? Well, Talleyrand, who was one of the most famous diplomats of two centuries ago, once observed, “The only good principle is to have none.” In fact, the common impression of the diplomatic profession is that it is a tricky one.

But I would argue that, in fact, there is a professional set of ethics inchoate, but very much known to the practitioners of the profession. Consider for a moment the emphasis on the protection of confidences; the operation of collegiality between diplomats in a foreign capital or in a multilateral setting; the sense of duty to one’s own government; the limited expectations that other diplomats will violate these rules; and the commitment, finally, to the construction of an international system which facilitates problem-solving by nonviolent means; attention not simply to reasons of state, but also to reasons of system.

So I would conclude that diplomacy does have all of the attributes of a profession, but that they remain in inchoate form. I return to the thought that François de Callières had, this from an American, Herbert H.D. Pierce, in 1897, who said, “As we would not put a ship into the hands of a commander ignorant of navigation, an army under the control of a general without military training, so we should not put the foreign affairs of our government into the hands of men without knowledge of the various subjects which go to make up the diplomatic science.”

The interesting thing about that statement is that by 1840, it was unthinkable that a politician should be appointed as a brigade commander in the U.S. Army, whereas it had been a common practice in earlier years. By about that time, it was unthinkable that someone who had received his medical training as a barber and part-time butcher should be allowed to operate in a hospital, and it was unthinkable that someone who could not demonstrate any intimate familiarity with the principles of the law should be admitted to practice in court. So it is not a trivial statement that de Callières and Pierce are making.

In conclusion, let me again cite de Callières, who I think is probably the greatest writer on the profession of diplomacy. He observes, “Even in those cases where success has attended the efforts of an amateur diplomatist, the example must be regarded as an exception, for it is a commonplace of human experience that skilled work requires a skilled workman.”

The point here is that not only must the workmen and the workwomen know their skills, but they must be seen as possessing those skills in unique measure. What is at stake in the subject I’m addressing is the question of whether popular and political support can be gained for the rather self-evident proposition that de Callières stated, that skilled work requires a skilled person.

As I said at the outset, diplomacy is, if anything, a transnational profession not unique to any country, and yet if it is to be professionalized, as I believe it should be, there must be leadership from some quarter. I note in this regard that the professionalization of the clergy, of the medical profession, and of the military first emerged in the United States. It is not unusual for the United States to have played a leading role in the formation of modern professions. Why shouldn’t that be the case with diplomacy, too?End.


Author Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. (He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.) Ambassador Freeman is a much sought-after public speaker (see and the author of several well-received books on statecraft and diplomacy. His most recent book, Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, was published in March 2013. America’s Misadventures in the Middle East came out in 2010, as did the most recent revision of The Diplomat’s Dictionary, the companion volume to Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy. He was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “diplomacy.” Chas Freeman studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and in Taiwan, and earned an AB magna cum laude from Yale University as well as a JD from the Harvard Law School. He chairs Projects International, Inc., a Washington-based firm that for more than three decades has helped its American and foreign clients create ventures across borders, facilitating their establishment of new businesses through the design, negotiation, capitalization, and implementation of greenfield investments, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, franchises, one-off transactions, sales and agencies in other countries.


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