May 7, 2014, by Harry Cocks

Diplomats: beyond the ambassador’s reception

It is sometimes said that a diplomat is someone who thinks twice and then says nothing.  In a new book John Young of Nottingham History examines the career of David Bruce, the longest serving US ambassador to the UK, who filled that office between 1961 and 1969.  Using insights from historical and diplomatic studies, Professor Young aims to investigate the relevance of resident ambassadors to twentieth century diplomacy. Could embassies still have a meaningful role in a world of summit meetings, international organisations and political reporting by the mass media? Even a leading US policy-maker like George Ball, Under-Secretary of State in the 1960s, conceded that ambassadors had become restricted to ‘ritual and public relations.’ In contrast to many other studies of embassies which concentrate on bilateral political relations, crisis management and international security, the book’s focus is on the ambassador’s day-to-day work as a diplomat, from running the embassy, attending social functions and meeting the ambassadors of other countries, to negotiating agreements, explaining US policy and handling relations with Britain through particular crises (including the Cuban Missile crisis and the Vietnam war. Professor Young argues that Bruce, and the embassy more generally, had an important role in promoting friendly relations between America and Britain, both at a popular and elite level, in reporting accurately on political developments in Britain and providing policy advice to Washington. He also argues that the ambassador’s life was far more than an endless round of dinners and cocktail parties. Bruce became personally involved in such embassy activities as intelligence work, media management and consular relations. He regularly met with Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries; he was respected in the White House, drawing praise from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; and he travelled tens of thousands of miles each year between the two states, helping to smooth out disagreements. He did much to ensure that Anglo-American relations remained friendly at a personal level even though Britain was rapidly declining in terms of its global presence. The book shows that the resident embassy was a ‘dying’ institution in the later twentieth century. Professor Young aims to see the ambassador as a diplomatic actor, to illuminate a little-studied aspect of international history and provide a foundation for comparative studies with other embassies, at different times and locations.

David Bruce and Diplomatic Practice: an American ambassador in London, 1961-69 (Bloomsbury, New York, 2014) 225 pp + v.




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