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MARCH 2016


Take One: What

U.S. Diplomats Do

“America’s Diplomats”

A film produced by the Foreign Policy

Association and airing on PBS stations

this month

Reviewed By Jane C. Loeffler

Our diplomats do important and often

dangerous work on our behalf, but

explaining that work to a TV audience is

no easy task.

First, diplomats have an array of job

descriptions—from those who negotiate

peace treaties or commercial pacts to

those who promote American culture or

issue entry visas. There is no single sound

bite that can summarize or even suggest

the full range of diplomatic activity.

Second, at distant workplaces, di-

plomats labor beyond the radar of most

geographically challenged Americans,

who have a hard time locating London,

let alone Lima or Lomé, on world maps.

And third, what makes it especially

hard to put diplomacy on film is that the

best footage in terms of sheer drama is

taken from the most glamorous or violent

historical episodes. But alas, 99 percent

of diplomacy is low-profile work, often

best accomplished by low-profile people

under less than ideal conditions.

If military history is about big battles,

diplomatic history is about how those big

battles are best avoided. How do you put

that on TV and make it watchable?

To his credit, MacDara King has done

an admirable job with his production of

“America’s Diplomats,” a new film that airs

on PBS stations this spring. (Noncom-

mercial screening and viewing is available


with the

password “Diplomacy.”)

Released by the Foreign Policy Asso-

ciation, the film aims to raise awareness

of this little known dimension of public

service—its pitfalls and its pleasures.

The film is strongest in its opening

sequences that deal with the history of

the Foreign Service, and how and why a

merit-based system evolved in the first

place. It is strong, too, in graphically

pointing out the growing risk associated

with overseas assignments since the

1980s when terrorists first turned U.S.

embassies into accessible targets.

Messages from Foreign Service

officers and former ambassadors, all of

whom are also career FSOs, underscore

the film’s several themes. Ronald Neu-

mann, for one, argues that “diplomats

need to meet the public,” and Nicholas

Burns speaks to the need to “balance risk

and security.” Others place these issues

squarely in the ongoing political dis-

course that too often separates the State

Department from its critics.

The film is also effective in detailing

peace negotiations, such as those led by

Richard Holbrooke to end strife in Bosnia

and Herzegovina (1995), and in showing

the symbolic power of U.S. presence when

Edward Perkins was appointed the first

black ambassador to South Africa (1986).

It also highlights the role of commercial

diplomacy with a lively segment on how

American diplomats made sure that U.S.-

built Harley-Davidsonmotorcycle engines

could roar on in Europe after European

Union regulators tried to ban them.

The film features a diverse group of

diplomats, but it is weak, perhaps, in

focusing too much on the traditional

hierarchy that for decades excluded

many of the faces that now make up a

majority of the Foreign Service. The retro

look of the title slate—it is almost all

white men, for example—points to an

underlying tension in a film that tries to

look backward and wants to look ahead,

but can’t do both at once. (Something

curiously arresting about that is the

uncanny resemblance between Benjamin

Franklin and John Kerry!)

Uneven film editing results in repeti-


The film is strongest in its opening sequences that deal with the

history of the Foreign Service and how and why a merit-based

system evolved in the first place.