Keri Russel is wrong
There’s a new Netflix show that will almost certainly be watched by all diplomats; the one where Keri Russell is Ambassador to London and is having a really hard time dealing with… her husband. It's called The Diplomat and I’m about half way through the show. What she’s accomplished so far as Ambassador Wyler is no small feat: she’s prevented the United States from being dragged into war with Iran. Because preventing wars is what diplomats do. Not just by making a strategic phone call and a strong pitch like Ambassador Wyler does, but still, it’s part of the (much longer) list of work requirements.
Do I think any of it is realistic? Let me think. As soon as Ambassador Wyler wakes up, the CIA station chief is there to hand her an old-school newspaper that, plus a friend who can illegally access classified computer systems on her behalf, seems to be all the tools she needs to manage the crisis that is every minute of every day. Curious. I understand the cinematic choice, sure, but real ambassadors don’t run ops from their breakfast tables on any kind of regular basis. The show seems more CIA than state department.
The ambassador’s other sidekick is… I think a political officer, but most of the time he’s acting like her junior assistant. What’s also weird about him is that he’s had a secret agenda from the start. In real life you can’t do stuff behind the ambassador’s back or you’ll be sent back home in a jiffy. An ambassador has a ceremonial role sometimes but they are definitely not just the “face” of an embassy. They’re actually in charge of everything—the policy AND the staff.
But I sti like the show, it's funny. And the only thing I really want to set straight is of a different order. Keri Russel, in an interview, mentioned that real-life diplomats don’t vote. She said they are too dedicated to their jobs to choose sides. That they just implement policy. I really wonder who she talked to because in fact, it’s the opposite. Who lied to Keri Russel?
The reality is that diplomats care deeply about the democratic process and voting. Some go through great lengths to vote from overseas, which isn’t always easy. I know diplomats who have paid a hundred dollars in postage to mail their ballot overseas, to make sure it arrived on time. Though most embassies facilitate voting for diplomats and any American living overseas.
We’re also perfectly comfortable talking about our political opinions, under normal circumstances, because politics and policies are related. And of course diplomats criticize policies all the time, because how else are we going to make them better?
I dont agree with the idea that diplomats are mindless drones that simply “serve.” Then again, it’s not entirely untrue all the time… when I implement immigration law during my daily visa interviews I don’t go rogue. During that part of the work my personal opinion is irrelevant. And it’s hard sometimes, because the law can feel unfair. But if I feel something is really wrong there are lots of ways to speak up, or even protest.