Craft of Diplomacy Conference: Session Two

Speakers: Prof. Kantathi Suphamongkhon and Amb. Stephen Bosworth

Moderator: Amb. Derek Shearer

The second session, beginning at 7:30pm, was on the theme "Education of a Diplomat" and featured Professor Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the former Foreign Minister of Thailand, and Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who formerly served US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Tunisia. Each diplomat gave the audience a brief summary of their own educations before turning to the key skills a diplomat should develop from their formal and informal educations. 

Professor Suphamongkhan began the session by first engaging with the Conference’s overall theme and clarifying what he defined as the craft of diplomacy. For him, the craft or artistry of the profession came partly in the language a diplomat uses; as Winston Churchill once said, "diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that he asks for directions". Kantathi illustrated this point by highlighting a couple of moments during the period in which he traveled with the Thai Prime Minister around the world to gain support for their candidate for the Secretary General of the United Nations. 

In different countries, the leaders and officials they met with always tried to make the Thai delegation feel welcome and comfortable, but oftentimes had subtle ways of doing this without committing to support the Thai proposal. For example, when they arrived in Russia, President Putin told the man "you already look like the Secretary General!" and proceeded to flatter the man tactfully without actually giving his support. In England, a couple of weeks later, Tony Blair had a similar strategy. He told the man that he was going to the United States in a few weeks and would bring the matter up with George W. Bush. Again Blair gave no concrete commitment, but it gave the impression that he was sympathetic to the Thai cause and would do the man a favor.

After this introduction, Professor Suphamongkhan segued into the story of his own background and provided several anecdotes that further clarified the diplomatic skillset. A unique advantage Kantathi had early in life was that he was born in the Foreign Service. His father was was a diplomat and during Kantathi’s childhood had moved the family first to Australia and then to the Federal Republic of Germany where he served as ambassador. After these initial travel experiences, Kantathi went to England and Los Angeles for his education. He still has early memories of developing the art of diplomatic language when his family went to officials’ houses for dinner. If the food was ever not to his liking he was to describe it as being interesting, which was a neutral term.

 In terms of his formal studies outside the experiences of being a diplomat’s child, Kantathi thought that psychology, international relations, economics, law, and writing were all subjects that hopeful diplomats should emphasize. Through his career he had been given diverse opportunities to make a difference and he attributed his success in these situations to a generalist knowledge of several disciplines and a creative personality that allowed him to perform well in impromptu situations. In one of these moments, he was asked to write the Thai proposal for the United Nations Security council when he was very ill and elaborated on his own wish that he had done something to prevent his sickness to create the idea of preventative diplomacy and an early warning system. These two ideas were received well and were ultimately used and key components of the Thailand work at the UN. His ability to adapt and work quickly in that scenario advanced his career in the foreign service and opened future opportunities for him.

Besides these background skills that allow diplomats to adapt and work well in varied situations. Kantathi also encouraged the younger audience members to develop skills in concise speech writing and to maintain a robust knowledge of current affairs. Having these specific skills gave him his first breakthrough opportunity to work for the Prime Minister’s as a speechwriter after he had impressed the Prime Minister with his knowledge about current affairs when the two had met in Los Angeles. With a brief summary of the skills Kantathi had used in these situations and an overview of how he had developed these abilities, turned it over to Ambassador Bosworth.

Ambassador Bosworth also began by describing his background. Unlike Kantathi, he had far less of an early life geared toward the foreign service and had only gone to Dartmouth after his high school football coach recommended that he apply and play for the team. He did not play for the team, but benefited enormously from the liberal arts education Dartmouth provided. Bosworth believes that, to become a diplomat in the United States, it is essential to have a strong generalist underpinning that one develops in a liberal arts education. With his Dartmouth education he was better able to understand the world and articulate his opinion which are two of the crucial prerequisites for a junior officer.

After undergraduate, he entered the Foreign Service somewhat spontaneously, because he did not have the money for graduate school and so felt it was the best option when he passed the Foreign Service Exam. For him, not having a graduate education never was a huge problem, but he said he is not sure he would encourage others to take the same route because specialization is often very useful. This specialization came in the form of several economics classes he took at nights as a Junior Officer. This extended study was very helpful to advance himself earlier in his career, but Bosworth noted that the most he learned about diplomacy came from the process of doing it and learning from professional role models.

Although the informal education on the job was perhaps the most important part of his education, Bosworth also noted that speech-writing skills were very important (he worked as a speechwriter for Henry Kissinger). With this skill and the earlier mentioned components, Bosworth was able to get access to a wide range of role models who taught him the skills professionalism. In one situation where he learned about professionalism, he had been meeting with an ambassador and two of his junior colleagues when the junior colleague decided to ask Bosworth a question in the middle of the discussion. The junior officer was immediately reprimanded by the ambassador, who told the man "do not educate yourself on my time, young man". Bosworth laughed as he recalled that the junior officer eventually became a successful diplomat himself, but in that instance had been taught first had the skills of self-restraint and timing. On that note, Bosworth ended and the floor was opened for questions. 

Both diplomats gave the audience a picture of the academic and personal skills that had made them successful and how they had come to have those skills through informal and formal education in this session.