by Jonathan Rickert
Accrediting an Ambassador
The custom of sending a representative to negotiate with a foreign clan or tribe probably dates back to pre-historic times. In the contemporary state system, ambassadors are selected by heads of state, or at least chosen in their names. Officially, they are the personal representatives of a head of state to his or her counterparts in other countries. The selection process varies from country to country and is only the first step in determining whether the new envoy will actually take up his or her duties at the assigned post. Following selection, the sending state asks the receiving state to accept the proposed envoy, a process known as agrement. The receiving state normally agrees to the nomination, but on relatively rare occasions does not, usually as a signal of political pique or retaliation, or because the nominee has personally drawn the ire of the regime in power for some reason. In such cases, the appointment normally is withdrawn. Once agrement has been received, the new ambassador may proceed to his or her post and take charge of the mission there but may not engage in any official activities involving the host government until he or she presents credentials to the government.
While I was serving as charge d’affaires at our embassy in Bucharest early in 1992 following the departure of the previous ambassador, we were instructed by the State Department to request that the Romanian government grant agrement for career diplomat John R. Davis, Jr. I asked for and promptly received an appointment with Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu to transmit that request. Upon reading the agrement message, which included a brief biography of Ambassador Davis, Melescanu looked at me, smiled, and said immediately that agrement was granted.
That unquestionably was among the quickest acceptances of agrement on record – the process usually takes days or even weeks and involves approval by the head of state or government. (It is possible, of course, that the Romanians were aware of Davis’s impending nomination and had vetted him already.) On the other hand, in the early 1980s, the same Ambassador Davis had ended up as charge d’affaires in Warsaw for several years when the Poles, apparently for political reasons, had refused agrement for Ambassador-designate John (Jack) Scanlan. The Poles never relented on Scanlan, and Davis eventually became ambassador to Warsaw, while Scanlan ended up in Belgrade instead.
Once at post in the new capital, the envoy normally faces two additional steps before becoming fully functional. First, he or she presents copies of their credentials to the foreign minister. Those documents are a letter of credence, which is a formal diplomatic communication designating a diplomat as ambassador to another sovereign state, and a letter of recall, notifying the receiving state officially of the recall of the new envoy’s predecessor. Once that has been done, the ambassador can assume many of his or her official functions. The envoy is not yet free, however, to engage officially with the host government in such official capacities as negotiating and signing treaties.
The Romanian Ambassador Presents his Credentials to President Clinton
The final step in the whole process is the presentation of credentials to the head of state in the receiving country. Credentials ceremonies vary in the degree of formality from country to country, although certain essential elements remain constant – I was present for three such events in Romania and Bulgaria. The only time that I attended such a ceremony in the U.S. was on February 6, 1996, when I accompanied the new Romanian ambassador, Mircea Geoana, and his family for the presentation of his credentials to President Clinton in the Oval Office.
I had known the Geoanas since meeting them in Bucharest in the early 1990s. Mircea clearly was a rising star in the Romanian diplomatic service – young, smart, energetic, self-confident, and fluent in English (and French). He was a refreshing contrast to some of the stodgy, taciturn envoys who had represented Romania’s communist regime in Washington. So, it was no great surprise to me when he was appointed ambassador in Washington, well before his 40th birthday.
The Geoana family (Mircea, wife Mihaela, and children Alexandru and Ana Maria) had arrived in the capital several months earlier. However, two government shutdowns and a massive snowstorm in January that brought the city to a standstill for several days had prevented him, and a number of other foreign envoys, from presenting their credentials any sooner. At the time, I was director of the State Department office responsible for Romania, among other Eastern European countries. When I learned that the credentials presentation was set, I decided to go along.
After a long wait across the hall from the Oval Office in the Roosevelt Room with other ambassadors scheduled to present credentials that day, the Geoanas and I were ushered into the president. From what I could see, President Clinton handled the proceedings as informally as possible. After some friendly small talk, Geoana handed Clinton his letters of credence and of the recall of his predecessor. Then he and the President each gave brief prepared remarks on the general theme of the good relations existing between our two countries and expressions of hope for their strengthening and further development during the new ambassador’s assignment. Clinton exhibited his famous warmth, wit, and charm throughout, making the whole experience relaxed and stress free.
Although the formal proceedings were brief, lasting no more than 15 minutes or so, they were not easy for Mrs. Geoana, who held her squirming infant daughter tightly in her arms. Moreover, son Alexandru, about three years old, became fidgety and began to explore the room. Clinton quickly noticed what was happening and took what appeared to be a Kenyan chief’s fly whisk from the Presidential Resolute desk and handed it to the boy. Delighted, Alexandru then ran happily around the room waving his new plaything, while the president laughed and his parents watched anxiously, no doubt fearful that he might break something (he didn’t). Not the kind of activity that one normally would associate with the presentation of credentials!
When the Geoanas and I finally left the Oval Office, we passed the awaiting Croatian Ambassador, the last of the eight whom President Clinton was to receive that day. Also a youngish man, the Croatian was accompanied by his wife and four small children. One wonders what went on during their ceremony!
Footnote: Ambassador Geoana has had something of a rollercoaster career, with more ups than downs, since his time in Washington. He has served, inter alia, as Romania’s foreign minister, president of the Senate, and president of the Social Democratic Party, from which he twice was expelled. He also ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bucharest and president of the country. Since 2019, he has been deputy secretary general of NATO.
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as deputy chief of mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.