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Ideal Qualities of a Successful Diplomat

Author: Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
October 17, 2013
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs John F. Kennedy School of Government Harvard University


My meetings over four decades in the Oval Office, the White House Situation Room, the State and Defense Departments and in foreign capitals have been an invitation to reflect upon the core characteristics of outstanding practitioners of diplomacy. I have had the opportunity to learn from extraordinary mentors in each of these settings. From these experiences, here are fifteen characteristics that I believe are fundamental for successful diplomats.

Possess an abiding interest in and passion for the art and craft of diplomacy and international relations. If this subject matter does not feed you, if you do not have a compelling instinct to learn about the world, pursue a different profession.

Demonstrate an analytical temperament. Our current culture encourages ideological predisposition and rigidity. We are invited to have an opinion without first having a full command of the facts. Resist the temptation to prescribe before you analyse. Dean Acheson understood how hard this is, "I was a frustrated schoolteacher, persisting against overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the belief that the human mind could be moved by facts and reason."

Write well and quickly. Nurture your ability to rapidly produce quality prose. Read and learn from great writers. Try George Orwell, E. B. White and John McPhee.

Be verbally fluent and concise. George Shultz observes that listening is an underrated way of acquiring knowledge. Pay attention, speak only when necessary and keep your comments brief. These are not qualities highly prized in academia.

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