What do I think of diplomacy?

Diogo, a loyal MR reader, asks:

How do you see diplomacy as a profession? If you could be nominated US Ambassador to a country, which country would you choose? What good novels are there about diplomacy and diplomats?

I see diplomacy as a stressful and unrewarding profession.  A good diplomat has the responsibility of deflecting a lot of the blame onto himself, and continually crediting others, while working hard not to like his contacts too much.  And how does he or she stay so loyal to the home country when so many ill-informed or unwise instructions are coming through the pipeline?  Most of all, a good diplomat requires some kind of clout in the home country and must maintain or manufacture that from abroad.  The entire time on mission the diplomat is eating up his capital and power base, and toward what constructive end?  So someone else can take his place?  And what kind of jobs can you hope to advance into?

Diplomats are in some ways like university presidents: little hope for job advancement, serving many constituencies, and having little ability to control events.  Plus they are underpaid relative to human capital.  They must speak carefully.  They must learn how to wield power in the subtlest ways possible.

Who was it that said?: " Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice Doggie" until you can find a stick"

Presumably diplomats either enjoy serving their country or they enjoy the ego rents of being a diplomat or both.  It is a false feeling of power, borrowed power from one's country of origin rather than from one's personal achievements.  For the spouse the required phoniness is even worse.

For all those reasons, and more, I would not wish to be a diplomat.  I also might prefer to be a diplomat to a country I did not like, rather than to a country I did like.  

As for novels about diplomats, The Constant Gardener comes to mind.  The Diplomat's Wife is popular, though I have never read it.  I read the Ender trilogy as about diplomacy as well.  (Is there more from science fiction?  It seems like a good plot device to bring people into contact with alien cultures.)  Carlos Fuentes was himself a diplomat, as were Octavio Paz, Lawrence Durrell, Ivo Andriæ, Pablo Neruda, and Giorgos Seferis.  That's a lot of writer-diplomats and you can add John Kenneth Galbraith (ambassador to India) to the list.  Galbraith was the guy who said:

"There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy but to one there is no exception.  When an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished."


University presidents are way, way overpaid relative to human capital or contribution. $600k for a University President, plus residence. People signal the value of their institution by overpaying the guy at the top. We should offer less and expect more. And, we'll get it.

We're probably paying $140 to at most $180k for the head dipolomat responsible for negotiating a Palestinian peace settlement, or an ambassador serving in Iraq or Afghanistan responsible for our countries interests.

You're right. No one would want to be a diplomat in some tough situations. And think of their families as well.

Thank God their are persons who believe in public service and are willing to serve their country. Ego rents notwithstanding.

John Scalzi (author of Old Man's War) has a humorous take on human-alien diplomacy, with the protagonist being a diplomant, in "The Android's Dream."

I just finished listening to the podcast about "Brotherhood of Kings" that details the ancient history of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The author makes a well documented point that there is very little difference between diplomacy at the dawn of civilization and today. I'm not sure if that's reassuring or just plain depressing.


Tyler, do you have any understanding for altruistic motives? Or has economic theorizing driven this from your heart completely? Not every job needs to be evaluated on the basis on personal advancement, and I'd wager that diplomats find something in their work that could just conceivably be considered a "constructive end" by anyone but a warmonger.

Thanks for the laugh, Anonymous 9:01

I did enjoy Richard Holbrooke's memoirs "To End a War" about the Dayton peace accords about how he facilitated the end of the Balkan conflict. Whatever you think about his politics it is an interesting and thorough insight into how diplomacy is done.

I was going to nominate the Le Guin book too (her least didactic major novel, and her best one by a fair distance). Even better in the genre is Paul Park's small masterpiece on culture, colonialism and identity, Celestis.

There are career diplomats (George Kennan)
and political diplomats (Joseph Kennedy).
Kennan knew a good deal about the countries
he was accredited to, and his contribution was
shaped by his expertise. Joseph Kennedy,
FDR's ambassador to Britain, irked Churchill
for not being sufficiently opposed to
Hitler, and was quietly recalled. It may be
doubted that he made a serious attempt to
understand the British, his heart being in
American politics. Galbraith engaged India
quite deeply and remained engaged years after
he left New Delhi. The diplomat-at-large
of our time is probably Henry Kissinger, who
wrote a massive book on Diplomacy.
There is the hoary definition: An ambassador
is sent to lie abroad for the good of his

Isn't Babylon 5 a sci fi series about diplomats?

Now that Tyler mentioned "The Constant Gardener", he should also note that it may be one of the worst books ever written by a major writer. The plot is terrible. The conspiracy that is leading the narrative is ridiculous. The "science" is laughable. The story drags on and on and on, until, finally, they shoot the "hero" in the end. Yes, really.

The Mote in Gods Eye.
No instantaneous communications makes the people 'on the ground' important in that book, just as diplomats in pre-modern times had a great deal of authority to make decisions for their country that they no longer have.

Keith Laumer's Retief is wonderful and free online.


Brazil has a long history of writers, historians and men of letters in general in its Foreign Service: João Guimarães Rosa, author of arguably the greatest Latin American novel of the twentieth century “Grande Sertão, Veredas†; João Cabral de Melo Neto, one of our best poets, Evaldo Cabral, João Cabral’s brother and a fine historian, José Guilherme Merquior, student of Ernst Gellner, literary and social critic, and many, many others. To me, the point made by such list and by the other writers you mentioned (by the way, you forgot Alfonso Reyes, a great stylist if ever was one) is that being a diplomat in a poor, third world country until the 60’s was a way for poor or middle class intellectuals to get in touch with the people, the works and a kind of literary/intellectual millieu that could not be found at home. In those days that meant simply going to a major European capital or to New York.


1. Comparing diplomats to univ presidents is not quite appropriate (in an American context). For many ambassadors, this is indeed a stepping stone to something higher (assistant secretary of state, higher-level position in the World Bank, moving from ambassador to Honduras to Ambassador to Mexico, conflict negotiation, etc.) OTH, being univ pres is probably the pinnacle of one's career (with a lot more money).

2. There could be genuine job satisfaction being and America ambassador if one is involved in development work, as many ambassadors are (notwithstanding the presence of USAID--again assuming an American perspective).

3. You approach this solely from the perspective of being an American ambassador. What if you are the Honduran ambassador to France -- I am willing to bet there are lots of folks in Honduras who would jump at that in preference to being the President of Honduras' national university (or whatever it is called). In the US, the preference ordering is reversed.

(Common Tyler, you need to start assuming that you have a global readership.)

Thanks, Michele, I thought the salary was around that level. It's what a 3rd year associate would make at a goodsize lawfirm. If they are good, people who work in foreign service make sacrifices.


I'm a research junkie and the internet makes it easy.

Even more amazingly, many diplomats worked as lawyers, some making quite a bit of money, before they joined the Foreign Service.


To add to Diogo's list, Mexico of course had Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes as diplomats.

Tyler's statement: "I see diplomacy as a stressful and unrewarding profession." is probably true for himself, but there are personality types who would experience the "stress" as a positive rush and find the status to be highly rewarding.

"A good diplomat has the responsibility of deflecting a lot of the blame onto himself, and continually crediting others, while working hard not to like his contacts too much."

No, a good diplomat only gives the appearance of doing that.

Career advancement in diplomacy is by no means standard due to the practice of awarding the highest diplomatic positions, ambassadorships, to political donors rather than career-climbing diplomats. If you want to reach the top, you are more likely to do so by having a financial successful career in something else entirely (thus the means to donate significantly) than by climbing the ranks through the State Department.

Don't undercut the importance of diplomats too much. April Glaspie's tepid response to Iraq's bellicose movements toward Kuwait was interpreted as a green light for invasion.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and millions suffered for the next two decades because of ONE diplomat's lack of cujones in a couple of diplomatic conversations.

Indeed, many diplomatic positions are given to people who provided major support or funding during campaigns. The fact that the Senate approves most of these political appointments without much debate is disheartening.

Don't undercut the importance of diplomats too much. April Glaspie's tepid response to Iraq's bellicose movements toward Kuwait was interpreted as a green light for invasion.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and millions suffered for the next two decades because of ONE diplomat's lack of cujones in a couple of diplomatic conversations.

If you don't think she was saying what her bosses wanted he to say, you're being a bit naive. Ambassadors are not foreign policy free-agents, they're messengers. Glaspie told Saddam "we have no opinion with respect to your border dispute with Kuwait". She was parroting what she was told to say by Bush and Baker. At the time, Saddam was a good ally, and America was happy to look the other way if he pushed the border with Kuwait back a couple of miles. These sorts of border disputes are very common in the Middle East. Nobody at State guessed that he would invade the entire country.

Loren, I think you're confusing me with 6 ounce. I don't think Glaspie was a monster, she was just someone doing her job. And I'm pretty sure that if G.H.W. Bush had flown into Baghdad and spoke to Saddam himself, the outcome would have been the same. Anybody blaming April Glaspie for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is wallowing in an ocean of self-delusion.

Most of this discussion is about high level diplomats, but most "diplomats" are regular foreign service officers and the like. For a long time, I wondered why so many of these people, who have lived in so many places and presumably were motivated to join in part by a desire for interesting experiences,were so strikingly dull and lacking in curiosity. A friend who spent a few years in the foreign service finally offered the explanation that connected all the dots: they're often snobs. One of the big attractions of today's foreign service, in this explanation, is that being an official representative of the U.S.--even if you're only stamping passports in Belize--gives you instant status. You don't join the foreign service to see the world but to be Somebody. That's another reason it's generally an unsatisfying life.

For a light-hearted antipodean take on diplomatic life, read Richard Woolcott's book 'Undiplomatic Activities'


Sorry bartman, I should've followed the thread more carefully.

Best book about a diplomat: "Under the Volcano," by Malcolm Lowry.

Best-known diplomatic spouse: Virginia Woolf or Julia Child.

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