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Op-ed: How Ambassadors Can Win (and Keep) Friends in Washington

By Odeh Aburdene

Foreign ambassadors posted to Washington these days may sometimes believe that the rules of diplomacy have changed in the very different atmosphere of President Donald Trump's administration. They would be wise instead to follow some unchanging guidelines for successful envoys, whether they be from major powers or smaller countries.

The first law of diplomacy is listen, listen, listen. An ambassador who spins and hypes will neither have credibility nor be taken seriously. Whether in a speech or a media interview, steer clear of polemics and propaganda. Good diplomacy is based on facts.

To be effective and influential, an ambassador first has to have access to the top decision makers in the country to which they are posted and have the ear of their own government.

In order to have meaningful access to the power centers in Washington — the White House, Congress, the media and think tanks — the ambassador and the country that he or she represents must have a strategy based on realism.

Henry Kissinger once correctly noted: "Diplomacy never operates in a vacuum. It persuades not by the eloquence of its practices, but by assembling a balance of incentives and risks."

The ambassador must know how Washington operates and act in ways that reflect American political realities that are based on facts, not fantasies. An extraordinary ambassador needs also to understand that in Washington, politics is a very important aspect of policymaking.

In order to succeed, a diplomat based in Washington must conduct himself or herself in accordance with "Loftus's Law." The late Joseph Loftus, a former New York Times journalist, later went on to serve as a special assistant for communications to Secretary of Labor George P. Shultz.

While the rules of diplomacy have dramatically shifted under the Trump administration, certain basics remain unchanged. Photo: Pixabay

In his book, "Issues on My Mind: Strategies for the Future," Shultz recalled Loftus's Law, which had the following rules for earning the media's trust:

• Don't lie, don't mislead. Credibility is precious; it can never be misused. Once destroyed, it cannot be recaptured.
• Respond to questions directly. Don't be afraid to say, "No comment."
• Never call a press conference unless you have some news. "Reporters make their living by getting their byline in the paper, preferably on the front page. When you call a news conference, they expect a story. Disappointed, they try to create one by goading you into saying something stupid," Loftus said.
• Help reporters get their facts straight. The press is an important way to communicate with the public. Don't act as if reporters are your enemy, however tempting that may be at times.
• Get on top of breaking stories. Be part of the original story because nobody reads the reaction story. So be quick and don't hold back.

An ambassador's ability to rationally persuade a listener is just as important as his or her fluency in English. In order to be taken seriously by key decision makers, ambassadors have to avoid coming across as socially pompous. An excellent ambassador must show humility and curiosity. Diplomacy should not be confused with glibness.

Other essential ingredients of a first-rate ambassador are:

• Come to meetings thoroughly prepared in order to avoid surprises.
• Think deeply before you speak.
• Have influential allies.


To have meaningful access to the power centers in Washington such as Capitol Hill, an ambassador and the country that he or she represents must have a strategy based on realism. Photo: Pixabay

Being an effective ambassador is also a function of "preparation, coupled with opportunity," to paraphrase the Roman philosopher-statesman Seneca.

A strategic ambassador must develop "a web of intense relationships with people who are at times on your side and sometimes not."

According to Shultz, who also served as secretary of state, Bryce Harlow was one of the most effective strategists in Washington. Harlow was a speechwriter and adviser to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He also gave political advice to President Gerald Ford.

"He was constantly forming and re-forming coalitions to work on particular subjects," Shultz wrote of Harlow in "Issues on My Mind." "People had to know, he felt, that you were a tough adversary and would fight hard and skillfully for your point of view."

"Harlow had a number of simple rules: return calls promptly, deal straight with members of Congress, and never agree to do anything unless you know that you can get it done. One of Harlow's most important maxims was, 'If you give your word, then you'd better deliver.' That way you develop trust. As he said, 'Trust is the coin of the realm,'" Shultz wrote.

A successful ambassador must be skilled at cultivating relationships and avoid burning bridges. "If you say that something is unacceptable but you are unwilling to impose consequences when it happens, your words will lose their meaning and you will lose credibility," Shultz wrote. "It is not evidence of weakness that you meet your counterpart. The important point is what you say."

After all, Washington is a town that revolves around power and access to power. You are either part of the inner circle or not.

Another important lesson for an ambassador is to never take sides in American politics — either publicly or privately. Private confidences could be conveyed to the opposing party. It would be a fatal mistake for the ambassador and his or her country to be perceived as favoring the policy of one party over the other. It would cause the ambassador and his or her country enormous damage, limit access and create mistrust.

New York Times correspondent C.L. Sulzberger once asked Konrad Adenauer, the former chancellor of Germany, to name the greatest man he had ever encountered. Adenauer replied: John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state under Eisenhower. Asked by Sulzberger why he picked Dulles, Adenauer said: "He thought ahead, with visions of what was coming; and he kept his word."

A wise ambassador blends practicality with a grand strategic vision that is grounded in realism.

Finally, a successful ambassador would do well to keep in mind the words of T.E. Lawrence: "Sincerity is the only thing that improves with time."

Odeh Aburdene is a member of the Atlantic Council's board of directors.




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