Diplomacy is probably one of the most misunderstood job in the world. You know there is a meme showing 6 pictures of one topic. One is What people think I do, Another is what my mother thinks I do, what my father thinks I do, what my friends think I do and finally What I really do. Diplomacy is like that and it is difficult to explain what you actually do because it is a job requiring much preparation for an assigned task, background knowledge, lots of reading, good writing skills, analysis, logic, and a sense of what might happen with a dose of intelligence work and the most important assets discretion, judgement and patience.
Canadian Diplomatic Uniform prior to 1950. Windsor coat.
I was often asked to write a short report on a situation, usually this report would then be vetted by my immediate superior who would often return it marked in red ink asking me to change this or that or develop a point further, he would also edit the text. I would then redo it and re-send it to him. He in turn would send it to the Ambassador to have a look, if the ambassador agreed it would in turn be sent to Headquarters to the head of our division and distributed to all other divisions concerned in the Foreign Ministry. One great prize of any dispatch was to be selected for the overnight dispatch paper which was sent to the Minister and Deputy Minister. That always made the Ambassador smile, the report had been noticed and he would make a point of mentioning it at Morning Prayers (meeting with diplomatic staff at the Embassy).
You also have to develop contacts and know people in various segment of Society in the country where you are accredited. Gain their confidence, so they may speak freely with you about a file or a topic which might come to some interesting developments. Knowing the country well and its population, the tensions amongst groups inside the country or the government, who was a raising star or about to be dropped from government or politics was also important. You could not rely on the media international or local since they usually got it wrong. What you had to find out was what the local government thought and who was a well informed and reliable source.
Each one of us kept jealousy our list of sources close to our chest. My superior who was the Head of Chancery (no.2) had some good senior sources and high level contacts but that did not mean that he would get the juicy bit. A more junior person might be able to learn something and then we would put our information together to write our report and get the concurrence of the Ambassador. I was lucky that I never had a political appointee as Head of Mission. They can be more of liability than anything else, so the no.2 is the real head of Mission, the political appointee on a swan song can go out and eat cake and kiss babies. I would find it difficult to trust such a person since they often saw their job very differently, another stepping stone in their career.
Diplomacy is also a very structured world, top down, the Ambassador is the Captain of the ship. You do not bring to his attention matters that can be resolved by no.2 or no.3 It is very dangerous to hit too high and find out that the reaction is not what you expected. The same with the Foreign Ministry of the country you are accredited to, the way it works is as follows; the ambassador is the one who represents his country, no one else, the Foreign Minister of the receiving State and the Chief of Protocol will speak with him or with no.2 Head of Chancery. All the diplomatic staff are part of the suite (embassy) of the Ambassador. It is the ancient concept when a Sovereign would assign a brief to a person naming them ambassador to represent them and deal with this brief successfully, the ambassador would select people to help him and work under him, his suite and would go abroad with them.
An example of this would be Cardinal Alphonse-Louis du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, the older brother of the other more famous Armand-Jean du Plessis Cardinal Richelieu of France the powerful Prime Minister of the King. He will go to Rome as Ambassador of King Louis XIII, unlike his younger brother, he is remembered as a pious, honest, modest and good man with a fondness for chocolate which he believed help relieve bad temper. He will put up his Embassy at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, he will rent the building from the Pope.
French Ambassador’s Office at the Farnese Palace, Rome (today)
In diplomacy, discretion and patience are huge assets to have in your personal character. Often a brief will take years to resolve and many people will work on it. Sometimes it will be your life’s work, though it is more rare nowadays to spend an entire career on one file. Though being a specialist of a region, knowing the language, the culture, history and it’s people is a great asset. The Russians or Soviets as they were then known knew their region very well and often spent all their career on one country or geographic area. The British are also very good at developing people and their knowledge base.
The difficulties at the personal level are often great, the Foreign Service requires that you travel and live abroad in a culture that is often unknown to you or at least foreign to what you would know at home. Your accompanying family, spouse and children will have to put up with the brunt of this foreignness. Your spouse is at home, working abroad is almost impossible, so the spouse’s role is to keep the home and deal with everyday issues, in terms of shopping and food preparation and managing servants if you have any. There is precious little support from the ex-pat community and or the Embassy, your spouse has to be a flexible, self-starter and patient person. Your kids will have school issues to deal with and often no activities after school, except to stay home and amuse themselves the best they can. Which is fine for children under 12 but for teenagers this can become a huge problem. You are at work and very busy, have long hours and very often functions to attend at night, which may or may not require the presence of your spouse. Those diplomatic functions can be deadly boring but must be attended nonetheless.
Your discretion is also very important, during a career you will come to know things, secrets will be shared with you, it is important that those confidence stay secret, meaning that you cannot at night share with your family around the dinner table. That can be a great burden when the secret is a dangerous one with terrible consequences.
I am thinking here of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. I was recently in the Canadian War Museum in gallery 4 which is dedicated to the theme of the Cold War 1945-1989. I had older colleagues during my career who had lived through those events, the Atomic Clock was at one minute before Midnight, compared with today we are at 3 minutes before Midnight, meaning that an Atomic Attack was then that close with the MAD effect (Mutual Assured Destruction) which is still in effect today. Imagine coming home and not being able to talk about a possible Nuclear Attack. Not one word, you know everyone would die, there would be no survivors. You have to pretend all is ok, a very difficult situation.
This type of situation thankfully never happened to me but I faced other situations which required quick thinking, staying calm so others would not panic. Like that morning in Cairo when the ground war started between the Allies and Iraq in February 1991 to liberate Kuwait. The invasion had occurred in the night of 2 August 1990, we all knew at the Embassy in July 1990 that Saddam Hussein President of Iraq was preparing to strike. He needed a diversion after the 10 year of bloody war against Iran which solved nothing and ended in a stalemate. Saddam needed to show his strength and picking on Kuwait was very easy, a small State with little military strength, the Kuwait National Guard was 12,000 men strong, on the other hand Iraq had an army of 1.6 million men and massive equipment of all sorts.
Saddam Hussein was a USA Ally in those days, Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld had courted him and Saddam believed that the USA Government would not mind a military adventure in Kuwait as long as the oil flowed and the contract were not disturbed. The US Ambassador April Glaspie, the first women US Ambassador to an Arab country, met with Saddam Hussein and declared that the USA had no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, such as the dispute with Kuwait on the border question. Saddam took that as a sign that the USA would not interfere.
In January 1991, once the 34 Nation coalition had positioned their troops to attack Iraq, the beginning of hostilities against Iraq was now imminent. CNN had purchased exclusive rights to report the conflict from Baghdad and Peter Arnett was the CNN Correspondent. All other news outlet, in this exclusive deal worth millions of dollars, had been totally excluded by Iraq, to their great anger, Arnett was very much disliked by his fellow correspondent. He in the meantime bought an incredible amount of rare Oriental Carpets many from Iran for bargain basement prices, which he intended to sell after the war. There was an embargo on Iranian carpets so they had a very high value on the open market.
Arnett’s reporting, as I remember it, was sensational and over the top, war as a spectacle. The BBC World Service did a much better job and was far more balanced.
However since most Egyptians listened to CNN including President Mubarak, there was a wild wind of panic in Cairo and every one wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Rumour had it that Cairo would be bombed by Iraq with scud missiles. A fantastic story which made no sense what so ever but you cannot reason with a mob.
So on that morning, our guards suddenly reported that a crowd was gathering at our Embassy gates in the Garden City neighbourhood of Cairo. I was at work, my office was at the back of the building, so I went to the front to see what was happening. The crowd was growing by the minute, it was fairly quiet and orderly. The guards were handing out Consular Registration Forms to anyone claiming to be a Canadian Citizen.
View of Garden City neighbourhood in Cairo near the Canadian Embassy in 1991
This is a time before the computer or the internet when Citizens were asked to register in person with their embassy if they were staying for more than a few days and wanted us to contact them in case of emergency. The way to register was very inefficient, forms had to be filled out and in turn we compiled them. Most people did not fill out the forms properly and would not advise us when they left the country. We had 500 Canadians on the paper registry. However that morning more than 5000 persons came to register all at once. We did not have enough forms for such a crowd and the minute the guards ran out of them, panic ensued, the huge crowd became agitated and it was scary, we could not ascertain who they were. They were not Canadians but Egyptian Nationals who had no faith in their own government to help them in time of war. Canada seemed like a good option at the time to most of them, we also had flimsy iron gates and such a crowd could easily tear them down. The British and the American Embassies had massive walls so they were ignored by the crowd. We had to call the Egyptian riot police, who arrived en force and started to clear the street but it took some time. They were armed with long bamboo sticks, a sharp blow inflicts pain and moves a crowd but is not lethal. We in turn had to promise to look into every application presented to ascertain if these people were Canadians. It turned out some had gone to Canada as students, others as tourists and most had no link to Canada but saw an opportunity in the mob action. It was clear that if the crowd had succeeded in tearing down our gates, there would have been violence and injury. The next crisis the handing out of gas masks to the Canadian staff, luckily we never needed them and the war was over in a few days, the Iraqi army melted away but they did set on fire every wellhead.
Kuwait, some of the 700 well heads blown up by the retreating Iraqi army in February 1991 burning some 6 million barrels of oil per day. The last well head fire was extinguished in November 1991.