Writing and diplomacy
There is something about diplomacy that strongly attracts writers and people who, though they don’t consider themselves writers, nevertheless love the act of putting down their ideas on paper. After all, diplomacy as a career involves a lot of writing. A career diplomat’s working day typically consists of writing a lot of note verbale, aide-mémoires, briefing papers, talking points, reports, démarches, and other forms of diplomatic correspondence. Even with staff writing the draft, the diplomat still has to vet, edit, and rewrite such correspondence before signing or endorsing them to his senior officers. For this reason, a career diplomat who does not somehow enjoy writing will find it hard to derive satisfaction from the job.
Then, there’s the annual Foreign Service Officer (FSO) examinations that aspiring career diplomats must pass to qualify for any FSO appointment, which require solid writing skills. The centerpiece of the rigorous, five-part FSO exams is a written test, where aspirants are asked to answer, in essay form, some of the most abstruse questions one can imagine. The truth is, there is really no single “correct” answer to most of the questions. What the examiners ultimately want to test is an examinee’s ability to present answers in a clear, organized, and persuasive manner. The ability to write well is, without a doubt, one of the keys to passing the FSO exams.
The third reason that makes writers gravitate toward diplomacy is the priceless opportunity it offers in terms of materials one can later write about. The challenges and joys that come with living in a new country, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, making new friends in various parts of the world, representing our country before kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers, and advancing our national interests while assisting fellow Filipinos in need of help in a foreign land, constitute a vast treasure trove of materials for one’s eventual collection of essays, poems, short stories, even novels. No wonder some of the most interesting men and women of letters in history had worked, at one time or another, as diplomats. They include Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, Niccolò Machiavelli, Baldassare Castiglione, Paul Claudel, Alexis Leger, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Carlos Fuentes, Czeslaw Milosz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, George F. Kennan, and our very own Carlos P. Romulo, Salvador P. Lopez, and Armando D. Manalo.
But that’s not to say that being a writer and a diplomat at the same time is easy. Diplomacy is a very demanding job that extracts enormous amounts of one’s time and attention. Writer-diplomats have to be determined and disciplined enough to “make time” (instead of just “finding time”) for their writing during their diplomatic career. This often entails sacrificing weekends and holidays, and after work hours when they could have been watching a movie on Netflix or strolling in the park with their spouses. Writer-diplomats have to doggedly create time for their writing within the sparse interstices of their diplomatic life. While still in the service, they have to patiently carry around with them an invisible suitcase filled with “songs unsung” (to borrow the title of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore). Many of those “songs” will have to wait until they finally retire.
Emmanuel R. Fernandez is a career minister, currently assigned as the deputy head of mission and consul general of the Philippine Embassy in Singapore. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of the Philippines, and is the author of four published books, including “A Pathway to Diplomacy” and “Leaving the Priesthood,” which won both a National Book Award and a Gintong Aklat Award in 2002. A career diplomat for the past 24 years, he had been posted in Italy, Jordan, and Spain prior to his current assignment.