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The Book of the Week is “An Ambassador in Paris, The Reagan Years” by Evan Galbraith, published in 1987. The author was unrelated to John Kenneth Galbraith. This personal account described the job of an ambassador who represented the United States, stationed in a UN-member, industrialized country– France. He revealed the ignorance, misconceptions and prejudices even political insiders can have– his own (probably without meaning to.)
The author began his four-year stint in November 1987. He had been a lawyer and banker for 25 years prior. He possessed extensive international business experience and had lived in Paris and London for years and years. But– communication skills, tact, foreign-language fluency and knowledge of other cultures turned out to be almost useless anyway, because the ambassador had so little power. The job requires being a social butterfly– attending official lunches, dinners, receptions and cocktail parties several times a week, and then generating reports on gossip and interesting factoids. He wrote that knowledge of economics was helpful for the job, yet his writing reflected embarrassing lack of it.
At that time, the author spent hours and hours reading an overwhelming number of daily cables sent to him, consisting of reports generated by embassy personnel, of communications between foreign countries and the U.S. government (which the French were allowed to see), and the CIA’s (alleged “top secret”) interactions.
In spring 1986, the author lunched with French leader Jacques Chirac. They both truly believed that president Ronald Reagan’s pet project “Star Wars” (involving extremely expensive but state-of-the-art weapons launched from outer space) was actually going to be completed and implemented (!) If the Soviets attacked with their missiles, it would be in the best interests of the U.S. to defend Europe with its high-tech weaponry.
Anyway, also in the 1980’s, about two thirds of France’s energy needs were met by nuclear power plants. It was predicted that by the 1990’s, that proportion would be nine tenths. The French believed that a nuclear arms race served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. It might be recalled the French often conducted nuclear tests, to the consternation of many.
France’s government was a patchwork of political parties. In the early 1980’s, the Socialist party held the majority of power but there were too few voters who would elect the Socialists unless they allied with Communist representatives. So they did.
The author thought that multi-country summits were a waste of time. He suggested that two world leaders meet without a formal agenda, for one day. He rocked the boat when he complained that American officials were visiting the French embassy too often just for fun (or– for those who planning on running for higher office– to be able to say they acquired foreign policy experience). Because they were wined, dined and perhaps received luxury accommodations, they were wasting American taxpayer dollars.
Read the book to learn a lot more about the author’s cluelessness on the fact that the Soviet Union was on the way out, about France’s foreign and security policies, French history, and U.S. foreign policy.