(Originally published in An-Nahar December 3, 2019)
I had dinner the other day with a senior British ambassador to the GCC. We got to talking and I affectionately mentioned a young diplomat who became very popular after his farewell letter to the Lebanese people. And here’s where he surprised me. He was quite negative about his colleague and, whenever I defended him, kept sternly repeating, “It’s not his job.” Clearly, the more seasoned guy had an old-school view of a diplomat’s job. He didn’t like the twitter thing and disdained any action that deviated from the primary function of representing Her Majesty’s interests in Lebanon.
The father of Lebanese diplomacy is Dr. Charles Malek. If you’re an AUB graduate, you might have inadvertently interacted with him, as he’s the founder of the series of Civilization Sequence courses, arguably the best courses at AUB. Malek represented Lebanon at the conference which founded the United Nations. He helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he succeeded as Chair of the Human Rights Commission.
Most Lebanese diplomats I’ve met are outstanding individuals who aspire to reach the same levels of Dr. Malek. However, some less than flattering videos of a couple of them have recently popped up, highlighting a diplomatic faux pas. One of them showed a speech in barely-discernible French in a francophone country on Independence Day.
This got me thinking about the legitimate question:
What is the role of a diplomat?
I invoked my experiences in other countries to come up with the basics of what the job normally entails (or should entail). I took the liberty of doing this because they are ultimately accountable to us, if their salaries are paid with our taxes.
This is what I came up with as the JD (job description):
- Renew or replace my passport when I’m living overseas.
- Issue a visa for a foreign national who’s unlucky enough to have a passport rating like ours.
- Register Lebanese births abroad.
- When a country like the USA bans us from direct flights, arrange a meeting with their authorities to ask, “What do we have to do to get you to lift the ban?” This ban has been in place since 1986 and we are pretty much the only country in our neighborhood with that ban.
- Arrange a NEO (Non-combatant Evacuation Operation), i.e. coordinate our country’s military forces in evacuating our citizens in the event of a civil war in the foreign country. If our military cannot project military power worldwide, we could coordinate with allies. For example New Zealand piggybacks off the US, to get their citizens out of Dodge, when the gunslingers come out. So we might strike a similar deal to New Zealand, with say France.
- Negotiate advantageous trade agreements to sell the few products we produce without massive customs duties.
- Negotiate visa-free access to the host country, so we don’t have to wait several weeks for a visa every time we travel.
- Bail me out of jail if I’m ever arrested for DUI (driving Under the Influence) or on trumped-up espionage charges. Contact allies to help out. If all else fails, coordinate sanctions on the country.
- Conduct espionage operations on the host country, to extract military or technological advantages for us or assess their intent.
Clearly I’m being facetious – most of the JD is there for contrast and to raise our low expectations.
The majority of consulates do none of those things, or at best, the first three, and the experience is comparable to a trip to the dentist for a root canal.
The website of one of our best embassies says: “Getting a new passport will take one to three months from the date of submission of the application to the Embassy.” Are you freaking kidding me? Imagine being an executive stranded for three months without being able to travel! The reason I said it’s one of the best embassies, is because its hours of operation are 9am-3pm, versus others who work four hours a day; and this one has a working website, while most don’t.
Effectively, that means one of the most important components of the job is really about giving a speech once or twice a year on occasions like this.
One of my followers on a social media platform, Elias, went through the interview process, in which a panel of five diplomats interviewed him and fired off questions in both English and French. He tried to answer along the lines of my JD, but they seemed to steer him towards saying that the real job was to place citizens overseas and encourage them to remit funds to Lebanon. Hmmm. So they perceived their job as some type of a headhunter who increases our brain drain and sustains the country’s addiction to dollars. Despite a degree from one of the top universities in Lebanon, as well as a MBA from the UK, and professional level mastery of three languages, Elias never got the job.
By the way, the email of the majority of consulates is a Hotmail or Gmail account, not a lebonon.gov.lb account, thus any personal information you provided is out there on a server not different from an amateur’s, with no cryptographic locks protecting this data and no tracking of where it goes.
When I was a senior executive, before I became a nobody who can say whatever he wants, I remember having to take a mandatory media course, shared with diplomats — the idea being that in any interview, media event, or social media situation, you had to train not to be trapped into saying something stupid. One of the expressions this course taught me was “cautiously optimistic.” This expression says pretty much nothing and hedges all contingencies. Diplomats have to be trained in saying meaningless diatribe like that, unless you’re a nuclear or economic superpower, which gives you a lot more leeway. So if the KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for your job is this speech once a year, how hard can it be to make sure you don’t blow it?
A small minority defended the gentleman in the video. My view is pragmatic. It might be too much to expect our ambassador in Italy to speak Italian or our ambassador in China to speak Cantonese, but in Lebanon, where more than 80% of high school graduates studied French, is it that challenging to find someone fluent to station in a Francophone country? Let’s say that this guy is somehow a dynamo of diplomacy, whom we really need over there, but he doesn’t speak French, fine. You want to give a speech in French, rehearse it, ten, twenty, fifty times in front of staff or friends until you get it right. If you can’t get it right, how about giving a short intro in English, then delegating to your assistant (the young lady who introduced you in fluent French)? It would give her great exposure, make her happy, exhibit her growth potential, highlight your leadership capability to nurture subordinates, and not make a fool of us in front of the international community.
Have the standards of acceptance to our Diplomatic Corps deteriorated that much in the last few years or can we maintain them so we produce another Charles Malek?
I’m cautiously optimistic.