As I’m updating my work requirements, in anticipation of writing my yearly evaluation report, I realize I have to scratch something off the list: the demarche I was supposed to deliver at the German foreign ministry. It never happened.
Those who know what a demarche is will probably agree with me that it is one of the most iconic tasks a diplomat has; marching (pun intended) over to the ministry of foreign affairs and stating your opinion on an international issue—political, economic, or otherwise—to foreign officials. It’s asking foreign governments to do stuff with the weight of American power behind you (I know several diplomats from other countries who envy that).
For those who don’t know what a demarche is: it’s the “formal delivery (usually verbal, at a meeting) of the official position, views, or wishes on a given subject from one government to another government or intergovernmental organization.” It can be about any international subject.
What would I be demarching the German government on as a lowly consular officer on her first tour? It would probably have something to do with German immigration rules or procedures, trying to convince them to treat Americans better in some way, like paying lower fees for immigration services or reducing red tape.
The pandemic and the yearlong “lockdown” made it impossible to go to any German ministry. Sending an email doesn’t have the same gravitas as looking someone in the eye when you’re trying to build rapport or be persuasive. Even on Teams or WebEx it feels like a lot of the message gets lost in digital translation. Besides, we were too busy this year with keeping essential services going to worry about talking to the ministry about any issue not directly related to the global health crisis we’re in.
But you don’t have to have a high rank to do demarches. If an ambassador or deputy trusts you with the task, you may be demarching government officials at any time—I know that from experience.
When I started working at the U.S. Embassy, in Uruguay, my very first work assignment was delivering a demarche. It was about whaling. I had to set the whole thing up myself, including sending a formal letter, locating the appropriate office in the foreign ministry and—crucially—finding someone at the right (same) level as me to talk to.
Considering the fact that I only spoke Spanish since six months and I was brand new (clueless) to the country made all of this... challenging.
It went even worse than expected. Did I mention I didn’t know the first thing about whaling? After some awkward phone calls I managed to set up the meeting, but it became very clear to me that my Spanish vocabulary was going to fail me during the actual meeting. It did. I vividly remember sweating profusely as I tried to piece together phrase after phrase and my counterpart—a young dude, well dressed but sitting on a table for some reason—looking at me with a mixture of pity and hilarity. He could have put me out of my misery, but he chose not to reveal his fluent English until we said goodbye.
Yeah, I didn’t feel very effective that first time. I didn’t expect the Uruguayan official to embrace my position on whaling easily, but the conversation would have gone a lot better if at least I could have formulated an argument. I tried to ask him if his government would please vote with us during an upcoming UN General Assembly meeting. He smiled politely and said he’d talk with his bosses and get back to me. Well, at least I got that much.
The good thing about the experience though was that I learned a lot about diplomacy. I learned that diplomacy is not about being demanding but about maintaining courteous relations; that it’s not about winning debates but about informing and explaining issues and positions; and I learned there are a lot of topics I need to know at least something about in order not to feel like an idiot all the time.