When Ambassadors Meltdown

By Thomas Armbruster:

It’s a guilty pleasure.  Almost as good as a tennis meltdown.  For fellow aficionados there is a whole compendium of tennis meltdowns on YouTube, organized by the best for any particular year, or even of all time.  It’s especially satisfying when a player takes out a brand new racquet, unwraps it, and smashes it to bits.  It’s a vicarious thrill, not having the money myself, to throw away just for busting racquets.  Likewise, when I see a political ambassador meltdown, I have to admit a certain joy.  Our new President will have many posts to fill and no doubt some will be filled with political ambassadors with little training or international experience.   There will, no doubt, be another bull in another China shop just as surely as more Wilson racquets will die for the “Greatest Tennis Meltdowns 2017” show.

Sex scandals, bullying, incompetence and simply not being “at post” are some of the failings that have dogged political ambassadors.  Career ambassadors are those who pass the difficult Foreign Service exam and come up from the ranks, serving multiple tours overseas, a few years in Washington, and a handful of years studying languages, working for another agency, or improving their knowledge through a Master’s Degree program at one of the war colleges.  I started out in a warehouse in Helsinki, managing and buying supplies for Embassy Moscow and then Consulate General Leningrad.  After serving as Deputy Chief of Mission and twice as Consul General, and having over 20 years of experience, most of it overseas, President Obama nominated me to be Ambassador to the Marshall Islands.  Easy.  Well, not as easy as bundling political contributors and being a friend of the President.  And that’s the problem.

Abraham Lincoln had the misfortune of having political generals, men not trained in arms but who believed their success in other endeavors would translate into battlefield success.  One of the heroes of the Civil War, Joshua Chamberlain, who rescued the Union at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, was offered a position as Colonel when he joined the Army.  He reportedly turned that down saying he preferred a lower rank until he “learned the business.”  Maybe that would be a start for political appointees, to begin lower until they learn the diplomatic business.  Diplomacy isn’t easy.  Influencing fellow Americans is hard enough, influencing foreign governments is downright tough.  Canadian diplomat Sam Hanson put it this way, “If you get rocket science wrong you lose your spacecraft and crew.  If you get diplomacy wrong you can get locked into wars with no way forward, no way out and end in sight.”

Some political appointees find they are in over their head in the Senate confirmation hearing.  Not knowing about the host country, it’s history, culture, language and relations with the U.S. would seem fundamental for any would-be ambassador, but not everyone does their homework.  Senators are not generally amused by the lack of preparation, although in the end, most nominees are confirmed.

And then there are political ambassadors whose star power can translate into more effective diplomacy.  For example, Caroline Kennedy, whose name recognition earned her respect with the Japanese and whose subsequent grace and professionalism secured her place in diplomatic circles in Japan, following her honeymoon there with the press and the public.

At one point, President Obama passed over the Foreign Service close to 40% of the time, in favor of political donors.  The figure settled down to about 35%, as the political payoffs dwindled.

The State Department came up with 10 leadership principles that all employees should have:

(1) Model Integrity – Hold yourself and others to the highest standards of conduct, performance, and ethics, especially when faced with difficult situations. Act in the interest of and protect the welfare of your team and organization. Generously share credit for the accomplishments of the organization. Take responsibility for yourself, your resources, your decisions, and your action;

(2) Plan Strategically – Develop and promote attainable, shared short and long term goals with stakeholders for your project, program, team, or organization. Provide a clear focus, establish expectations, give direction, and monitor results. Seek consensus and unified effort by anticipating, preventing, and discouraging counter-productive confrontation;

(3) Be Decisive and Take Responsibility – Provide clear and concise guidance, training, and support, and make effective use of resources. Grant employees ownership over their work. Take responsibility when mistakes are made and treat them as an opportunity to learn. Formally and informally recognize high quality performance;

(4) Communicate – Express yourself clearly and effectively. Be approachable and listen actively. Offer and solicit constructive feedback from others. Be cognizant of the morale and attitude of your team. Anticipate varying points of view by soliciting input;

(5) Learn and Innovate Constantly – Strive for personal and professional improvement. Display humility by acknowledging shortcomings and working continuously to improve your own skills and substantive knowledge. Foster an environment where fresh perspectives are encouraged and new ideas thrive. Promote a culture of creativity and exploration;

(6) Be Self-Aware – Be open, sensitive to others, and value diversity. Be tuned in to the overall attitude and morale of the team and be proactive about understanding and soliciting varying points of view;

(7) Collaborate – Establish constructive working relationships with all mission elements to further goals. Share best practices, quality procedures, and innovative ideas to eliminate redundancies and reduce costs. Create a sense of pride and mutual support through openness;

(8) Value and Develop People – Empower others by encouraging personal and professional development through mentoring, coaching and other opportunities. Commit to developing the next generation. Cultivate talent to maximize strengths and mitigate mission-critical weaknesses;

(9) Manage Conflict – Encourage an atmosphere of open dialogue and trust. Embrace healthy competition and ideas. Anticipate, prevent, and discourage counter-productive confrontation. Follow courageously by dissenting respectfully when appropriate; and

(10) Foster Resilience – Embrace new challenges and learn from them. Persist in the face of adversity. Take calculated risks, manage pressure, be flexible and acknowledge failures. Show empathy, strength, and encouragement to others in difficult times;

While I was Ambassador, I was ranked on a range of skills by Embassy personnel including my ability to convey a sense of mission, establish mission goals, foster teamwork, listen, and be approachable.  Basically, the survey asks, ‘can you play well with others.’  Sometimes the political “fatcats” can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to see any of them do national security damage, and for the most part, nominees to the more important countries are more carefully vetted.  I have to admit not all Foreign Service Officers make great leaders.  Some come from the more diplomatic side of the house and have never actually supervised a large number of people.  Some come from the administrative side, and while they understand the mission’s budget and personnel systems, they don’t like to get out much and may lack the language and cultural skills.  But overall, a Foreign Service Officer with multiple tours overseas is more likely to understand the rhythms of an Embassy, the requirements in a crisis, and the importance of representing America effectively 24/7.  And if one smashes a tennis racquet during the diplomatic games, well, that is forgivable.  What is not forgivable is sending someone, political or career, who does not represent America to the highest standards.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.