Do Ambassadors Matter Anymore?

Posts stay vacant months - or years

There are times when being a career diplomat must feel like being in the army: Sometimes you just have to hurry up and wait.

John Kornblum, the new American ambassador to Germany, was confirmed by the United States Senate Aug. 1, one of a group of some two-dozen presidential appointees, including new envoys to Bosnia, Britain, Canada, France, and Russia. He is in Bonn to take up his post, which has been vacant since June 16, 1996.

But until he can formally present his credentials to President Roman Herzog - expected Sept. 10 - Mr. Kornblum is a sort of nonperson. He can settle in and start making connections. But he can't really do anything.

When he appeared before the press last week at the Cologne airport, he confined himself to generalities. He impressed Germans with an answer to a question about the weather in Washington ("Very hot, over 40 degrees") that showed fluency not only in German but in Celsius.

But despite his impressive diplomatic skills, how important can his job be if it can be left vacant for a year?

This question is being asked of envoys to places other than Bonn.

In a time when world leaders seem to have one another on speed dial, and meet often enough that they probably see more of one another than their own families, isn't an ambassador an anachronism - like a handwritten thank-you note in the age of e-mail?

Bruce Laingen, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, acknowledges that changes in communications technologies have affected the practice of diplomacy.

"During the Gulf War, George Bush was doing it all by phone," Mr. Laingen concedes. But he adds, "You need someone [posted in the country] over time developing long-term relationships, not just with the head of state or government, but throughout the country. And not just the ambassador, but the rank and file of the embassy." These relationships constitute the "groundwork a president can exploit" in times of crisis.

At a time when international relations have more to do with business than politics, he adds, "Most businessmen, when pressed, will concede that they need someone [in an embassy] that they can talk with frankly" for honest assessments of the country in which they want to do business.

Handling the Cowboy Boot Crisis

Governments also still need ambassadors to handle matters like the Cowboy Boot Crisis at the Denver summit earlier this summer, adds Karl-Heinz Kamp of the Adenauer Foundation in St. Augustin, near Bonn.

President Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl get along famously. But Mr. Kohl absolutely balked at Clinton's gift of cowboy boots and refused to wear them. Dr. Kamp assumes that feelings were smoothed by tactful explanations from the German ambassador that boots of this type are associated in Germany with lower social classes. Such intervention is something "you can't do over the Internet, or through a conference call," Kamp says.

"Or take the bicycles in Amsterdam," he continues, referring to the bikes presented to leaders attending the European Union's summit meeting there in June. The images of some of the leaders setting off eagerly on their new wheels made for some good video footage. But here, too, Kohl did not go along with the program.

"Kohl never rides a bike. He wouldn't ride a bicycle if the pope himself gave it to him," Kamp says of the chancellor, who is a Roman Catholic. Presumably German diplomats managed to communicate this to their Dutch hosts.

Franz-Josef Meiers, a research fellow at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn, ticks off three main reasons the landscape of traditional diplomacy has changed:

* The emphasis, especially for the US, has shifted from geopolitics to "geo-economics." "They talk about 'BEMs,' big emerging markets, especially in Asia," Mr. Meiers says. Insofar as diplomacy is seen as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers, "that means an adjustment in the importance of Europe."

* The main American agenda in Europe involves groups of countries, not one-to-one relationships. Its issues are multilateral, not bilateral, such as NATO enlargement, the situation in Bosnia, and the like. "I can't think of a single [fundamental] issue between the US and Germany," Meiers says. German-American disagreement over the treatment of Scientologists, for example, which is often cited as a significant issue, he dismisses as "a tempest in a teapot."

* New communications technologies have undercut the autonomy of embassies and ministries. "Diplomats' analyses of the situation on the ground remain very important, but in crises, decisions are going to be made by the government" back home, he says.

* In the US and other countries there is a tendency toward the "domestication of foreign policy; that is, foreign policy is driven largely by domestic concerns."

Moreover, the Senate confirmation required of ambassadorial appointees is being seen as an increasingly onerous process. The Clinton administration's nomination of William Weld as ambassador to Mexico was not on the list of Aug. 1 approvals.

Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman Jesse Helms (D) of North Carolina has blasted the former Massachusetts governor with charges of being "soft on drugs" and not being of ambassadorial caliber. It's not clear when - or whether - Senator Helms will hold hearings.

"I wonder what [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright gave away to get this [Aug. 1 list of confirmations] through," a State Department official mused recently.

Given this environment, it would be understandable if some would-be envoys decided they would rather stay home.

Still, it's clear to most observers that the presence of an ambassador "is an important sign [from the US] that 'We take your country seriously,' " says security expert Kamp. "The psychology of it is very important."

As Ms. Albright has demonstrated with her lobbying both at home and abroad - such as her "Evita" star turn at a meeting of diplomats in Southeast Asia a few weeks ago - there remains a role for individuals in personifying and "selling" American foreign policy.

Engaging in straight talk

The new envoy to Germany, Kornblum, appears to be as straight-talking in his way as Albright is in hers.

Indeed, if the Kornblum appointment has critics here, they are keeping mum. He has been called the most knowledgeable American ambassador to Germany since World War II. He is known as the man who wrote into President Reagan's 1987 speech in Berlin the now-famous line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Germans are so pleased to have this longtime advocate of reunification of their country that they are willing to ascribe the delays in his appointment and confirmation to the general obstructionism of Helms.

"Kornblum has recognized more clearly than many [German] politicians that Germans today have on one side lost confidence in their most important institutions but on the other hand resist urgently needed reforms," commentator Ernst Cramer wrote recently.

"He will certainly not hesitate to say so."

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