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From Paris, the U.S. Ambassador of Polemics

March 03, 1985|Don Cook | Don Cook is The Times' European diplomatic correspondent.

PARIS — Ambassador Evan G. Galbraith, President Reagan's high-profile political envoy to Paris, has announced that he will be leaving his post in July, bowing out the way he performed here for four years, in a blaze of his own fireworks.

A recent interview stirred the diplomatic dovecotes in Paris and Washington when Galbraith spoke of America's career diplomats as lacking guts, needing to be harnessed, prone to avoiding trouble and confrontation, afraid to speak out in support of the President--most of them probably liberals who voted for Walter F. Mondale. His conclusion is that, as with war and generals, diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats.

But Galbraith's tone has a new stridency. The American argument over career diplomats versus political appointees in high diplomatic posts is about as old as the republic. Galbraith raises something more fundamental: what ambassadors are for and what diplomacy is all about. Galbraith has constantly made clear that he sees his main mission as the selling of the President, ardent advocacy of everything Reagan stands for and wants done.

Diplomats, on the other hand, tend to see their role in friendly countries the other way around--explaining to Washington how other governments view things and how they are likely to react to this or that U.S. stance. A basic function of diplomats is to avoid confrontation, not create it, to smooth international relations, not exacerbate them.

The Galbraith interview reminded me of a conversation with one of America's pre-eminent career diplomats, Charles E. Bohlen, ambassador to France during the Charles de Gaulle era nearly two decades ago. I had gone to see Bohlen after some anti-American caper by the general and when I arrived at the embassy in late afternoon he said cheerily, "Let's take a walk," and we went up the Avenue des Champs-Elysees under the chestnut trees in glorious spring sunshine. Bohlen was in a philosophical mood.

"You know," he said, "an ambassador only really becomes successful here when he blends into the scenery like the trees and the buildings. The French are very mercurial, and there are times when they need to cry on somebody's shoulder. But if an ambassador is too much of a public figure they will be careful about coming to him with their troubles.

"One of the reasons why political appointees are not usually successful with the French is that they feel a necessity to make some kind of a public impact when they get here. . . . This may be good politics but it is not good diplomacy, and it makes the French shy away from close dealings with them."

Bohlen kept a low profile in probably the most difficult period of Franco-American relations. No matter what De Gaulle did, our ambassador never raised his voice, but he saw De Gaulle privately, about once every two months and in these talks he made American feelings clear.

Galbraith has been fortunate, accredited to the most pro-American French government in a quarter-century, even if it is a Socialist government. Yet speaking up loud and clear for the U.S. President can be just as counterproductive as it would have been with De Gaulle.

Early in Galbraith's tour was the American effort to force French companies to embargo pipeline shipments to the Soviet Union of equipment built under American licensing agreements. Galbraith spoke out on the record and off, in support of the Administration, never seeming to grasp that in a showdown between accepting instructions from Reagan and obeying edicts from President Francois Mitterrand, French companies were bound by the French government--whatever their U.S. contractual arrangements.

Career diplomats in Paris would have preferred to warn the Reagan Administration that it was headed into a no-win situation, with a policy bound to cause trans-Atlantic ill-will. But the ambassador preferred confrontation, so the French responded by signing a massive deal with the Soviet Union for deliveries of natural gas.

More recently, Galbraith has been advising the French that the United States expects them to stay in troubled New Caledonia, where he sees some vague security vacuum opening up in the Southwest Pacific if they pack and go. Whether the French stay or not is a most complex issue, but the French, whatever their politics, do not like being told to stay for American security reasons.

If Bohlen had publicly advised De Gaulle to stay in Algeria--as right-wing French generals and politicians were then urging--De Gaulle would probably have "sent the ambassador his passport" in the old diplomatic phrase, and asked Washington to recall him.

The United States has sent many effective political ambassadors abroad in the last half-century, including W. Averell Harriman, David K.E. Bruce, John Hay Whitney and John Kenneth Galbraith. We are a political democracy, and our Foreign Service is not some self-perpetuating oligarchy within the government as the Foreign Ministry in Paris tends to be.

Our career diplomats are the first to recognize that an interlarding of political appointees is necessary--at times even an advantage. But political ambassadors are most successful when they conduct themselves as diplomats, not as politicos.

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