Skip to main content

by Amb. William C. Harrop (Ret.)

Author’s Note (October 2016):  I recently came upon the following essay that I wrote in March 1995. There are a few anachronisms, and of course much has changed in two decades. Notably, these notes preceded the 1998 bombing of embassies Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the ever present threat of terrorism with which ambassadors must live today. Communication is now even more instantaneous and individualized. The international dominance of the United States is a bit tempered. The crippling lack of appropriated resources for diplomacy has been somewhat ameliorated by the efforts of Secretaries Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. And the direction of foreign policy is increasingly centered in an expanded White House.

But the responsibilities of the Chief of Mission and the challenges she or he faces are not appreciably altered; the job remains very demanding. These lessons learned as a Foreign Service Officer managing five embassies and serving in several others seem still valid today. I do not address the human, social dimension of leadership; although shaped by the insularity of embassies in a foreign culture, the responsibility of organizational leadership is not peculiar to diplomacy.

This paper will suggest some ways an American ambassador can perform effectively in a difficult, quite new and fluid environment.

The Ambassador’s Duties
First, we should define the responsibilities of a modern chief of mission.  These are not much changed: representation of the flag, the president and the American people; supervision and coordination of all US Government activities and personnel in country (except those under an area military commander); factual and analytical reporting; policy recommendation and advocacy; implementation of US policies through effective communication with the host government, including negotiation as called for, and public diplomacy; support and protection of American citizens, and specifically of American business interests and trade promotion; prudent management of American public resources as required by law and regulation.The New Environment
Performing these tasks successfully, which was never easy, has become more and more difficult. What, briefly, are the new conditions?

• The Cold War, after almost fifty years, is over. The attention of the American public, the President and— most dramatically—the new Congress, has shifted toward domestic issues and away from the international engagement of a world power. The United States, many feel, should defend its interests unilaterally rather than in concert with its allies and other governments.  Foreign aid is much criticized. Foreign policy, short of a crisis, seems less urgent, less central to national interests. Positions have become less founded upon long-term national purpose and more subject to volatile domestic politics and opinion polls.

• Appropriations for the State Department and Foreign Service have been greatly reduced, and the Department is engaged in a highly uncertain “re-engineering” exercise. Overseas, for lack of funds, national employees are being laid off, maintenance of buildings (both chanceries and staff housing) has languished, in-country travel is sharply curtailed, communications systems are outmoded, the replacement cycle for official vehicles has been stretched to a dysfunctional nine years. Despite the net addition of 22 new embassies since 1979, the Foreign Service is 6% smaller than it was then and shrinking rapidly. (Symbolically, this year’s FSO entry examination has been canceled.) Ambassadors must work with a thoroughly inadequate infrastructure and reduced State Department budget. Representatives at post of most other federal agencies are far less constrained. While their parent budgets may also be under pressure, their international activities comprise a relatively insignificant expenditure and are therefore less subject to cuts.

• With Cold War rivalry no longer the focus there is a “new agenda” of international relations—market access, intellectual property rights, nuclear nonproliferation, drugs, terrorism and law enforcement, ethnic and religious conflict, refugee migrations, runaway immigration, democracy and free market economics, human rights, environmental concerns including population growth, communicable disease, pollution, the exhaustion of finite resources. These issues are often technical and complex; they attract committed, aggressive interest groups which tend to focus on the cause at hand to the exclusion of other policy considerations; and they are consequently less subject to unitary national decision making. Independent, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have become significant players.

• Given this varied agenda and the specialized nature of most of the new issues, many federal agencies now have legitimate international interests; they wish to and they do assign staff overseas, liberally. Chiefs of mission who attempt to contain this expansion of American personnel in country through the procedures of NSDD 38 have been frustrated by a compliant State Department leadership. For example, the presence in diplomatic missions of law enforcement personnel (e.g. FBI, DEA, INS) has grown explosively. The State Department component of the American staff of overseas missions has declined to around a fifth. As the Foreign Service Officer presence—particularly economic and political officers— has thinned, representatives of better funded agencies, notably CIA, have picked up the slack and are now producing (in their own channels) a good deal of what should be normal diplomatic reporting and analysis.

• Symbolic of the greater weight it attaches to domestic considerations, the current Administration is having difficulty honoring its pledge to contain the proportion of politically appointed ambassadors at 30% of the total.

• The speed and reach of modern telecommunications increases the intensity of international events and statements anywhere in the globe. CNN competes effectively with embassies for immediacy of reporting (although not for the quality of informed analysis which governments must have to make intelligent decisions). Washington is aware of developments throughout the world almost instantly, although in an unevaluated and often exaggerated form comparable to what the intelligence community terms “raw intelligence”.

• With access to E-mail and fax machines supplementing the telephone, the various agency components of a mission are in a better position than before to communicate autonomously with Washington, bypassing the Embassy cable system (and the clearances it entails). Defense attaches now connect directly to the Pentagon by classified fax. Many agencies, including AID, USIA, and, recently, State itself, are tied to the internet; many ambassadors are not.

• The sixth and seventh floors of the State Department (deputy assistant secretaries and above), as well as other senior federal government officials, increasingly communicate with ambassadors by secure telephone. This may permit rapid action and reduce leaks, but it also serves to bypass the clearance process and to avoid a permanent record. Dealing with sensitive issues or negotiating positions in this fashion, the ambassador cannot be sure to what extent the oral—and subsequently deniable—guidance he or she is receiving represents a coordinated US Government position. In an era when White House attention and direction of foreign policy is episodic, this can be an acute problem.

How Can the Chief of Mission, in this Environment, Maximize His Effectiveness?
One of the ambassador’s principal goals is to make sure that American policy toward his or her country of assignment be, and be seen as, coherent, that the mission speak with one voice even when there is bureaucratic dissonance in Washington. He (please read “or she” throughout) must mold a team among staff who themselves depend, for career and livelihood, far less upon him than upon separate bureaucratic entities at home. His challenge is to unify this typically large and diverse staff, and to integrate to the maximum at field level resources coming from many independent Washington agencies. The successful ambassador can in fact realize a far higher level of coherence and unity than is possible among the various parent agencies at home.

He retains significant legal and historical assets:

  • he is the only officer at post appointed by and answerable to the president, responsible for overseeing the entire national agenda;
  • by law, all US Government employees in the mission must keep the    ambassador “fully and currently informed” of their activities and operations,  and “must comply fully with all applicable directives of the chief of mission”;
  • President Clinton, maintaining a practice of his predecessors, supplemented the law by delegating significant authority to chiefs of mission in a letter to each of September l6, 1994; it states, inter alia, “Every executive branch agency under your authority, including the Department of State, must obtain your approval to change the size, composition or mandate of its staff”.
  • through long tradition, the chief of mission is looked up to as just that.

Perhaps the ambassador’s major tool is the setting of mission-wide priorities. He should involveevery element of his mission in a rigorous management-by-objectives process to establish a rank order of American objectives in the host country. He should exercise his authority over all official personnel in country to reorder the traditional agency-by-agency structure of an embassy, establishing a series of multi-agency teams targeted on the major identified national objectives, and reporting to him. Shortage of State Department budget resources required to get the job done will unavoidably hamper his performance and strain post morale. He should stretch his authority, within legal limits, to shift available resources according to actual need among agencies at post. To the extent he can practically do so, he should involve his whole mission in the search for economies and in the mean task of allocating the inadequate funds available for administrative support.

He should be attentive to and take personal interest in each of the sections, functions and agency components of his mission. He should make forcefully clear that he expects to be involved in each agency’s annual reporting, policy review and country budget planning exercises, and to be fully consulted on issues of basic direction and policy. While not insisting on clearance of every single communication to Washington, he should require that all significant messages and reports be shown to him, as well as individual taskings received by mission components from their Washington agencies. He should leave no ambiguity about his role and authority.

The ambassador should stand ready to support his officers in their discussions with their Washington agency heads and should, for example, make a point of being available to attend representational functions of importance to staff members, or to call upon the appropriate minister to press an issue which matters particularly to one of the agencies at post. Should he learn—as he will, should it occur—that an agency representative has abused his confidence by addressing significant policy matters without his clearance—either with host government officials or through independent communication channels with Washington—he should react severely, to the point of requiring the agency concerned to replace the individual forthwith.

The non-career, “political” ambassadors, who currently head a number of our more important missions, for the most part face a steep learning curve on policy issues and diplomatic practice, not to mention bureaucratic politics and the art of maximizing the chief of mission’s influence. The cost of amateurism to the national interest can be substantial. However, in one respect the political appointee may have an advantage over career ambassadors, since he will probably start out with the assumption that all of the functions, agendas and agency representatives at his mission merit his attention. Some Foreign Service professionals must overcome a tendency to concentrate their time upon more traditional diplomatic subject matter at the expense of some of the new agendas mentioned above.

Because of the “CNN factor”, every public statement made by an ambassador has a second simultaneous audience back at home. As he endeavors to influence public perceptions and government policies in his country of assignment—a central part of his job, after all—he must think about the reaction that remarks designed for local consumption may encounter in Washington, where perceptions and sensitivities are likely to be quite different. This is not a problem Ben Franklin had to worry about.

There is no easy answer to the abuse of the secure telephone, particularly to the ever more common communication of urgent instructions to ambassadors by voice. The practice may stem from impatience with bureaucratic delays and clearance procedures, and from the urgent need to act in the absence of presidential and secretarial leadership. It thus signals the inability of the administration to resolve internal policy debates. But it can also be an arrogation of authority by an individual or a unit of the bureaucracy and an evasion of accountability. The ambassador should request that significant policy guidance or instructions he receives orally be confirmed in writing. Unfortunately, he will not always receive such confirmation, and so must fall back upon his own best judgment.

Senator Helms’ announced effort in the spring of 1995 to unify the bureaucracies, budgets and foreign services of State, AID, USIA, ACDA, FCS and FAS could become a major step forward toward coherence and economy. But his plans do not appear to include other more powerful (and often competing) actors, such as Defense, CIA, and Justice. It would hardly seem practical to consider “consolidation” of such basic functions. But the ambassador, because of his special authority over his mission, is in a position to build greater national policy coherence and integration of effort on a country-specific basis than is often possible in Washington, where the budget process in particular is compartmentalized in both the legislative and executive branches. The ambassador will encounter resistance at different times from various agencies. He must not be timid.

A competent chief of mission often has more sway over US policies and actions relating to his specific responsibilities—his country of appointment—than does the Secretary of State, who must deal with other cabinet members as co-equals. The chief of mission should not hesitate to communicate directly with these other cabinet members, keeping the Secretary of State informed. Such direct communication can prove useful not only on policy questions but also on management issues, such as limiting unnecessary functions and people or obtaining resource help to complement State’s declining budget. He should develop and nourish contacts in the Congress. To influence American policy a chief of mission must be sensitive to domestic American political trends, and must systematically keep abreast of developments at home. Such background is essential if he is to deal effectively with the single-issue NGO’s whose activities increasingly impact on our overall bilateral relations.

In the last analysis, statutory authorities notwithstanding, a chief of mission in the new century must rely more heavily than in the past upon his own policy sense, his strength of character, force of personality, resourcefulness and determination.bluestar


Author Amb. William C. Harrop served in the U. S. Foreign Service from 1954 to 1994. During his long career, he held ambassadorships to Guinea, Kenya and the Seychelles, Zaire, and Israel. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1977-80, and inspector general of the Foreign Service, 1983-86. Ambassador Harrop is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, this journal’s parent organization.


Comments are closed.