The content of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks gives an example for Colombia’s diplomatic corps to follow.
The diplomatic cables the Colombian government should emulate, however, are not those referring in derogatory terms to heads of state or cables calling on diplomatic personnel to undertake Hollywood-esque spying missions. On the contrary, the example that Colombia ought to follow is illustrated in other, less publicized cables.
These diplomatic cables report to the U.S. State Department the political and economic situation of host countries. The cables not only paint a highly accurate and objective picture of currents events (for instance the cable on the Honduras coup), but also focus on how these developments are of interest to Washington. That level of analysis is largely due to the professionalization of the diplomatic corps, starting with the ambassadors, who in the most part are career diplomats.
This type of professionalization is not exclusive to the U.S. China, for example, employs a highly specialized group in its diplomatic corps. Most of them attend Beijing’s Foreign Languages Institute where they receive not only training on foreign languages, but also on international affairs. This professionalization began in earnest with the end of the Cold War when Beijing perceived an opportunity for China to integrate into international society and the global economy under unprecedentedly favorable conditions. China’s drive to professionalize the foreign service resonates with Santos’ policy of internationalization.
Santos’ appointment of a seemingly ethical and capable foreign minister indicated that diplomatic appointments would be professionally managed. This assumption was derived from Maria Angela Holguin’s resignation as ambassador to the U.N. in 2005 because of Uribe’s political and unqualified appointments to the mission in New York. Moreover, given Santos’ crusade against corruption and unethical behavior it was to be expected that his actions would set an example.
Compared to Uribe’s use of diplomatic posts to offer allies a respite from scrutiny and criminal investigations, Santos’ diplomatic appointments show some improvement. Among the less controversial appointments are Jose Fernando Bautista and Fernando Arboleda Ripoll who are the new ambassadors to Venezuela and Ecuador respectively, although neither of these appointments has experience in diplomatic posts nor extensive knowledge of their respective host countries.
Nevertheless, questionable appointments to high diplomatic offices remain. Former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias was offered the embassy in Italy even though he was under investigation for corruption; he declined the post after the inspector general launched a formal investigation. More recently, former Senator Jorge Visbal Martelo was appointed ambassador to Peru even though he is under investigation for links to the paramilitaries.
Other names are less controversial but no more suitable to head diplomatic missions (see their relationship with Santon in brackets): Jose Gabriel Ortiz (Colombia’s David Letterman; personal friend) to Mexico; Santiago Figueroa (golf and poker partner) to Chile; Orlando Sardi (golf and poker partner) to Spain; German Santamaria (personal friend) to Portugal; Juan Manuel Prieto (poker partner) to Italy; Maria Elvira Pombo Holguin (sister-in-law) to Brazil; Samuel Arrieta (former president of controversial political party PIN) as consul in Havana, Cuba.
Some of these appointees may be experienced in their respective fields, but it does not follow that such expertise is compatible with or sufficient to undertake sensitive diplomatic work. Knowledge of the host country and language are crucial assets for a diplomat when dealing with local officials and heads of other diplomatic missions. Moreover, as a result of the critical problems the country is facing, diplomats should be encouraged to provide detailed reports on how their hosts countries deal with similar issues.
Unfortunately, the low percentage of career diplomats, together with their deficient training, hinders Colombia’s international positioning. Professionalism in the foreign service implies: work with appropriate training; knowledge of the country, culture and language; service ethic; and advancement by merit. Yet less than half of Colombia’s diplomatic posts abroad and less than one quarter of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ personnel are career diplomats. A recent study on Colombia’s foreign policy recommended that at least 90% of diplomatic posts ought to be filled with career diplomats.
If Santos is to succeed in raising Colombia’s regional and international profile the professionalization of the foreign service is imperative. Having unprofessional and improvised diplomatic missions abroad is counterproductive to the interests of the nation.