Foreign Policy Blogs

A Tale of Two Ambassadors

A Tale of Two Ambassadors

It’s no secret that representing the U.S. abroad entails both risks and rewards. Ambassadors though are rarely in the news and rightly so- they are sent to represent their country, not make a name for themselves. I’m sure most people would be hard-pressed to name any ambassadors. If they are in the news it usually means something went very wrong or very right. Two recent news reports this week caught my attention, they show in stark contrast the variety of experiences our ambassadors face as they are out in the world. In the first, an American ambassador is thrown into a violent and potentially life-threatening situation. In the second, an American ambassador is sent to his ancestral homeland and creates a stir by showing them something very different than the stereotype they were expecting.

The U.S Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is facing a difficult challenge. He must represent the U.S. to a regime that has lost legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world. The Arab Spring has sent thousands of Syrians into the streets demanding change and the government sent tanks to suppress the demonstrations. The ambassador, while careful to not overtly cross the government, has signaled American support for change by meeting with protestors. This, as you can imagine, has provoked a response. In the most recent example, the Washington Post reports that the ambassador faced an angry mob and was trapped for a time in a building:

Supporters of President Bashar Assad stoned the convoy of the U.S. ambassador to Syria as he arrived for a meeting with a leading opposition figure on Thursday, then pelted him with eggs and tomatoes and tried to break into the building while he was inside, the opposition activist and a U.S. official said. The American envoy was trapped in the office for three hours by the angry mob outside. Ambassador Robert Ford, an outspoken critic of Assad’s crackdown on the 6-month-old anti-government uprising, was unharmed and eventually escorted out by Syrian security forces, who showed up more than an hour after the attack began.

The attack, and the tardy response by Syrian security forces, is a sure sign that American encouragement for the protestors is not much appreciated by the Assad government. Despite the risk, the ambassador appears determined to press on.

In the second example, the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, has impressed his Chinese hosts with his understated style and his willingness to draw on his own family history as a descendent of Chinese immigrants to represent melting-pot America. His quiet repudiation of the trappings of both office and ego have sparked debate in a Chinese society ever more aware of status  and inequality. As the Washington Post reports:

Gary Locke has been praised for his down-to-earth manner since becoming the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing. He’s also been denounced as a showboater, a neocolonialist tool and a traitor to the Chinese race. China’s bipolar reactions to Locke since his appointment last month are partly due to an unease among Chinese authorities — accustomed to lavish official trappings and distance from ordinary folk — toward a man who gets his own coffee and carries his own luggage. They also display often contradictory sentiments about race, nationalism, and what it means to be a person of Chinese ancestry.

Ambassador Locke is a living example of the American dream and offers the Chinese (ostensibly an egalitarian society) a unique example of American values.

These two ambassadors, sent to very different parts of the world, demonstrate the unpredictable nature of foreign affairs and the difficulties and opportunities they face as they represent the U.S. to the world.

Image Credit: Wikipedia – Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

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Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].