Inside the Evolving Roles of DC's Diplomats
by roland flamini
Claudio Bisogniero, Italy’s ambassador to the United States, lives in a rambling Tudor-style mansion near Cleveland Park. It was purchased by Italy as the ambassador’s residence in 1976, back when tweeting was what birds did in the trees around the 17-acre property. These days, Bisogniero is the one likely to be tweeting, sometimes as he is being chauffeured to the chancery (dipspeak for embassy offices) in his Maserati.
Thirty years ago, diplomacy was conducted by a closed group of elite professionals who spoke mainly to each other, using a kind of coded language that hardly anyone else understood. But the competitive pressures of the global economy, the need to get news out quickly in the 24-hour news cycle, and the tempting outreach prospects offered by social media have changed all that.
Today, diplomats are the same elite professionals but, as Sir Peter Westmacott, British ambassador to the United States, puts it, “we do the business differently.”
That’s British understatement for the fact that diplomacy has undergone the biggest transformation since invisible ink was invented for writing secret dispatches.
Operating in a Dot-Com World
It’s not that all ambassadors in all the world’s capitals suddenly had an epiphany and became avid fans of social media and online communication. But after social media was recognized as a major factor in germinating the Arab Spring, and as it continues to play a role in the ongoing upheaval, policymakers around the globe are deciding that governments will ignore social media at their peril.
The result is that traditionally discreet, risk averse senior diplomats are now required to engage in discourse with unknown interlocutors. “We put out a lot of things digitally,” says Westmacott, who has his own blog. The embassy account (@UKinUSA) also has more than 19,000 followers on Twitter (the current number at press time), and the topics, he says, range from “continuing interest in the news and questions about how to get a British visa to royal pregnancy questions. ‘If it’s twins, how are they going to decide who gets the throne?’ That kind of thing.”
Ambassador Michael Moussa-Adamo of the Gabonese Republic says his embassy’s website answers as many questions from Gabonese living in the Central African country as it does from Americans. “They want to know about the United States, and they ask questions about studying here,” he explains. “They also ask about what’s going on. And yes, this new openness comes at a price: You pay for whatever you’re saying and not saying.”
But embassies keep listening—and answering. Bisogniero, for example, uses Twitter “to be more effective and more transparent, and to better respond quickly to emerging challenges.” Adds Felipe Bulnes, Chile’s ambassador in Washington: “When I wake up in the morning, I review what is trending on Facebook, Twitter, and so on, to get a quick sense of what’s happening.”
The online tools end up giving foreign embassies a voice of their own. “It’s like having my own newspaper,” Bulnes says. “I can get my message across without the filter of the local media. A huge opportunity.”
The full impact of Twitter hit Turkish ambassador to the United States Namik Tan recently after he had an argument with his wife at breakfast. At noon, he tweeted her that he was sorry. “Before I knew it, I was receiving hundreds of messages about our domestic argument,” he recalls, “mostly from women at first, but then it became a debate. It even got picked up in the gossip columns in Turkey.”
At press time, Tan (@NamikTan) had more than 64,000 Twitter followers and notes that the service allows embassies to “put out their own agenda, reaching out to the public easily and instantly.” Which is what he did in March 2011 when Turkish diplomats in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, brokered the release of four New York Times journalists held by the Libyan government of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Informed at 4 am of the journalists’ release into Turkish custody, “I tweeted the news, and we reached four-and-a-half million people,” says Tan in regard to Twitter’s pebble-in-the-pond messaging, which relies on retweets and resulting journalistic coverage. “Turkey got the credit it deserved.”
A Different Presence
When it comes to local outreach, it’s long been a practice for foreign ambassadors in the nation’s capital to offer their residences as venues for charity events (incidentally, this is a rare occurrence in foreign embassies in other countries). And in May, the European Union Embassies’ Open House day has Washingtonians lining up to get in; outside the British embassy, of course, they queue.
Beyond that, ambassadors do their own thing. Michael Moussa-Adamo, for example, is involved with Thearc, a social activist organization located in Washington’s Ward 8, which has the highest joblessness rate in DC. Moussa-Adamo finds the organization’s revitalization of the ward inspiring, as well as Thearc’s efforts to further economic development through the arts. The Gabonese ambassador chairs its annual gala.
Many ambassadors also have ties to their conationals living in the United States, and probably none more so than Ambassador Bisogniero, who is closely connected with the Italian-American community estimated at nearly 20 million. For example, the Italian Embassy backs an Italian language program in US high schools, in part to keep the language alive among Italian Americans. And Italy’s government has proclaimed 2013 the “Year of Italian Culture” in the United States with a massive, yearlong program of concerts, exhibitions, and conferences throughout America, relying heavily on Italian-American support. Furthermore, Bisogniero has been a member of the Italy-USA Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Rome that works to promote both friendship between Italians and Americans, as well as American culture in Italy, since 2008. This is not merely for cultural reasons: In 2006, Italian citizens living abroad became eligible to vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections, including hundreds of thousands of Italians in the States—and the figure has since grown.
Delivering the Goods
Another shift in diplomacy has ambassadors increasingly involved in business activity. In the hugely competitive environment of the global economy, ambassadors serve as de facto super-salesmen of their country’s vital export market and foreign investment opportunities.
When Westmacott and his wife, Susie, held a reception in the sprawling garden of the embassy residence in September, parked on their manicured lawn was a new Aston Martin Vanquish. The purpose, says Sir Peter, was to showcase “the strength and innovation of the British automotive industry.”
Weeks later, the Westmacotts hosted a reception to mark the first anniversary of the Washington office of Bonhams, the high-end London auction house. Paintings expected to fetch thousands of dollars at a forthcoming auction were on display at the neo-Georgian Massachusetts Avenue residence on Observatory Circle, a home designed by the English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
“UK trade and investment is a big part of what I do now,” says Westmacott. “We’re all keen for economic growth. Sometimes it’s about the UK as a prime site for investment in Europe, or I do a launch of an item at the house for a British company.” In the past year, he has made more than 30 trips to US destinations outside Washington. Most travels are business related, and it’s easy to see why: The United States is Britain’s biggest export customer ($51.2 billion in 2011, compared with $55.9 billion American exports to Britain).
Felipe Bulnes says the changes in what ambassadors do has made them less Washington-centric. In the nine months since taking up his post, the 43-year-old former minister of education has made 10 business trips outside the nation’s capital, to cities such as Los Angeles and Boston.
“Trade, technology, innovation, and education are my priorities—the embassy’s priorities,” says Bulnes. The big push is to encourage hightech investment to create “Chilicon Valley” in his native country. The embassy, the ambassador says, is “broadening its horizons,” forging what he calls “strategic alliances” with California, Massachusetts, and other areas with high-tech industries of interest to the Chileans.
“Today, what matters is soft power, and what makes soft power is political stability and economic stability,” observes Tan. “To be a soft power, a government has to do its job in a sustainable way to strengthen its economy.”
So is there any truth to the old English adage that an ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”? Not now, say the ambassadors. “There are no secrets anymore, and you cannot hide anything,” says Tan. “Transparency is imposed on you, and you have to live with that reality.”
Photography by stephen voss
Celebrating the start to the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner weekend at the British Ambassador's residence with the Entertainment Software Association.