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Schmoozing for Diplomats

To the uninitiated (or to those who simply watch too many B-movies), an ambassador’s life seems to be nothing but dinner parties and cocktail receptions. As Governor of Illinois and Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson famously said, “A diplomat’s life is made up of three ingredients: protocol, Geritol and alcohol.” While other issues such as embassy security may have greater prominence, protocol and the ability to network with a wide range of people continue to occupy a central role in any well-run diplomatic mission.

As part of its Ambassadorial Seminar, the Foreign Service Institute gives each of the participants a copy of “This Worked for Me,” a collection of insights and best practices from recent ambassadors (thus the first-person voice throughout) to assist newly minted ambassadors on how to effectively conduct relations with their host-country counterparts while motivating and leading embassy personnel. In this segment, a few nuggets of wisdom taken from the chapter on making contacts in country and with the American community; a clever way of getting cheap musical entertainment; the importance of creating challenges (rather than just problem-solving); and the best way to avoid fried worms and other such delicacies.

Ambassador (ret.) Charles O. Cecil compiled and edited the contents of the most recent version of the book, which was first published in the mid-1960s, with the assistance of Deana Dennis under the auspices of ADST.  Check out the excerpt on emergency preparedness (complete with links on the Zombie Apocalypse!) as well as this Moment on The Art of Protocol.


Return to Inside Foggy Bottom
Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Food Diplomacy

The Importance of Toasts.  You should always make the first toast at your table and you should always make a toast.  It is most important that you toast your guest of honor first and that you remember his or her spouse.  During our dinner parties I always invoked the Swedish custom of toasting and indicated to all of our guests that anytime any guest would like to make a toast for any subject to anybody all they needed to do was tap their glass and make the toast.  In many cases this led to lively toasts and raucous behavior which made our dinners memorable.

A good deal of your time will be spent at public functions which involve food.  It is easy to get a reputation for being difficult or quirky depending upon how you handle the local cuisine.  The first rule of thumb is to attempt to minimize the importance of the food whether you eat it or not.

If your host makes a big deal of a certain type of strange food that you are not interested in eating, then do your best to try to divert attention away from the food or you.  Sometimes you will find that the local people are just tempting you to make a diplomatic mistake.  Take whatever is served on your plate and quietly leave whatever you don’t want to eat without drawing attention to yourself or your eating habits.  Remember that it’s all protein.

You will need to have a few excuses at hand for when you are pressured regarding food and so here are some that have worked for me over the years:

“I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to fried worms; I break out whenever I eat them.”

“I hope you will understand if I eat lightly tonight as my system is acting up and I can’t handle much at this time.”

“I am on a strict diet right now; only carrots and cabbage for the moment.”

“I am a vegetarian three days a week, and this is one of those days.”

Don’t be like the diplomat we met who focused everyone on him at every dinner by talking about his eating habits for the first 15 minutes.  It was his way of gaining attention, but it made him a complete bore.  Be careful at the dinner table to make sure that no one person, especially you, dominates the conversation.  Avoid pontificating at all costs.

No Western Diplomats.  Usually I took about half of the representation funds for the front office and left the other half for the rest of the mission.  I had very strict rules.  I did not want my diplomats entertaining Western diplomats in this Third World country.  If I had let them, that’s where most of the money would have gone.

Don’t Forget your OMS [office management specialist, formerly a secretary].  I always made sure that the OMS’s had access to some representation funds so that they could entertain their counterparts in other embassies and in the important ministries.

No Funds for the Ambassador.  I told my staff “I’m not taking any representational funds until the end of the year, if there’s anything left over.  You’ve got unlimited representational expenses—up to 100% of the allocation, that is.”  “I’ll take it out of my own pocket, deduct it from my taxes,” I told them, so they would feel free to use whatever they needed.

“You’re not there to have a good time, especially if I’m paying for it.  You’re there to work”

Musicians at Little Cost.   We didn’t have much of a budget for inviting American musicians to play at the Residence, but since we were in a major European capital there were quite a few of them in town and we wanted to display their talents.  A couple of times a year we did music for my ambassadorial colleagues.  In addition to the minimal compensation we could offer, we were able to get musicians to come by promising to invite the people who controlled the theaters and stages in our city.  So we would have thirty ambassadors, their spouses, and the theater managers who were looking for musicians to hire.  We would usually have 100-120 people to these events.

Representational Funds.  I didn’t use them, except for the Fourth of July reception and one or two other big events.  When I considered my salary, my house, my car, and all the perks I got from my position, and compared it to what the other members of the mission received, I decided I needed to do everything I could to encourage them to play their full roles by making funds available.

Nothing I could spend would seriously impact my own financial well-being, but I knew that lower-salaried officers might be under a strain. So I made the money available and told them to get out and meet people.

This included telling them to create opportunities for public speaking; everyone had to do at least one public speaking event a quarter.  I also had to remind them that they weren’t invited to my residence to eat my food and have a good time, especially if I was paying for it.  They were there to work.  I got annoyed when I saw that I was the one doing the work at these events and the others were enjoying themselves.  The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] and I hammered on them to remind them that representational events were working events.

Reaching Contacts through Representation: Looking back to the posts where I served over the years, I think we were very often weak in planning and coordinating representation. We tended to have a nice series of parties for congenial people, but they were not directly focused on achieving our specific objectives.

As ambassador I must play the leading role in the representation program and take over all the top-level work. But we have to reach thousands of people, and I couldn’t and shouldn’t do it all. To have an effective program, my DCM and I meet periodically with the entire American staff– including rank and file in the embassy and all the agencies. All section chiefs, after consulting their staffs, participate in selecting special contact groups to be reached, in and outside the government of the host country.

After identifying the power nuclei of influential groups, we assign responsibility for reaching them at a level corresponding to each officer’s rank and function. A file is kept of each officer’s contacts, and it is periodically checked by the DCM to see that appropriate development is taking place, key members of the local staff are not overlooked in the assignment of representational responsibilities.

I make it clear at the outset that every activity is focused on a coordinated central purpose. If, for instance, a major objective is to bring the host country into a more active NATO role, we shift our priority contact emphasis to the military, legislative figures, and similar opinion molders. We don’t waste time with folk dancers.

If on the other hand our immediate objective is simply to bring the country to a better understanding of Americans and their role of cultural leadership, then folk dancers and artists may become priority targets. In planning representation we must define precisely our several objectives in the host country, identify the persons or groups that we need to influence, and then build our program accordingly.

Controlling Representation on a Quarterly Basis: We have a planned representation program, calculated to reach the key figures in our major interest groups. The plan is revised four times a year. We hold a special meeting to discuss our representational objectives in relation to the mission’s goals. Each unit then makes up its own plan, showing whom it can most effectively reach, proposing ways of doing it, and outlining how it will distribute its representational funds. The DCM coordinates the overall planning and approves the allocation of funds.

All members of the staff have compiled lists of dates that are of importance to their contacts, such as birthdays and other important anniversaries. They also try to keep the front office informed of events important to their contacts and the latters’ families –weddings, graduations, illnesses, births, deaths, travel, etc. We make abundant use of personal messages as occasions warrant. Most of these are from the ambassador.

Careful Accounting Required.  Make sure you have a clear understanding of the current rules for using and documenting representational funds.  Set up a system on arrival at post and follow it systematically. Being sloppy with representational funds is an invitation to the disgruntled at post to try to discredit you.  I found it useful to segregate the beverage supply in the pantry between that for representational use and that for personal use so that I could do an accurate accounting.  Involve your administrative assistant in doing the vouchers and ensure she/he keeps good files.

Guest Lists in Advance.  I required that guest lists—both for my own functions and for those given by another member of the mission—be provided to each American invited member of the embassy at least one full day before a representational event.  This served a variety of purposes, all of which made the event more likely to serve our needs. It gave embassy staff a chance to review names in advance so they were not embarrassed by being unable to greet someone by name whom they had previously met.

It allowed an opportunity to refresh memories on biographical information, including whether the invitee had children attending schools in the States, or other personal details (hobbies, for instance) which could be used to further personal relationships.  It also gave embassy attendees an opportunity to brush up on any background they might need to further develop information in areas we are seeking to learn more about.

I also required that every embassy officer using representational funds provide a guest list to the DCM, whether he was invited to the event or not, to assist the DCM in monitoring the use of our representational funds.  This could be helpful in alerting us if we are focusing too much attention on a certain group and not enough on others.

Playing with others:  NGOs, U.S. businesses, the Host Government, and Civil Society

Business Breakfasts.   I tried to get to meet as many leaders in the U.S. business community in my host country as I could.  There were about 20,000 Americans living there in all.  My wife and I decided early on to give Sunday brunches for about three or four American couples at the residence.  The invitees were identified by our commercial attaché as leaders in the resident American business community.

We would have an American style brunch with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, bagels and all that kind of stuff, and sausages.  And we would get them up to the residence at noon on Sunday and they would stay for a couple of hours, and we would just talk about how they were enjoying life in the country, what their issues were and what their problems were. We did that for three or four years, almost every weekend, and it was a very pleasant experience.

Create Opportunities.  One thing I learned from a group of business CEOs I never forgot.  I casually mentioned that the assistant secretary of the regional bureau to which I was going told me, “I want you to go out there and be a real problem solver, and there are a lot of problems to solve.”

And when I said that to the business community, the business community said, “That’s the problem with you people in Washington.  You’re always trying to solve problems.  And when you don’t have problems to solve, you create them!  What makes a lot more sense, what works better for us, is that you look for opportunities.  Because when the focus is on opportunities–creating them and realizing them–what you achieve, quite often so dwarfs the things that seemed like problems that sometimes the problems go away, or it puts the problems in a different perspective.”  It doesn’t mean you don’t focus on problems when you have them, but your mission shouldn’t be to be a problem solver.

It should be to look for opportunities, create opportunities, and realize them.  That’s the way you have a positive and forward-reaching agenda.  Otherwise you’re always playing defense.  That single insight, which was the sum of a number of conversations, was one of the most important leadership lessons that I got. 

Consult with U.S. Trading Competitors.  My host government did not always make decisions that were in the interests of U.S. business and trade.   Sometimes decisions were made by the government because of lack of knowledge, other times for opportunistic or political reasons.  To address this continuing problem,  I invited five ambassadors from important countries (the UK,  France, Germany, Japan, and Canada) to join me for occasional meetings (mostly over lunch) with important decision makers in the government (or political parties).  We soon came to the realization that our group of ambassadors represented countries responsible for 80% of the foreign direct investment in our host country.  Our meetings have been well received by all the participants, though it’s a bit early to know if we’ll achieve tangible results.

Informal Business Forum. I had monthly fireside chats at the residence with American companies already in my host country and the minister responsible for that particular area of activity in country, whether it was medicine, pharmaceuticals, communications or finance. We would sit around at the residence for an hour and a half on an evening, starting, say, at 6:00.  I’d serve drinks and some sandwiches, and the Americans present, usually about a dozen, could sound off and say, “Minister, this is terrible.  We can’t get this kind of thing resolved,” or that sort of thing, “The red tape is awful.  Why do you do this, or why do you do that?”  And we’d give the minister in turn a chance to hear this and respond directly to the American company representatives, and I thought that was a useful exercise. We did this ten months a year.

The Value of Contacts. In any sort of crisis situation, it is imperative that the ambassador have as many contacts in the host country’s government as possible.  Naturally you should cultivate access with all of the ministers that your office is going to be involved with. You should obviously be involved with the Foreign Minister’s office. You should have your contacts with the President’s office, or the deputy President’s office.

But you can’t leave it at that, and you can’t delegate it to your DCM (though you should share all your private phone numbers with him, for the times when you might be away).

In addition to your ministerial contacts you certainly need to know the next level, the number two and the number three, or the special assistant or the director of an office.  On one occasion when I could not get action out of the Foreign Ministry on an issue that had great potential for embarrassment—it was a simple case of landing permission for emergency relief supplies destined for a neighboring country—I called the counsel to the President at 3:00 in the morning to explain the situation to her. Within the hour she got through to the ministry authorities and got the required permission.

What worked for me was my ability to find out who could make decisions quickly and get things done in a bureaucratic mess when lives were at stake and things needed to be done.  I had a contact that was able to cut through all that and get it done from the President’s office.  Another government, whose ambassador didn’t have the contacts I had, actually had its planes turned away.