Last month a book on contemporary Philippine foreign policy and diplomacy was launched at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs. “Frontlines of Diplomacy: Conversations with Philippine Ambassadors” edited by Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya, features interviews of 37 retired and serving ambassadors and their diplomatic spouses. The interviews were conducted by young Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) as part of their oral history project at the Institute.
Don’t let the title mislead you. “Frontlines” is not heavy on foreign policy and international relations jargon but is full of human interest accounts of some of the leading lights of our foreign service, all of whom contributed to the making of the nation’s diplomatic history. Also included are talks with diplomatic spouses who play a significant role in the life of our embassies abroad, working behind the scenes to provide the right environment and support mechanism for the ambassador.
Let me highlight some of the interesting interviews in the book.
One of the more incisive observations attributed to Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo had to do with the role of a diplomat’s wife. The General (he apparently preferred this title) said that “a diplomat without a wife is like an eagle with clipped wings.”
Ada Ledesma-Mabilangan accompanied her husband Felipe H. Mabilangan in all his diplomatic postings in Geneva, Paris, Beijing and New York. She assisted in the restoration of the New York Townhouse, the official residence of the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations located on East 66th Street, New York City. She also authored a book on diplomatic protocol and etiquette (“Entertaining With Ease”) which earned a National Book Award in 1997.
Ada says that her book is very Filipino. How so?
“When my husband and I started entertaining in our first foreign posting, what were my sources? ‘Amy Vanderbilt,’ ‘Emily Post,’ ‘Debrett’s.’ There were no etiquette books from the Philippines, only American and British source books that I followed slavishly.
“I started thinking and asked, ‘Why can I not use a spoon when I serve Filipino food? When we ate at the Thai Embassy, they provided a spoon for the main course. Why was it not considered good etiquette? We have our own way of eating, we have our own food. It is more practical to use a spoon when eating rice than using a fork and a knife.’
“We also have the practice of ‘pag-mamano’. That is our own kind of protocol not found in Western sources. These are examples of Filipino practices that I added in my book.
“My book was written for everybody … I wanted this book not only for people who entertain a lot but also for someone who would enjoy just reading it.” (Interview by Johann Veronica M. Andal)
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The accompanying spouse of a diplomat is not always a woman. Apolonio B. Anota Jr. is the husband of Ambassador Belen Anota. A lawyer, urban planner and international commercial arbitrator, he accompanied his wife to her postings in Singapore and Israel.
How did he adjust to the life of a diplomatic spouse?
“I had to swallow a lot of pride. I was an executive, a young commissioner, then I resigned to join my wife. I was head of Nayong Pilipino but resigned to join my wife. I was an Assistant Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology but I resigned again to join my wife.
“Here in the Philippines I was an executive. Over there, as a spouse of a diplomat, especially a Chief of Mission, one must maintain one major rule: Never outshine your spouse. Don’t speak too much, especially on issues. Refer the press always to your spouse.”
How does he define the role of a diplomatic spouse?
“The spouse must stay in the background. He should focus on listening, processing, formulating foreign policy but must never come out in the open as another diplomat. And that entails a lot of discipline …
“You should not busy yourself with domestic chores like cooking, etc. You only do that from time to time if there is no help. But the spouse should be the ears, the eyes, the thinker of the diplomat.” (Interview by Ria E. Gorospe)
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Among the retired ranks of Philippine ambassadors, Alfredo Almendrala best exemplifies the rags-to-riches tale or perhaps, more accurately, the rewards of industry, frugality and sobriety that we often associate with those who have achieved success in the face of difficulties and obstacles that would have discouraged most other individuals.
Fred Almendrala was a laborer in public work projects, an enlisted man and later an officer in the Philippine Air Force, a Foreign Service Staff Officer (FSSO), before passing the Foreign Service Officer examination. He rose through the ranks from FSO IV to Chief of Mission, serving as ambassador to Myanmar during the chaotic 1988 uprising when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament but not allowed to assume office.
Now in academe, what lessons would he share with future diplomats?
“First, if they want to change the world they have to change themselves. Discipline. Honesty. Doing the right thing even when nobody is looking …
“For young diplomats, try to get as many assignments as you can—the harder, the better. It will build your character.” (Interview by Ralph Vincent Abarquez)
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One of the leading authorities on Asean is Ambassador Rodolfo C. Severino Jr. who lived in six Asean countries and served as Asean secretary general, the second Filipino after Ambassador Narciso G. Reyes to occupy this post.
Did you find your foreign service career fulfilling?
“Yes, but there are frustrations. For example, I’ve always been against the proliferation of overseas missions. From the beginning, we tried our best to cut them down but much more powerful forces were for keeping them and even adding to them. I think the number of posts is opening up jobs for political contributors, people to whom the authorities owe debts, for senior people in the department. I don’t understand why they would seek the expansion of posts. To me, they are wasteful of national resources.” (Interview by Melvin Almonguera)
Severino has a point. Singapore with much more resources available has fewer embassies than the Philippines. In addition, almost one-half of our overseas missions are headed by political appointees.