In Praise of American Diplomats

During the Trump administration, the Department of State continues to face significant challenges. Ambassador Jose Zorrilla reflects on his experience working with American diplomats.


Now that Trump has slashed 40% off the Department of State’s budget, I feel urged to share with my readers some of my experiences with American diplomats all along 40 years + in the trade.

Sorry for not filling the expectations of House of Cards followers but I remember my American buddies as something closer to a middle class world in a Downtown Abbey surrounding. They were always gentle, helpful, nice, hospitable and cooperative. In short: being pros, they made you feel all was personal. And sure thing they were both. They usually spoke the languages of the land, even the most intricate and less shared of all and had no problem in releasing daily press resumés free of charge, much to the modest crowd whose few translators were always busy with Verbal Notes, visits with MPs, business meetings and the like. Facilities followed the same pattern. I watched countless movies in Embassies and Residences, broke bread, fizz and cakes there. I always enjoyed the benefits of a warm hospitality, mostly due to generous hostesses, though not always for Federal swimming pools and gyms were part of the perks too. This is how I came to know the real US before I decided to go on my own and try Route 66, among other lesser known paths. I had the privilege of trying apple pies from New England, served by New York hands, Virginia hams duly clovered to the tune of a deep Southern drawl, and meat in all forms from barbecues of all sorts. Persons followed dishes. The whole of the US passed by. There were Yale Eastern College guys, members of the Armed Forces “promoted” to the chores of diplomacy, State brats, Californian Westerners, even a bricklayer´s wife. All had ancestors from the four corners of the world. Poles, Paddies, Russians, Latinos, Italians, Greeks, you name it. They all had a common denominator though. They were hard working lads never arrogant or self-conceited, always inspired by a demanding work ethic and a profound patriotism. In short: I always admired how they discharged their duties under the weight of the purple. In case you wonder what is the meaning of this purple thing I can also name it “the hate factor”.It may come as a surprise to the Anglo world but there were shining houses on the hill and exceptional countries well before the US came to be too. They all suffered under the motto. “Since we are universally powerful we are universally hated”. (Guzmán de Alfarache)

Do not think for a moment that American diplomats expected to be repaid in some way or another. It would have been impossible. Nobody enjoys the wealth of personal or physical facilities that they do. Occasionally, perhaps they would show up with a request from a duty free, which was always duly reimbursed. 

When the time of Ambassadorship came, the Heads of Mission followed the usual way only one step up the ladder. Some of them were even popular. No wonder for they were like everybody else. If you expect a decent Ambassador to be a collector of Ming china or medieval Bokhara silk, get ready to hear the sad truth. They collected normal things like you and me would collect, say caps of baseball. Enjoyed modest hobbies and dressed in ready to wear dresses. So if you are thinking in terms of Edwardian England, furs, tails, Savile Row and caviar, just forget it. Everybody knew the truth and everybody liked it. Down to earth was the fashion of the day and it suited the West’s interests perfectly well. 

Of course nobody is perfect. American diplomats were a bad example for our capitals. In a world of patrician working hours, say, 10 to 1, Yanks stood an inordinate length of time glued to their desks, going well beyond the call of (diplomatic) duty. Not to mention the plague of the brown bag for lunch, an epidemic that afflicted even the most senior of the US Ambassadors. As every decent diplomat knows, free and forked lunches keep the world go around. They are the engine that allows diplomacy to move on. And of course, when the time of Wikileaks came, it was a disaster for the rest of us. It happened that US diplomats wrote cables that looked like the templates of the most demanding and classical academies of Diplomacy. Not only were they accurate but written in a prose of terse, almost to pedantic perfection. Our betters scolded us without mercy. “This is how you should be writing your reports. And allow me to remind you that Americans do it on a brown bag!”

Touché, Junior Minister. 

Anyway, and to put a bitter end to this, my American buddies indulged in the worst ill of diplomacy: to take matters to heart and work hard. This is how Americans ignored this first commandment of a good diplomat, as expressed by Talleyrand. “Above all, never too much zeal” I will say as an excuse that coming from the revolutionary New World their respect for European mores was and is relative, disregard that pushed them to cross the pond twice and save us from our too little zeal.  

PS.- And now seriously guys. I am so sorry Maribel and I were not there for you in your hour of need. Owe you one. 

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983. He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Leave a Reply