Reflections on the Death of an American Ambassador

With the breaking news this morning about the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the attacks on our missions in Egypt and Libya, and unexpectedly running into a diplomat friend twice over the past two days, the subject of diplomacy as a career choice has been on my mind quite a bit over the past 24 hours. In fact, diplomacy was a career which at one point I both studied and fully intended to embark upon – and, never say never, I have always been open to considering in the future. Yet despite what the public often thinks about a diplomatic career, that it is little more than one endless cocktail party out of some James Bond film, it is in fact a rather difficult life, based on the espousal and promotion of principle, which often involves a great deal of personal sacrifice.

My grandfather worked for the United Nations in South America during the 1960’s, and I grew up hearing from my mother about the experiences she had with him and my grandmother living in places like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru, among others. This was part of my motivation for becoming interested in international politics, and why I wanted so very much to get into the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. There were other undergraduate universities I could have attended, but the Catholic roots of SFS – a school founded by a Jesuit priest and housed in a building named for another – really sealed the deal for me, when it came to selecting which institution would become my alma mater.

Once at school, I quickly obtained a part-time position with a diplomatic studies think tank, and set about trying to figure out the best way to graduate and end up in Europe, preferably Spain or Germany, for a diplomatic post upon graduation. I had visions of meeting and befriending interesting people in business, politics, and society in these places, trying to help our respective countries understand each other better for mutual benefit. In fact this was a view which I suspect was shared by quite a number of my classmates, since we were entering into uncharted waters, historically. The Soviet Union had only just recently collapsed; it looked as though Western values had finally triumphed and a new age of democracy and international cooperation was dawning.

Reality, of course, soon comes knocking when one imagines that any sort of career path is going to be easy. Within the first few days of orientation, I became acquainted with one of my classmates whose parents were both diplomats. He had lived all over the world, sometimes in rather exotic and unpleasant-sounding places, and possessed a kind of world-weary air combined with a love of British alternative music which I happened to share.

However over time I began to sense that having no permanent sense of home had left him intellectually bright but personally detached in some way. This was by no means an isolated case, but rather a pattern of personality which I often observed among the children of diplomats whom I befriended at college. It is of course unfair to speak in generalities, as no doubt there are plenty of well-adjusted diplomatic children. However I did hear repeatedly the lament that the constant moving about, having to leave old friends and make new ones, made it difficult for these children to form attachments, knowing they could rupture at any time.

Then of course apart from family strife, there is the danger for the diplomat that you will be sent to work in some horrid place in which you have absolutely no interest, and this is a very legitimate concern indeed if you are not someone who enjoys being far from civilization and organized agriculture. I have never wanted to ride a camel into a desert, nor trek through a rain forest, nor have a pee in a lean-to made out of aluminum siding, and I should hardly care to live in an environment where such things are not uncommon. In short, and with all due apologies to people who live in such places, if the local insects are generally the size of my hand, I will not be going there.

Academically I have always been more interested in Europe than in the other continents, and focused on it in my studies. This made the chances of their being a need for a fluent German speaker specializing in European economic integration or German foreign policy in off-putting corners of the world hopefully rather slim, at least in theory, if I did chose to follow the diplomatic route. Yet over time and meeting more diplomats, it became clear that this was not often the case. When you received your assignment, sometimes you got Paris, but sometimes you got the back of beyond – and frankly I’d rather not go there, thanks all the same.

Then yesterday and today on the way in to work, I ran into a friend in the diplomatic service whom I have not seen for some years, someone who is temporarily back in Washington for a few weeks before the next assignment overseas. I could not help but imagine, from the pure serendipity of the encounters, that my life might have turned out similarly, and there was a faint sense of something appealing about it, even with all of the potential drawbacks involved in living that life. At the same time of course, it is impossible not to think of the risks that career diplomats like my friend or Ambassador Stevens who, though the chances are extremely rare, can find themselves in, by the very nature of who they are and the offices they hold, and indeed by what they represent around the world.

Perhaps I am now at the age when I can appreciate that this is not such a bad thing, which in my late teens and early 20’s I would not have understood. I still want absolutely nothing to do with giant bugs of course, but as you grow older, and you come to not only understand but deeply appreciate the values behind our American form of democracy, you realize that promoting its interests abroad and encouraging others to follow in the good footsteps of our example is not such a bad thing. For however much we may at times fall short of living up to our own values and principles, as a nation we do actually believe in them, and keep striving to achieve and perfect them. It is our can-do attitude and sense of trying to give people a fair shake which makes us such a remarkably effective country around the world.

I think this is something Ambassador Stevens clearly understood, as he risked his life to work in such an extremely dangerous part of the world. He worked to communicate with the Libyan rebels as they sought to free themselves from the Gaddafi regime, and stayed on as the new Libyan state began to form out of the chaos of civil war, when he could so easily have asked to come home. His family ought to be proud, and his countrymen grateful, that he served his country so well.

So forget the black-tie balls and garden parties you see in Hollywood’s imagining of what diplomatic life is like. Instead, remember the example of those who, like Ambassador Stevens, put themselves into personal danger simply by representing your country in a different part of the world, far from home. For that is both a great position to hold, and a great responsibility to one’s nation.

Detail of “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein (1533)
National Gallery, London

3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Death of an American Ambassador

  1. An excellent and well thought through piece. You are actually a true diplomat, as it stands out among the hubris and fist wringing from America’ s ‘leaders’ today. It gives me pause to reflect on my own pseudo diplomatic career as well.


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