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The decline (and fall?) of the term ambassador

Published on 05 September 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

The other day I spent some time at the dentist. I waited for the newest CAD/CAM technology to work its wonders and outfit me with a perfectly adapted crown within half an hour. Meanwhile, I perused the glossy trade magazines one finds in medical waiting rooms – Gala, Chi? People, Faces, or the Schweizer Illustrierte. I discovered how far the decline of the hailed term “ambassador” had advanced. Its condition, I’m afraid, is close to terminal.

Originally, “ambassador” was strictly a diplomatic term. It covered two functions: that of negotiator in the interest of her country – a substantive task to which I shall presently revert. The ambassador, however, was also the living embodiment of his function and had a representational role in the many rituals governing relations between states. The ambassador demanded and received outward signs of respect commensurate with the political role of his country.

The glitzing of the term “ambassador”

What caught the layman’s eye is the pomp and circumstance of the diplomatic rituals: the uniforms, top hats, swords, big cars, and luxurious residences in traditional societies (anthropologists have studied similar wasteful displays). Still, people vaguely linked the term ambassador with excellence, kindness, and the grand, generous gesture.

Unsurprisingly, some international organizations like UNICEF bestowed the term of “goodwill ambassador” on celebrities, asking them to link their image to the organization, thereby securing surges in funds. Through their involvement, celebrities vouched for everything from the need for urgent action to the effectiveness of the organization’s services. NGOs and sports federations followed. Private firms next appropriated the term “ambassador.”

A self-respecting firm in the public eye nowadays must have a “social objective” as part of its overall vision. If firms are “moral persons,” they must display their lofty status in their acts. Displays of non-essentials signify bountiful resources, effectiveness, and discretionary power of the core – good health in short. Also, the firm’s beneficial powers radiate on the clients, who partake vicariously of the firm’s social activities. They bond with the firm.

In practice, the firm spawns a non-profit foundation, endows it, and asks a celebrity to become the firm’s “ambassador” signifying the firm’s social concerns. All this is properly packaged for maximum publicity and spread across the glossy trade press. Therein, we now find long stories about run-of-the-mill firms sending out middling celebrities to be their “ambassadors.” In faraway places, these persons clutch chubby babies, save wildlife or some spiny coral reef, admire pristine landscapes (as earth moving equipment recedes into the distance) – or whatever “green” or “humanitarian” topic the firm fancies. The symbolic gesture counts. The whole effort is often kitsch, corn and cant; but what counts is the intention, right?

Of course, the “social objective” is also a strategic move to stop outside requests for help. “We give our foundation” is the reply to anyone pushing for a good cause with the CEO’s assistant. Charity is “part of doing business” and fundamentally parochial and exclusivist. It works out for the best of the firms: they remain in control of the message and the outlays.

The commodification of the “ambassador”

Core brands and symbols are defended tooth and nail. The rapid dissipation of the term “ambassador” into the private sector hints at a possible core weakness. In fact, New Public Management (NPM), which has swept the public sector in the last twenty years, has transformed the diplomatic function thoroughly. NPM aims at commodification – here the provision of quantifiable diplomatic services. Acting upon instruction of the “principal,” “agents” provide services rationally and efficiently – so the NPM vision. It is an engineering mindset that sees the world as intricate machinery to be assembled ot taken apart like a LEGO toy.

NPM is akin to the rationalization of Paris in the 1850s. Baron HAUSSMANN bulldozed boulevards across the inner city to allow mass traffic to flow efficiently. To complete his vision, a circle (the periphérique) was drawn around it and in the early 70s the height of buildings capped. The city’s shape is frozen, like a hyper-botoxed lady.

The NPM’s dream is a diplomatic panopticon. The “principal” (the Minister or the Director-General) sets/approves a cascade of diplomatic goals for her “agents,” introduces performance indicators at each operative level and thereupon verifies compliance. From a barrage of screens in his office, the principal can see any pen or toggle move, and be reassured at anytime, anywhere, all is well within the system.

In the “principal-agent” mindset, agents sedulously cherry-pick from context and circumstances to confirm the principal’s preset goals. Understanding the context, which could undermine the goals, is not part of the remit. When addressing the outside world, the agent is closer to a dumb terminal (even when interactive), explaining in ever more detail “his master’s views,” but never yielding on the substance (or learning from the experience).

A good agent is docile and self-analytical by set goals. As the command-control approach is internalized, the intelligent agent becomes self-improving. The system becomes sustainable. The agents’ very powerlessness makes them feel all-powerful – as a useful cogwheels of a useful mechanical monster – the MFA. Technocratic arrogance replaces aristocratic pride. Agents are adept at working the system (in the Soviet Union one called them apparatchiks), rather than understanding the context and environment, which they confront with prefabricated “best practices.”

The “extraordinary” in the ambassador’s title has yielded to ordinary, humdrum bureaucratic activity. Agents do not need titles, nor do they need to project an image. Correspondingly, diplomatic ornamentalism has waned. Under an NPM system, agents are interchangeable, for they are but mirrors of the principals’ will. Should MFAs worldwide fully implement NPM, diplomats could move effortlessly from one country’s MFA to another.

The plenipotentiary ambassador

The letters of accreditation probably still call the ambassador “plenipotentiary.” I am not sure that many understand the deeper sense of the term. In stem-cell research, we recognize “omnipotent” cells, which are capable of yielding a whole individual. Though the offspring contains the parent’s DNA, it is unique. The process is holistic and creative.

The true ambassador is not the principal’s representative; he is the principal in the negotiation. The outcome is essentially binding.[1] The reason is that in an international relations system, where interests interact, the negotiator can never achieve all of his “goals” – that would be a leonine agreement or a diktat. Nor is it simply triangulation – a zero-sum game balanced on the scale of present interest. The skill of the negotiator lies in his ability for a creative compromise. His creativity transforms what could have been a win-lose into what is for both parties a satisfying and sustainable, win-win agreement.

Seeing opportunities where others see obstacles is the ambassador’s highest skill. In so doing, he “betrays” set goals for better ones. The true ambassador will accommodate both his own and the other’s party interests, to achieve consent. He must be, at a crucial point, an accomplice of his counterpart. To do so, the true ambassador will often reframe issues so as to bring to light hidden advantages for both sides. While rationality is flat, the ambassador is deep and sees what is hidden or lies beyond our perception. He pierces our illusion that the foreground is all there is.

The true ambassador is plenipotentiary, for only the principal can discover, shape and validate the emergent common ground. When needed, he has the right to an exception. In German, there is the apt word Gestaltung (which has been taken over internationally in psychiatry).

Docile apparatchiks make poor plenipotentiary ambassadors, for they prize conformity and coherence of their logical system over understanding of the complex and contradictory context and its Gestaltung. While one can confine omnipotence, one cannot transform a unipotent stem cell into an omnipotent one.

Diplomacy as a foul-weather skill

Engineers are apt at diffusing contrasting forces until their work becomes stable. It is the “divide et impera” approach. Social systems are stable when they integrate, rather than divide and diffuse. Strength comes from complexity, not dilution. Or as Benjamin Franklin aptly put it: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Diplomacy addresses social conflict. Diplomacy transforms conflict at the surface into deeper levels of cooperation. It is inherently a “foul-weather” skill, honed by curiosity, free association, analogy, serendipity, and taste for “trial-and-error.” It evaluates courses of action by their consequences, rather than consistency with theory or ideology.

For routine tasks, (and there are many of them in international relations and growing), the principal-agent model is mostly useful. The principal-agent model, however, abhors “trial-and-error,” for it undermines the authority of the principal. It places ultimate choices outside, rather than within the system. This is the realm of true diplomacy. How to shape a structure (which is timeless) dealing with silent transformations that demand Gestaltung is the challenge. We better start experimenting anew.

Beginning with a new term for “ambassador,” maybe.


[1] Of course, there have been exceptions, particularly in recent times. Disavowing a negotiated result, however, leaves the state without a foreign policy instrument. The price is exorbitant.

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