James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News, asks if diplomats ever make good politicians

If you are ever lucky enough to visit the new US Embassy in south London, you will almost certainly be shown the large wall bearing the names of former American ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. There are 66 in all, some distinguished, some less so. Many of the names will mean nothing to you, long forgotten diplomats whose brief moment of prominence has passed into history. But if you stand and stare at the list for a while, some of the names might begin to appear familiar. And while you are wondering why – because you will never guess – one of the Embassy staff will ask if you knew that five of these ambassadors went on to become Presidents of the United States. Here they are: John Adams (1785-88), James Monroe (1803-07), John Quincy Adams (1814-17), Martin Van Buren (1831-32) and James Buchanan (1853-56).

Which raises an interesting question: do diplomats make good politicians? These early envoy-presidents had a clear role: they were founding fathers, hoping to shape the reputation and global standing of their new country after the revolutionary wars of independence. They were there to forge alliances, reduce tensions and shrug off niggling irritations of imperial Britain such as the Royal Navy’s insistence on pressing American sailors into the Royal Navy. And their diplomatic roles seemed to blend with their political lives, serving as stop gaps between their various posts in Washington: four of the five held ambassadorial positions in other European powers such as France, the Netherlandsand Russiaand the same number also served as secretaries of state at various stages of their careers. So foreign affairs and diplomacy were at the core of what they did and central to their governments of the day.

Whether they were much good as diplomats is open to debate. Van Buren was in London for only a matter of months and his appointment was never ratified by Congress. A friend of John Adam – Jonathan Sewall – suggested the future president lacked the sum of the diplomatic arts: “He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and small talk and flirt with the ladies; in short, he has none of those essential arts or ornaments which constitute a courtier.”

In Britain, too, there were diplomats who were also politicians, who became known by the curiously ambiguous title of ‘statesmen.’ Lord Castlereagh was one of these. As Foreign Secretary from (1812-22), he even helped invent a form of diplomacy – the ‘Congress system’ – under which the European powers met regularly to manage their collective security in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Historians often look back on Castlereagh as a master of his diplomatic craft but the mob at the time took a different view: at his funeral, after he committed suicide, his coffin was booed by people who loathed his support for measures constraining free speech and association. Lord Byron was brutal: “Posterity will ne’er survey / A nobler grave than this / Here lie the bones of Castlereagh / Stop, traveller, and piss.”

These days, there are clearer distinctions between politicians and diplomats: one is an appointed official, there to represent their government; the other is an elected representative, there to form and scrutinise their government. But that does not stop one becoming the other. Dominique de Villepin had a long career as a French diplomat – serving in Washington and New Delhi – before he entered politics on the coat tails of Jacques Chirac. But his failure to be elected to any office – despite serving both as foreign minister and prime minister – led to accusations of being out of touch. Kevin Rudd began life as a diplomat for the Australian ministry for Foreign Affairs, particularly as an expert in Chinese affairs, before he entered politics and ended up as Prime Minister. Here in Britain, the former Conservative minister, George Walden, had a whole career at the Foreign Office between 1962 and 1983 serving in Beijing and Paris and as principal private secretary to two Foreign Secretaries, David Owen and Lord Carrington. But he gave it all up to become MP for Buckingham. In both professions, he did not rise high: he was neither an ambassador nor a member of the Cabinet.

And in October this year, the former French Ambassador to Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, stood – rather extraordinarily – in an election to become the Caucasian republic’s first female president. The daughter of Georgian emigrés was brought up in France and became a diplomat there. But when Georgia took its first steps as a democracy, Jacques Chirac allowed her to become the country’s Foreign Minister in 2004, while still being paid by the Quai D’Orsay. Eventually she resigned from the French foreign service, set up a political party and set her sights on the presidency.

Some have gone the other way. John Freeman, the broadcaster best known for his Face to Face interviews, was a Labour MP who, via his career in television, was appointed by Harold Wilson to be High Commissioner to Indiaand then Ambassador to the United States. As a Conservative MP, David Ormsby-Gore was a junior Foreign Office minister in Harold Macmillan’s government. But he probably had greater influence when he was subsequently appointed Ambassador to the US where his close friendship with the Kennedy family ensured that for perhaps a short time there really was a ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America.

The question is this: do diplomats make good politicians only if what they practise is diplomacy, if they are serving as foreign ministers or secretaries of state? Diplomats can sometimes come unstuck when they enter the sticky morass of domestic politics. Here the at times cruder needs of democratic representation are not always served by the nuanced skills of diplomacy: the deftly written communiqué, the well-judged demarche, the quiet word here or there. That, at least, is how it has been seen in the past. But perhaps that is no longer true. Diplomats these days are public servants in the true sense of the word. Their task is to represent their country, not just privately in chancelleries and embassies, but also in the public sphere – above all on social media. Perhaps the time has come for more diplomats to shed the coy shackles of officialdom and engage with the unruly world of elective office? At a time when democracy is considered under threat from those who question the international rules-based order, might politics benefit from a few more people whose job is to talk rather than fight?


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