A black ambassador to Pretoria

PRESIDENT REAGAN has nominated a black diplomat, Edward Perkins, to represent the US in South Africa. Some observers have suggested that a black should not accept such an assignment if he or she is obliged to promote administration policy. Yet such a view makes false assumptions about the roles of American diplomats, especially those who are black. American ambassadors are not robots who simply mouth policies they have no role in helping to shape. An ambassador is in a key position to influence the policies that he or she is called on to explain to host governments and citizens. Consequently, a black ambassador would be ``present at the creation'' at today's vital juncture in our South African policy.

Furthermore, within the policy guidelines drawn in Washington, ambassadors have opportunities to decide how policy is to be carried out and to make valuable symbolic gestures; witness the decision of our ambassador to Chile to attend -- with the State Department's approval -- the funeral of Rodrigo Rojas.

Communication with a foreign nation is a two-way street. An embassy reports, interprets, and analyzes events and trends in the host country for decisionmakers in Washington; this is sometimes an extremely subjective effort. What an embassy emphasizes and ignores is up to the ambassador, who, like everyone else, is influenced by his own background and experiences. A black US ambassador could bring useful and timely experiences to that role in South Africa.

It is especially important for black diplomats, who gained new prominence under the Carter administration, to be given opportunities to demonstrate that they are capable of serving Republican administrations as effectively as they served Democratic ones. Black diplomats understand that a functioning democracy requires a corps of trained, disciplined professionals dedicated to carrying out the will of the American people and the instructions of the president and secretary of state. Black diplomats are as disciplined and professionally responsible as their white colleagues, many of whom also faithfully execute policies they may sometimes privately question.

Since black diplomats are traditionally given ambassadorial appointments to black countries (four of the five serving black ambassadors are posted to black nations), the very act of appointing a black ambassador to South Africa -- which has never had one -- can send a policy message to the entire African continent, especially to the blacks and whites of South Africa: The United States recognizes that South Africa is overwhelmingly a black nation, destined to be led by blacks.

And a black American ambassador in Pretoria would be a forceful reminder that the US is a successful multiracial society whose black citizens are destined to play an increasingly important role in world affairs.

Kenneth Longmyer, a Foreign Service officer, has recently been involved in an effort by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to encourage an equitable role for black Americans in the formulation of US foreign policy.

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