REVIEW: Article

The Diplomat as a Leader

As Sir Harold Nicholson pointed out in his classic work, Diplomacy, ambassadors need a constellation of talents: quick intelligence, the ability to negotiate carefully and shrewdly, an attentiveness to national interests, and the capability to execute with efficiency and grace instructions from Secretaries or Ministers of State. Though nearly 100 years old, Nicholson’s assessment largely holds true today. But I would like to reflect on one element that he—and we—often neglect in discussions of the art of diplomacy: the art of leadership.

Of late, there has been much talk of the need for strong, ethically grounded leadership in politics, in business and in sports. To its possible detriment, the diplomatic corps has been slow to realize how vital these discussions are to its line of work.

Initially coming from the military, where I served as an Infantry Platoon leader and Company Commander in the Korean War, I was trained in a culture that places top priority on leadership. Perhaps as a result, I have noticed similarities between the often-contrasted roles of diplomat and soldier. In the last 15 years especially, there have been fewer and fewer Foreign Service officers with military backgrounds. The perspective I offer may have advantages—not only because it elucidates certain personal characteristics that enhance a diplomat’s skill set, but because it sheds light on some objectives that may help guide institutional reform of the Foreign Service, its Institute, as well as the State Department more generally. 

Ambassadorial Leadership

During my periods of service in the Executive Branch—as Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations from 1970-1973, as a member of the Murphy Commission on the Organization of Government and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and also as Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 1983-1986, I saw instances of good and bad ambassadorial leadership, on the parts of both Foreign Service professionals and non-career diplomats. Usually, the same shortcomings were to blame in each case, despite different cultural and political contexts. I saw and worked with a number of diplomats who had plenty of IQ but little EQ—the so-called Emotional Quotient, a useful scale for measuring interpersonal qualities like empathy, intuition, integrity and the propensity to empower others and delegate tasks. They could impress the Secretary of State with incisive communiqués, and many were even shrewd negotiators. But they lacked two crucial skills: the ability to communicate the broader strategic goals of the mission, and the ability to motivate others along appropriate pathways to reach those goals. Some might have been decent managers, but not motivational leaders.

I add that an ambassador has to exercise these skills in two arenas. First, he or she has to lead and empower his mission effectively. Particularly in large missions, such as those to China or India—or indeed any mission with heavy multiple agency representation—this can be a challenge. Second, a diplomat has to exercise leadership within the diplomatic community. This means persuasively presenting our goals to the diplomatic community and to foreign populations. These two types of leadership require different talents, but both are of equal importance, and the Foreign Service would do well to consider increasing its leadership training at the Foreign Service Institute and organizing a day or two of similar training for Presidential political appointees headed abroad.

Institutionalizing Leadership

But turning ambassadors into leaders is only half the battle. It is also necessary to create an institutional structure—both within the diplomatic corps and the State Department in general—that is conducive to ambassadorial leadership.

The Foreign Service tends to be—to borrow a military term—rear deployed. That is to say, its missions abroad tend to have a relatively small role in shaping policy, and a much larger role in merely executing policies devised by others. All too often, these “others” are State Department officials ensconced in Washington, with an obscured view of realities in the field. 

To address this situation, the State Department could learn from the Defense Department, which necessarily empowers our major joint commands—particularly when it comes to dealing with contingency planning and projects involving interagency staff. An especially good example of this arrangement was found in the Supreme Allied Headquarters Europe and Atlantic, which had two-hatted leaders, one allied, and the other a United States national. Throughout the world, the huge allied commands with joint staff wielded great influence not only in our government but in allied ones. Even, the Pacific Command, formerly CINCPACT, was not allied, but occupied a forward position of influence from which it was able to frame regional challenges that concerned the US as well as the entire global community.

The principle of forward deployment is not unique to the military. When I served on the Board of Proctor and Gamble, regional Executives and Senior Vice Presidents were forward deployed as a rule. When the Board met offsite, in Kobe, Japan, or in Brussels, we were briefed by those on the front lines, the executives who worked with customers on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, I will never forget my first Chiefs of Mission meeting in London in 1983, when I was NATO Ambassador. The whole time was spent on briefings, given for us, by the Washington team. The ambassadors never had a chance to inform the Secretary of State of their findings and concerns. In business terms, it was as if a corporation headquartered in America and carrying out business in Europe decided to station their regional manager in New York!

The dismemberment in 1999 of the United States Information Agency (USIA), under the configuration of the United States Information Service in the missions, was tragic for many reasons, the most serious of which was that it further inhibited the Foreign Service’s ability to forward deploy. Because USIA headquarters depended so heavily on analysis and assessments from Public Information Officers stationed abroad, these officers had great opportunities to exercise innovative leadership in framing issues, devising new approaches and drawing attention to problems that remained invisible to officials back home. USIA took pride in being—like a corps of journalists—the ones you’d turn to for the inside scoop, and their insights often benefited policymakers throughout government.

The demise of USIA has hampered US diplomatic leadership, but not crippled it. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes has added significant new creativity to our public diplomacy. Further, recent history offers many examples of how ambassadors can serve as leaders in the formation and prosecution of strategic goals. It notes, for instance, that our missions to India—whether headed by Republicans, Democrats or Foreign Service—have consistently been animated by the spirit of forward empowerment. Also consider the accomplishments of two Ambassadors to Japan, Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker—both of whom, not coincidentally, served as majority leaders in the Senate. These men offered invaluable guidance to our governments in working effectively with a culture much different from ours during the 1970s and 1980s.

Enhancing Leadership Through Greater Integration with the Department of Defense

One way of filling the leadership vacuum I describe is to better integrate the regional operations of the State and Defense Departments. In roundtable discussions hosted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and co-chaired by General Edward “Shy” Meyer and Ambassador Thomas Pickering in 2001, a number of high-level military and diplomatic personnel discussed the challenge of improving the forward presence of the State Department. Our panel concluded that this could be achieved by better integrating the regional staffs of the Combatant Commands and the embassies, and by creating an Interagency Contingency Planning Center, staffed by officials from State and Defense, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Agency for International Development for each region. These moves would enhance the leadership capability of regional operations by allowing for greater strategic coherence among responsible departments.

Traditionally, the NATO mission, which I headed from 1983-1986, has brought to the fore the positive potential of diplomatic leadership. Clearly, a key reason for this is that the mission has always been funded by both the Departments of State and Defense, and thus ended up serving as a point of integration between the two organizations. On paper, the NATO mission reported to the Secretary of State, but due to the Defense Planning Committee, the Council of National Armament Directors, and other Defense-related items on our mandate, we had in effect a separate channel to the Secretary of Defense. Furthermore, my senior Defense Advisor also reported directly to the Secretary of Defense, and our adjacent US four-star general on the military committee, with whom we worked closely, reported to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I saw these as multiple channels of influence in Washington.

When I arrived in Brussels, the mission’s first overwhelming challenge was to counter the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 missiles. This surprise move came at a time when the Senate was pushing for NATO troop reductions if other Allies did not meet their defense spending mandates. Faced with these challenges, we found it necessary to set up a direct line with the Congress, which ended up, in the long run, producing some very positive results. One such result, for instance, was that we could now attract the support in Congress that NATO needed to devise a new defense investment strategy. This strategy posited a new net-assessment, clear designation of critical deficiencies, and a conceptual framework. In this we were aided by the brilliant mind of Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, and also Lord Peter Carrington’s arrival as Secretary General. Our work quite literally led Senators Sam Nunn and Ted Stevens to abandon the troop withdrawal campaign, and join in creating a common fund, fenced off in the Defense Authorization, solely for better transatlantic armament cooperation and advancing commonality of weapons. As a by-product of this initiative, the alliance became more cohesive, and we were able to rally ambivalent members when the time came to make a definitive move and counter-deploy missiles.

Clearly, many aspects of the NATO mission during these years were unique, and perhaps the nature of the mission itself afforded rare opportunities for diplomatic leadership. But this is not to say that similar situations have not existed in the past (consider George Kennan’s “long telegram,” written when he was a Minister-Counselor in Moscow)—nor exist throughout the globe today. Where the integration of State and Defense was largely a coincidence at NATO, this example may offer lessons in pursuing broader integration among State, Defense and other agencies to address contingency planning and policy formation. During an age of terror, and in light of the overwhelming challenges we face in the field of public diplomacy—where input from the regionals is paramount—enhancing the leadership roles of our ambassadors is practically a requirement.

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