How to be a Diplomat

The ultimate dream jobs in public service take patience, persistence and good language skills. If you’re lucky, you even get to save the world

Additional reporting by Jennifer Cornick

Forget the glamor and intrigue of Hollywood diplomats. For most, the Foreign Service means navigating the perils of protocol amid marathon meetings and mountains of mind-numbing reports. And very occasionally, the haphazard heroics of being in the right place at the right time.

Still, in a time when global threats are bringing a retreat from internationalism, what could be more important than -joining the corps diplomatique and -playing a role in the national theater of foreign affairs.

Hit the books  

“There is no longer one educational path to becoming a diplomat,” Dr. Hans Winkler said recently over lunch.  A former senior diplomat and Staatssekretär during Austria’s 2006 EU presidency, Winkler is now the director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (DA), the official training institute for the Austrian Foreign Service. While the majority of diplomats are still lawyers, he said, law is now behind both political science and economics coming into the academy.

Today, top graduate programs in international relations are sought after world-wide, from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan to the Écoles des Hautes Études Internationales et Politiques in France, and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where the faculty includes Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The best offer rich programs in interdisciplinary studies, something the DA academic director, Dr. Elisabeth Hofer has worked hard to expand. “The idea is that each discipline – legal studies, political science, international economics and history – has a different way of influencing development, and in turn, a person’s thinking.” One of their most popular programs is in Environmental Technology and International Affairs (ETIA) in response to the challenges of climate change and sustainable development.

Pleasures and perils

On the job, things can be intense: Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, U.S. Ambassador to India in the early 1960s, observed that “you cannot be quite certain about the extent of your authority – one can only presume and then be disagreeable when it is invaded.”

It also helps to have good language skills – and a sense of adventure: Austrian diplomat Dr. Brigitta Blaha, whose superb mastery of English and Italian earned her postings in New York, Washington and Rome, found it more of a scramble in Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong. And now, as Ambassador to Pakistan, she – a blond, blue-eyed Austrian woman – faces perhaps her greatest challenge of all.

Still, being a diplomat from a small country like Austria has its advantages, says Dr. Winkler. “Almost from day one, you are involved in decision-making.” Most embassies abroad only have one or two people, so “you have the whole range of issues.”  His daughter, who is the Deputy Chief of Mission in Ireland, is one of only two at the post. “So she is doing everything,” he says. “As a young official, you are already shaping the policy of the country.”

Many diplomats have rolled their eyes at the current U.S. President’s complaints about eavesdropping on his then-nominee for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, “We listen in on every call,” one insider told The New York Times. Which reminded this writer of a visit with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Philip G. Kaiser in (still-communist) Budapest in 1978. Kaiser kept orchestral music playing constantly in the background and whenever conversation turned to anything other than coffee or cocktails, he would crank up the volume and lean in close. “Opera’s best actually,” he confided. “The singing completely confuses the microphones.”

Often the best postings come at the end of a career. For Martin Sajdik, it was his last, as  Austrian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, which he described as his “dream job”. “For a country of our size, and a neutral country, it means having a forum to try to make our position an international one,” he said. And for his family, an apartment overlooking Central Park.

Among the pleasures is certainly “the ability to create new friendships and working relationships all across the world,” says Counselor Jonathan Sauvé at the Canadian Embassy in Vienna – the chance to travel, to live abroad and become a global citizen. But “while the career seems glamorous, it is not for everyone,” he warns. The Canadian Foreign Service has the highest divorce rates of any government division. And for children “there comes a point when they want to stay in one place.” None of this is factored into the hardship scales used to determine the length of assignments.  But families pay a price.

For Dr. Winkler, his diplomatic career ended back in Vienna, negotiating the “Washington Agreement” of 2001 with Deputy U.S. Treasury Deputy Secretary Stuart-Eizenstat on restitution to victims of the Holocaust, including forced laborers, left out of previous compensation schemes.

“Altogether, it added up to $1 billion in restitution – the greatest accomplishment of the [Wolfgang] Schüssel government,” Winkler said. “It was the thing I was most proud of.

Are you Cut Out to be a Diplomat?

You need to adapt quickly, go with the flow and understand that things change rapidly – including your personal security.  The situation in a country may turn on a dime and you could find yourself in very different circumstances, needing to cope with new issues.

A fast learner
Learning a new culture, language and bureaucratic process in a very short time period requires the ability to process and retain information quickly.  Foreign postings are usually of short duration and this means you need to get up to speed rapidly.

A good communicator
Communicating well, both in person and in writing, is required here. Knowing just what to say and to whom is an important skill. This also encompasses when not to speak and just listen.

Making friends and influencing people are your favorite things to do. You will meet a variety of people, from all over the world, and create long-lasting, strong relationships. This is the hallmark of every diplomat.

Being open to the experiences in your new country is an absolute must – from food to cultural events. This means also being open to various forms of expertise. You might not be the expert in this new posting, yet.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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