There are basically two ways to become an ambassador for your country. You may join the foreign service as a cadet and work your way up through the ranks as a career diplomat. Or you could pursue a political career, which may result in an appointment as a representative of your party to be an ambassador to a specified country; or you may donate a substantial amount of money to a political party and be rewarded with an ambassadorial posting or you may possess certain expertise which make you a perfect fit as an ambassador to a particular country.
In all these cases you would be a political appointee. There is no right-wing or left-wing about this. In Israel, prime ministers from either camp have made political appointments to a variety of countries. In the US, virtually all ambassadors are political appointments, in the UK ambassadorial postings are almost always of career diplomats, while in Israel it is a mixture, with career diplomats very often securing the most senior postings. In this article I am discussing the situation in Israel where the government recently announced that a political appointee will be proposed as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (London).
If an ambassador is essentially the representative of his government abroad, what is the difference between a career diplomat and a political appointee? On the face of it, a good question. The answer lies in the ambassador’s career origins. A representative who begins his or her career at a young age as a cadet in a foreign service, learns the ways of that service from the outset. The first posting abroad will be as a second secretary in an embassy where he or she can observe the different roles of their more senior colleagues, what the ambassador does, where the deputy fits in, who deals with the local community and what it entails, who speaks to the media, who handles economic and commercial business, what is the role of the military attache and how does the work of the consular section differ from that of the embassy and so on.
After his or her assignment ends, the second secretary will return to work back home in the Foreign Ministry before another overseas posting at a higher level. In other words, by the time the erstwhile cadet holds an ambassadorial post, he or she is an experienced diplomat, accustomed to the diplomatic ways of dealing with a foreign government, the media, the ministry and the government back home, a manner of speaking and of general deportment. When the time comes to return to the ministry, it will be to continue in another diplomatic role.
The political appointee will have trod a totally different career path. Furthermore, having completed a tour as ambassador, he or she will likely return either to politics, having gained some credits for their success in representing their government abroad, or to whatever other career they were pursuing before their posting. This appointee will have had no previous experience of working with a team in an embassy, little if any of working with a foreign ministry and its government, possibly scant knowledge of the country, its customs, values and culture, or even in some cases of its language, before the posting. Being an ambassador will have been a four-year break in a different career.
At this point I have to declare an interest. I am married to a former ambassador, a career diplomat with 42 years of experience, and for a period I shared the honor with him of representing Israel abroad.
In another capacity, I worked with other career diplomats and was privy to the reactions both official and unofficial to them and to several politically appointed ambassadors. At the risk of being charged with prejudice, I can simply report with the authority of having been there, that career diplomats command more respect from foreign governments than political appointees, with a few honorable exceptions. In the case of an Israeli ambassador’s relationship with the local Jewish community, there is no question that the career diplomat has easier access to its trust, even to its affection.
So what exactly are the skills a career diplomat will have acquired during his or her lengthy training, and what is meant by diplomacy? The dictionary tells us it is, “the profession, activity or skill of managing international relations typically by a country’s representative abroad.” Wikipedia adds, “Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of states. It usually refers to the conduct of international relations through the intercession of professional diplomats with regard to a full range of issues.” Other sites remind us that diplomacy is “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way,” that diplomats have “a genius for tact,” and that they display “sensitivity, discretion, subtlety and finesse” – while Winston Churchill declared, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
These are the standards by which political appointees are judged. The newly announced ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Tzipi Hotovely, may find that she has to prepare herself in ways she may not have expected.
The writer is an author, journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation