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Rise and fall of the ambassador

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Giorgio Guglielmino (The Philippine Star) - April 13, 2021 - 12:00am

Of whatever country they are and in whatever nation they exercise their function, all ambassadors always follow the same ascending and descending parable during their period in a capital. If the period of stay is only two years or if it extends up to four or five it does not matter, the parabola will have a higher or lower speed but always follows the same trajectory.

Upon arrival at their new embassy and even before arrival, local people search for some details of his/her life (from which other country does he/she come? is he/she married? is the new ambassador still young?). There is always a lot of curiosity. Among the people who feel interest in diplomats there are primarily the heterogeneous group of honorary consuls and then groups of ladies who do not fail to say to “single” male ambassadors at the first meeting “You will see that here you will find a wife and you will get married” as if this were a strategic target of the diplomatic career.

The central period of the mission in a country is the one that begins one year after arrival, when one has adapted to the country but still has a great curiosity about what one sees, and ends when the ambassador sees the departure which will take place between six and 12 months. Curiosity fades, receptions become repetitive, the presumption – often wrong – of already knowing enough of the country creeps in.

It is also to be considered that 12 months before the end of the mandate the ambassador begins to study what the future destination will be, what steps he/she must take with his/her own ministry, which competitors among the colleagues are to be tackled with. In the last 12 months, therefore, the ambassador’s mind is literally split in two: on the one hand the tasks of the present, on the other the necessary steps to secure the future. Then when the new destination is approved, the mind shifts 75 percent to the future city and a lot of time will be spent on the internet looking at the children’s future schools, future vacation destinations near the new city, restaurants, shops, etc.

Let’s say that over a period of assignment of four years the second and third years are those in which the ambassador does his/her job best. The ambassador has the pulse of the situation, knows how to move, is aware of his/her authority and above all begins to see the fruits of one year of work, especially in the economic or, as in my case, cultural fields.

But the saddest and at times most ridiculous period, which however every ambassador must know how to take with a pinch of irony (woe to choose a diplomatic career if you don’t have a bit of irony!), is that of the last months before departure. Every ambassador has had the experience of being at a reception or dinner and being introduced to someone they have never met before. The interlocutor will ask – it is one of the typical questions that are always asked – “When did he arrive?” When the answer is “I’ve been here for three and a half years, I’m leaving in two months,” the expression on the interlocutor’s face will unequivocally fade. Because? Because if the ambassador is still around only for two months, the ambassador, to put it bluntly, is no longer needed. Too little time to invite him/her to dinner and introduce him/her to diners as a long-time friend, too little time to be introduced through the ambassador to other interlocutors and, above all, too little time to ask for a favor regarding the application for a visa.

When you leave a country, you leave behind literally hundreds and hundreds of people you know. Simple acquaintances, people who have ensured their undying friendship (until the ambassador climbs the ladder of the plane that will take him/her far away) and few, very few, true friends.

I will give the concrete example of my previous posting. I was ambassador for four years in Bangladesh, a country to which I still consider myself bound by a true and deep affection. There, too, I met a lot of people: diplomatic colleagues, local authorities, intellectuals, expatriates of various nationalities, plus a disparate range of people with whom I like to get to know, from shopkeepers to restaurant managers, etc.

It’s been a few years since I left Dhaka and how many true friends have I stayed in touch with and I believe I will stay in touch with for life? Among diplomatic colleagues and expatriates who lived in Bangladesh in those years I would say only two: the ambassadors of Canada and Turkey, two true friends. Among the locals, the true friend of the heart is Monirul Islam, an artist over 70 years old and of whom I have a small drawing tattooed on my back. Then I would add a couple of other people. That’s all. But I don’t consider it a little. Ambassadors simply must not have the illusion that all the acquaintances and friendships they make will be lasting. Five true friends are still a very good result.

And when will I leave Manila? This time maybe I am the one with an illusion. I believe that the real friends I met here are more than five, maybe even seven or eight. If so it will be one of my greatest achievements in so many years of diplomatic career.

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Giorgio Guglielmino is the ambassador of Italy to the Philippines.

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