As someone who sat across the table from American diplomats, I must confess, I was reluctant to accept the invitation to write a review on the latest Foreign Policy Association, Great Decisions series documentary “America’s Diplomats.” It felt like one of those gifts that make one feel awkward.
After some consideration, and out of a general sense of curiosity, I watched the film. It was profoundly captivating, to say the least. Not because of my interest in international relations, not because of the universally accepted collegiality that bonds diplomats and sometimes obliges certain courtesies, but because of the timeliness of the topic and its relevance to the challenges that diplomacy and international relations are facing today.
The film presents the viewer with portraits of men and women in the American Foreign Service who have helped shape history, yet in spite of that, whose services and achievements were seldom recognized and celebrated. It is a tour de force that captures defining moments immortalized in history—the jubilation of triumph and the agony of failure.
In dealing with the latter, one must bounce back and learn from past experiences: this resilience depends almost entirely on effectiveness of individual diplomats. The more informed the individual is on his or her diplomatic mission, the more effective he or she would be.
More importantly, the diplomat must be a strategic thinker who understands the difference between winning battles and winning wars; and that sometimes, what seems like losing could prove to be a winning outcome. In addition to genuine interest in serving one’s country and its national interest, diplomats must possess unwavering commitment to sustainable engagement.
Contrary to the ideological predisposition and rigidity that often restrain bureaucrats, effective diplomats prudently chart new territories and pave new ways.
The film highlights that in recent decades no diplomat has embodied these qualities better than Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who succeeded in the negotiation of the Dayton Peace Accord that ended Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the WWII and the Bosnian genocide.
Diplomacy is often associated with political interests, peace negotiation, commerce or economic advantage. “Diplomats today play a bigger role in advancing America’s economic interest overseas than it used to be” says former Secretary of State James Baker. “America’s power is based primarily…on our economy. As long as our economy has been in good shape…., (we’ve been) strong diplomatically, militarily and politically,” adds Secretary Baker. In the U.S., over ten million jobs are supported by international trade.
The discourse on challenges facing diplomacy in a world that is becoming increasingly volatile has been raging. In the U.S., due to the Benghazi tragedy that left an Ambassador and three other Americans dead, opinions came in the form of partisan rants and raves that have continuously deteriorated during the country’s current election cycle.
All in all, the film offers an insightful tour lead by seasoned diplomats and experts to whom diplomacy is “the first line of defense” and a powerful tool to learn about the dynamics that impact political relationships in a rapidly changing world.
The diplomat is a portrait of his or her nation. He or she is the image projected out to the world, often accepted as the values and aspirations of the country that one represents. There are many ways to enhance that image, and one of the most effective ways is what is known as digital diplomacy, or to employ social media to interact, to clarify misconceptions, and cultivate new relationships.
Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has permeated U.S. foreign policy and often undermines diplomacy and opportunities to build a long-term relationship between states. Throughout the world, American embassies have turned into fortresses, though diplomacy does not function in seclusion.
Nevertheless, American diplomats remain at risk, especially in the Middle East and Africa where the U.S. foreign policy is in a downward spiral. Diplomats have no better protection than a sound foreign policy.
To get more information, please visit the America’s Diplomats website.