How to be a Better Ambassador: Nine Lessons from Singapore

by Frank Lavin

Washington can be a paradox for foreign diplomats. It might be the best assignment possible, to work with the world’s leading economic, political, and military power. Yet, the diplomat starts to realize, no one cares. There does not seem to be anyone in town who wants to have a serious discussion on your issues and how your government can work with the United States. Worse, nothing ever seems to happen.  Though an overstatement, these points are a revelation for many embassies that assume since they are the official representatives of their country, they automatically have access to Washington decision-makers. Yes and no. Only a few embassies are intrinsically relevant; others have to make themselves relevant. And this can be a daunting task for at least two reasons.

First, Washington suffers from the tyranny of the immediacy in which all “ordinary” issues are subordinated whenever there is a crisis (and there is always a crisis). Second, Washington is a sprawling and diffuse ecosystem in which a number of institutions and individuals have a voice on a subject. A proposal to improve port security might require an embassy to deal with the Customs Bureau, the Coast Guard, several offices in the Pentagon, several in the State Department, the White House Homeland Security Council, and at least one Congressional oversight committee, among other bodies. As a result, there seem to be only two conditions in Washington: either no one cares about you or everyone cares about you.

One cannot help but sympathize with embassies and the enormous frustration that engaging the U.S. Government must occasionally engender. I had the chance to work with (and occasionally against) the Singapore embassy in Washington while serving in a counterpart position as the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore. This gave me the chance to conclude that perhaps more than any other embassy, the Singaporeans had learned the lessons of practical diplomacy and how to apply those lessons to Washington.

Singapore’s influence comes not from traditional attributes of power such as military might or economic weight, but from the power of ideas, the ability to advance those ideas, and the wisdom to avoid common mistakes of diplomacy.

What lessons can be learned from the approach Singapore uses to be effective in Washington?

First, have a goal and have a view. Singapore thinks relentlessly about its policy objectives and what steps it needs to take to advance them. Many other countries’ diplomats, however, think more about bureaucratic obligations, with the embassy focused on internal budget requests, reporting obligations, the visit of a parliamentary delegation, or a mid-tier business problem. The gravitational pull of the pedestrian means an embassy can spend its day just keeping even with its inbox, its phone log, and its visitors without ever advancing its goals. In diplomacy, it is seductively easy to do a mediocre job and yet remain heroically busy while doing so. Singapore has the discipline to minimize “busy work” and to focus on goals.

Second, present your points to resonate with the other party. This seems almost self-evident, but it was striking to me the frequency with which foreign governments would importune Washington simply by noting that a policy change was important to them. Singapore diplomats would make the same point by noting how the policy change was important to the United States.

Third, stylistically, Singapore diplomats were always well-prepared, collegial, and purposeful.  Meetings were efficient and cordial. Discussions began with a recapitulation of common ground and moved to search for more.

Fourth, Singapore never served as a supplicant. It never sought money or favors. This ensured that the door would always be open and U.S. Government leadership would view a discussion with Singapore leadership as a friendly meeting of peers and not a debate over the extent to which it should accede to a demandeur.

Fifth, no public posturing for expediency. Many countries use foreign policy to play to a domestic constituency. Singapore was always measured in its public comments and avoided catering to populist sentiment. Anti-Americanism has a persistent hold on certain political constituencies, and when criticism is viewed as gratuitous, it is much more difficult to do business.

Sixth, Singapore brought additional value to meetings by being able to comment usefully on third countries and regional issues. Besides, how would it help Singapore to be under the eye of the United States, anyhow? Let’s talk about something more interesting.

Seventh, Singapore regularly sends senior-level delegations through D.C. Not all U.S. officials have a deep understanding of Singapore, but in the lead-up to a Prime Minister’s meeting with a President, the entire U.S. Government apparatus gets busy. There is no better way to advance an agenda than to get on the President’s schedule.

Eighth, Singapore actively works issues across the breadth of the U.S. Government. You cannot wait by the phone and respond to emails. Make someone else respond to your emails.

These eight points might seem almost axiomatic, but it is striking how many diplomats failed to observe them.

To these lessons, a final point should be added: diplomacy must be underpinned by trust. There is a human element that must be respected and a good diplomat will look for ways to find that personal connection, to signal that there is value in working with the other party and in taking the other party’s view into account, even if there is no particular benefit—what economists might call enlightened self-interest, but what most people might call simply being helpful.

Are there occasional shortcomings in Singapore diplomacy as well? No doubt. But to discuss them here would just violate the ninth rule, wouldn’t it?

About the Author

Frank Lavin is the CEO and founder of Export Now, which runs e-commerce stores in China for foreign companies. Lavin served as Under Secretary for International Trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2005 to 2007. Lavin was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Singapore from 2001 to 2005.

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