Every few months, the Australian media raises the embarrassing absence of an American ambassador in Canberra. As of last month, Australia was one of 34 vacant ambassadorial posts across the globe. Commentators with expertise on each of these vacant posts question the commitment of the United States to the countries, regions, or issues that the posts cover.
With a highly competent Chargé d’Affaires, some commentators argue that the Australia-United States relationship is in good hands. But the situation raises another important question: is the Trump Administration precipitating a decline in the role of the ambassador?
Ambassadors have been a constant in international relations. In the 13th century they emerged as autonomous representatives with the capacity to exercise initiative in pursuit of sovereign interests, and a century later settled into resident roles, providing permanent representation for sovereigns across Europe.
The ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary was a resident representative with full powers to act on the sovereign’s behalf.
The ambassadorial role has been in steady decline for centuries.
But ambassadors have never been celebrated like military figures. Their names rarely stand out in historical narratives, and even less often get statues in town squares. The ambassadorial role has been in steady decline for centuries.
Since the 19th century, transportation and communication technologies reduced the ambassador’s capacity for initiative and autonomy. Railroads, steamships, then radio, airplanes, and now digital technology, make extraordinary and plenipotentiary powers redundant.
The core diplomatic functions of representation, negotiation, reporting, and acting as consul, were once under ambassadorial authority. Ambassadorial authority has now all but passed. The ambassador acts as an in-country representative, providing advice to decision-makers in the foreign ministry. Representation serves as an example.
Representation in diplomacy traditionally referred to the ambassador’s role as both acting for, and standing in, on behalf of the sovereign or executive authority. In acting for the sovereign, the ambassador’s remit could range from being a simple messenger to committing the state to action – including extreme options such as alliances, sanctions, or even war. In standing in for the sovereign, the ambassador traditionally sought to demonstrate the power, prestige, and influence of the sovereign or executive authority.
Both of these roles have substantially transformed. The modern ambassador’s representative role is curtailed by the ease of communication and travel, the centralised power of the foreign ministry, and the growing dominance of the executive in the bureaucratic hierarchy.
Direct interaction between leaders has substantially increased. Why act through an ambassador when direct interaction is just as easy? In the same way, the role of the ambassador in negotiation, reporting, and the consular function have steadily eroded. What then does the modern ambassador do?
The modern ambassador is above all, a competent Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in a frontline, service-oriented, highly competitive market. They are decision-makers, they manage relationships, resources, and operations, they act as Chief Information Officers, and as public relations directors. From time to time they act as risk and crisis managers. Diplomatic studies scholar Kishan Rana argues, the ambassadorial role is not becoming extinct, but rather, it is evolving.
Over the last twenty years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of “thematic” ambassadors. Just as states demonstrate their commitment to a bilateral relationship by appointing an ambassador, states must now also demonstrate their commitment to an issue by appointing an ambassador. Australia has ambassadors for counter-terrorism, cyber affairs, people smuggling and human trafficking, and women and girls, to name just a few.
Similarly, ambassadors are becoming more representative of the state rather than representative of the executive. States are seeking to transform their appointments to better represent gender equality, as well as professional, ethnic, linguistic, and socio-cultural diversity. Ambassadors are becoming “brand ambassadors” of the soft-power their country holds.
Ambassadorial limousines have been replaced by bicycles and public transport. Ambassadors now directly interact with foreign publics via the internet and social media, with some ambassadors emerging as skillful online promoters of the values their countries hold.
But is being a frontline CEO and “soft power” brand ambassador enough, or is the role of the modern ambassador in decline? As much as academics like to argue that the ambassadorial role is evolving and transforming with technology, the Trump administration demonstrates that more than just technology is at play.
The Trump administration, its early neglect of the State Department, and its continued failure to make key ambassadorial appointments transforms how we understand and use diplomacy.
While the media focuses on the potential impact on Australia’s relationship with the United States, the real impact may yet be on the role of the modern ambassador.