Page 84 - Foreign Service Journal - September 2013

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How About Paris?
Lessons from a Diplomatic Life:
Watching Flowers from Horseback
Marshall Adair, Rowman & Littlefeld
Publishers, Inc., 2013, $38, hardback,
235 pages.
Reviewed by Shawn Dorman
Marshall Adair’s book,
Lessons from a
Diplomatic Life: Watching Flowers from
, is a delightful read. As he
brings readers along on a journey from
Paris to Lubumbashi and on to Asia
(including several China assignments),
his engaging personal story ofers insights
into history and diplomacy, as well
as context for the events he describes
and the favor of the places in which he
Tis is an account of a Foreign Service
life spent traveling the world, frst as the
child and grandchild of a diplomat and,
later, as a diplomat himself. Adair joined
the Foreign Service in 1972 and served
for 35 years; he was also AFSA’s president
from 1999 to 2001. (His father, Charles
Wallace Adair Jr., was also an FSO for 35
years.) Part memoir and travelogue, part
history lesson and insider’s take on diplo-
macy and the Foreign Service career,
Lessons from a Diplomatic Life
covers a
lot of ground.
In his introduction, Adair references
the Chinese expression “Ride-Horse-
Watch-Flowers” that serves as the book’s
subtitle and subtext. As he explains,
the phrase means “to make a hasty
judgment”—a warning against pass-
ing too quickly or superfcially through
places, and not getting close enough to
truly understand them. Te best diplo-
mats combine the advantages of horse-
back—distance and perspective—with
the more nuanced and deeper under-
standing that comes from getting of the
horse and staying a
Adair begins his
memoir by sharing a
question his orientation
training director posed
to him: “How would you
like to go to Paris?” Many
might consider that a dream assignment,
but the single, young, adventure-seeking
Adair had been hoping to head out to the
developing world rather than to a plum
post where his father had served.
But his initial disappointment with
the prospect illustrates a fortunate truth
about the eclectic mix of people who
make up the Foreign Service: for every
FSO dreaming of Paris, there is another
ready to pack up and move to, say,
Lubumbashi (where Adair went next).
Okay, maybe it’s not a one-to-one ratio,
but it basically works.
Fromwhat actually turned out to be a
wonderful posting in “the planet’s most
beautiful city,” Adair was thrilled to move
on to Zaire (now the Democratic Repub-
lic of the Congo), where he served from
1974 to 1976. Faced with the grim reality
of a society blessed with vast mineral
resources, but mired in corruption under
the notorious President Mobutu Sese
Seko, and undergoing major social, eco-
nomic and political upheaval, Adair did
his best to understand local conditions
and succeed in his job as an economic
One takeaway from his time in Zaire
was that the ability to communicate with
people in their own language is the key to
getting below the surface in any coun-
try. Most of the foreign diplomats there
did not speak the indigenous languages
or Kiswahili, and thus were not able to
communicate in any signifcant way with
about 80 percent of the population. Adair
notes that communicating only with the
country’s elite is insufcient—just one of
many lessons he shares in the book.
Much of Adair’s career was spent in
Asia—Taipei (1980-1981), where he fell in
love with the enchanting Chen Chunzhi,
now his wife of more than 30 years; Hong
Kong (1981-1984) and Beijing (1984-
1986). In Rangoon (1988-1990) he got
to know Aung San Suu Kyi, who was put
under house arrest shortly before the end
of Adair’s tour even though her party, the
National League for Democracy, won a
majority in the 1990 parliamentary elec-
tions. Next, he served in Chengdu (1990-
1992), which was still reeling from the
1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Adair
uses his account of that assignment to
introduce us to the complexities of Tibet.
Detours out of Asia take Adair from
Tuzla to Tampa, into another type of
foreign culture: the U.S. military. In Tuzla
(2002-2003), he served as a political
adviser to the senior U.S. military com-
mander leading the multinational NATO
peacekeeping force in northeastern Bos-
nia. In Tampa (2003-2006), Adair served
as POLAD to the Special Operations
Command at MacDill Air Force Base. He
uses those experiences to analyze cultural
and operational diferences between
diplomats and soldiers. Te former
interact with and seek to understand each
host country, looking for infuences; the
latter are more concerned with getting a
particular job done.
Lessons from a Diplomatic Life
be most instructive for anyone consider-
ing a Foreign Service career, although one
Marshall Adair’s memoir
underscores the value of
diplomacy, and the unique
satisfaction that comes from
Foreign Service life at its best.