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The Challenge for Caroline Kennedy

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Caroline Kennedy's nomination by President Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan, one of our major trading and military partners, this week stirred questions about the value of choosing inexperienced candidates for crucial diplomatic posts. Does their ability to get the president to pick up the telephone outweigh their ignorance of delicate and complex issues?

When shopping-mall magnate Melvin Sembler arrived in Rome as ambassador to Italy for President George W. Bush, he was asked whether he spoke Italian. He made the issue clear, replying bluntly: "No, I speak Bush."

President Kennedy's fifty-five year old daughter makes no pretense of knowing about the issues facing U.S.-Japan relations. But neither did some of her successful predecessors in diplomacy, such as former Vice President Walter Mondale or former Senator Howard Baker.

Caroline Kennedy has a lot going for her. She is regarded as very bright and has long been interested in high-level politics. She is a lawyer and author. And she matches the Japanese appreciation of respected dignitaries.

Which leaves the question: What is an ambassador supposed to do anyway? First of all, he or she is the "chief of mission" responsible for the whole American diplomatic presence in country.

Ambassador Kennedy would be backed up by a highly-chosen career Foreign Service officer as deputy chief of mission. And in today's world of instant communications and jet transportation, she can also be supported with expertise direct from Washington.

John Kenneth Galbraith, former ambassador to India, once said: "The job of an ambassador is much like that of an airline pilot; there are hours of boredom and minutes of panic."

If Caroline Kennedy is confirmed, she will represent neither the State Department nor the Congress. Under the Constitution, she becomes the personal representative of the President of the United States. Every new ambassador receives a letter from the president spelling out his or her authority.

These days the State Department's Foreign Service Institute conducts seminars to prepare new ambassadors for their job. The seminars have expanded so that they can now run as much as two weeks. They are known on the inside as the "charm school." The seminars provide answers for questions the ambassador has probably never thought of, like: If a group of businesspeople visits the mission, does the taxpayer pay for the luncheon the ambassador gives for them? During a crisis, when do you evacuate Americans from the mission? Are there times when an ambassador should not carry out instructions from Washington?

Some ambassadors advise newcomers not to ask the Department what they should do. That only leaves the new ambassador powerless. They tell the new ambassador to advise the Department what he or she intends to do by a certain time unless instructed differently. That way, the ambassador writes his own instructions.

Caroline Kennedy will be successful if she is able to persuade her host country's government to see things as the United States' government does. And this means the ability to negotiate is the most important skill an ambassador can have. Whether she has inherited her father's skill in this arena has yet to be seen.