The US ambassador to South Africa recently accused South Africa of shipping arms to Russia. The ambassador was criticized by some—including the South African government—for breaking with diplomatic protocol by so openly condemning his host government.
However, maintaining an effective working relationship does not mean that a diplomat must never say or do anything that the host country might not like. Far from it. Effective diplomacy is built on trust, honesty, and respect, and the diplomat who never disagrees or who comes across as a sycophant, will be neither trusted nor respected.
On the other hand, a diplomat who is consistently honest, but who strives to be polite and considerate, might not be universally liked, but will earn respect.
US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, ignited something of a grass fire when he accused the South African government of providing arms to Russia. Specifically, he said that South Africa loaded arms and ammunition on the Lady R, a Russian ship, at a naval base near Cape Town in December 2022. Brigety added that he “would bet my life” on the accuracy of US intelligence on the matter, and that the arms transfer compromised the country’s non-alignment position in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In response to Brigety’s statement, Pretoria expressed its “utter displeasure,” and called the allegation “factually incorrect,” which fell short of an outright denial.
The government’s reaction to Brigety’s statement is predictable. Few governments would let such statements go without some kind of response, and there are probably even people here in the United States who would take the view that his statement was undiplomatic, although there are others who would applaud it. Whether it was right or wrong, or even expressed in a less-than-effective manner is beside the point. Contrary to what many people believe about diplomats—that the effective ones never say or do anything that would offend or upset their hosts, in order to achieve your nation’s policy goals—there are times when being undiplomatic is called for.
When I was assigned to Zimbabwe as the American ambassador in 2009, relations between the two countries had been acrimonious for almost a decade. There were people in key positions in the Zimbabwean government with whom we did not have effective working relations. The way the state-controlled media in Zimbabwe reacted to my appointment seemed to indicate that things weren’t going to change. While I was under no illusion that I would be able to forge friendly relations between our two countries, I was determined to establish professional ties with key interlocutors. My conversations with government officials, regardless of their party or ideology, were always candid but respectful, and I always stressed that I was in the country to work on behalf of the United States government and its people and was hopeful that we could find mutually beneficial ways to deal with each other.
Despite my best efforts, there were those in the government, primarily hardliners in Mugabe’s Zimbabwean Armed National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) who remained hostile. This was especially the case on the subject of the US sanctions imposed on a number of government officials and government-controlled entities responsible for election violence in the 1990s. My responses to their claims that the sanctions were causing harm to the country’s economy was always the same, as reflected in testimony I gave to Congress after the 2017 military coup that removed Mugabe from power. I stated that “while, in my view, the sanctions were clearly not having the desired effect, there were those in the Zimbabwean government who used their very existence as an excuse for all of the country’s ills.” In answer to the question of when sanctions will be lifted, the answer was when there is a return to nonviolent elections and democracy. This rather blunt response didn’t go down well with the hardliners, but the Zimbabwean opposition and a large number of ordinary Zimbabweans took heart in those words.
In another blunt exchange, in a meeting with the country’s economic planning minister, in response to his complaint that our sanctions were discouraging investment, I said bluntly that it wasn’t sanctions scaring off investors but political risk.
Not everyone in Zimbabwe objected to my straightforward speech on the subject of sanctions, or my public statement that I was frankly “fed up” with the constant carping about sanctions.
Based on traditional thinking, one might come to the conclusion that I was unable to work with a government to whom I’d spoken so bluntly. One would be wrong. My motto, which I described often, was to disagree without being disagreeable. By that I meant that I would speak forthrightly and honestly in all cases but I would not stoop to name-calling and vitriol. Surprisingly, this seemed to work with all but the most rabid of Zimbabwe’s hardliners, including with Mugabe himself.
The story of his younger sister’s funeral is a perfect illustration of that.
When Robert Mugabe’s younger sister and political confidante, Sabina, died at the age of seventy-six, I was invited along with the rest of the international diplomatic corps to attend the funeral. I did so, but at the service, Mugabe, while delivering the eulogy, got off on a rant about EU and US sanctions, at one point saying, “To hell with them, hell, hell, hell.” My initial instinct was to get up and walk out immediately, but my German counterpart, who was seated next to me, recommended that we wait until Mugabe finished speaking and sat down. When he did, the German and EU ambassadors got up with me and we walked out quietly.
The foreign minister summoned the three of us individually to the ministry the following day (Monday) and after castigating us for being “disrespectful of the shrine, the person being buried, and the president,” insisted that we publicly apologize. We all refused, and I got up and walked out on the minister as he too began to rant about US and European imperialism.
Later that same day, the German ambassador and I gave a joint press conference at my embassy, where I said that I left the funeral because I felt that I was not welcome and that any time my country is insulted I will react. That’s about as undiplomatic as one can get, short of become profane and insulting, and it got the predictable indignant reaction from the foreign minister. Surprisingly, though, many Zimbabweans, including some in ZANU-PF, were not offended by my actions and were actually supportive. During the evening news the day of our press conference, a reporter was interviewing people on the street about the issue and one gentleman said that I’d done the right thing because it’s a violation of African customs to insult a guest and Mugabe’s words were insulting while my actions, though blunt, were not. To my surprise, that interview was aired on state-controlled TV and my press conference statement was aired and carried in the print media as well.
Most surprising to many of my colleagues was Mugabe’s reaction—or non-reaction. The brouhaha died down after a week, and about a month after the incident, I requested a meeting with Mugabe to discuss an initiative I’d been working on with his tourism minister. I fully expected to have my meeting request denied, but it was approved and I met with him for nearly an hour, during which time our conversation was cordial, including a discussion of our particular food preferences, and he approved a suggestion I’d made to accompany a group of Zimbabwean CEOs to a trade conference in the United States.
The funeral incident was never mentioned again.
When my tour of duty ended in 2012 and I had my farewell interview with Mugabe, we again talked for nearly an hour, and he said that while he had disagreed with me on a great many things, he found my company refreshing and wished that I could stay on. That’s probably the best argument for a practice of polite honesty that I can think of.
The role of diplomacy is the management of relations between countries. A diplomat’s mission is to establish and maintain effective relations between his home country and the host country in order to further home country national interests and protect the lives and interests of home country citizens in the host country.
Maintaining an effective working relationship does not mean that a diplomat must never say or do anything that the host country might not like. Far from it. Effective diplomacy is built on trust, honesty, and respect, and the diplomat who never disagrees or who comes across as a sycophant, will be neither trusted nor respected. On the other hand, a diplomat who is consistently honest, but who strives to be polite and considerate, might not be universally liked, but will earn respect.
An example of how respect helps achieve foreign policy goals was in 2004, when the government of Cambodia surrendered its entire stock of 233 Man-Powered Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) for destruction under a State Department enabled program. While relations between the United States and Cambodia at the time were sometimes tense because of the government’s actions to stifle political opposition, sometimes violently, and I had made several public statements in effect denouncing their actions, I had at the same time established working relationships with the government, military, and police authorities on areas of mutual concern, such as drug flows through Cambodia and human trafficking. When I approached the prime minister and defense ministry officials on this issue, they agreed to turn the systems over without delay.
In one meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen I delivered a message that I’d been asked by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to deliver. That message was, “we will work with you on counter-terrorism because it’s in our mutual interests, but will continue to criticize your record on political inclusiveness and human rights.” The prime minister listened to my message with a frown on his face, and when I’d finished speaking said, “that’s your job as a diplomat. I can respect that.”
The foregoing are just a few examples from my thirty-year career as a diplomat, but they illustrate the importance of honesty over wanting to be liked in effectively carrying out a diplomatic mission.
Diplomats don’t always have to agree with their hosts, but they should try as hard as possible to never be disagreeable. At the end of the day, it’s not important that a diplomat be liked, but it’s absolutely critical that they be trusted and respected. When all is said and done, honesty truly is the best policy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.