Diplomacy is brutally hard work and very few people are fit to live up to Harold Nicolson’s ideal. Nicolson was a diplomat at the post-World War One peace talks in Paris and he saw men who failed their country in every different kind of diplomatic way. He was an expert at diplomacy through experience and observation, which gives gold to his standard of “ideal.” I’ve reread his book so many times that when I heard about Chris Steven today, I went right to the passage quoted above (and full passage is too long to quote completely).
I knew three people in my short diplomatic career that I worked with closely enough to know they met that ideal. And when I thought about them after Chris Stevens’ death in Libya, two shared traits kept coming to mind. First, they’re all experts — deep, seasoned, passionate experts — about a certain part of the world. The State Department recruits generalists and rewards a certain amount of “go-anywhere” mentality, but the very best diplomats are passionate about one region. Second, they’re comfortable speaking with anyone. Some people are comfortable talking to any group or comfortable in any setting, but only a few people are truly so grounded in themselves that they can speak and interact with anyone. Under any conditions. And speak with every person with respect. At a personal level, diplomacy requires a certain amount of genuine warmth and charm…and the “genuine” aspect is all the difference.
Every diplomat’s primary mission is advancing his or her country’s interests. That’s true for US diplomats as much as Cubans or Russians or Slovakians. Very simply, diplomacy is getting your way through non-military means. But American diplomats are usually advancing basic human rights and fundamental respect for others — the US diplomatic mission is usually aligned with peace and stability. And that mission separates US diplomats from other public servants, adds a virtuous depth to what they do. Yeah, that sounds over the top. It’s not. Every US diplomat isn’t negotiating war and peace or reporting on genocide or helping a government transition from overthrowing a dictator to running a country…but the ones who are…are exceptional.
Today, I shuffled back and forth constantly between thinking about Chris and all my friends who knew him better (and were more devastated by his death) and the politics of the last 24 hours. After too much time wallowing in the partisan muck, I would look at Facebook updates to get back some perspective. This wasn’t today’s talking point or some campaign 2012 tipping point, but a life, a friend, a colleague, a real person who died a horrible death.
In February, I want to go into State and see Chris Stevens’ star on the wall. I want to take my kids and tell them, “this guy was one of the best.”