Madam Ambassador by Eleni Kounalakis is a refreshing and poignant look at diplomatic life from the point of view of a non-professional, a politically appointed ambassador. Do not, however, dismiss this as a mere diary of dinners, dances and travel. Ambassador Kounalakis offers a fresh view of the life of an ambassador and how an embassy works, but she also sheds some useful insight into US relations with a key NATO ally, Hungary.
Tolstoy once said of Pushkin that when he writes he gets right down to business. He doesn't waste time with a drawn out introduction. Madam Ambassador follows that style of writing, bringing the reader immediately into her story by describing a hunting expedition she took with Hungarian officials. That story provides a good introduction to the rest of the book, which is a combination of the personal and the professional with a dash of welcome patriotism.
There are three inter-related themes to the book. First, there is the personal, where she describes who she is and how she became an ambassador. Then there is her view of the role of an ambassador, particularly the relationships she develops with career embassy employees in order to do her job more effectively, and finally, there is the political, where she talks about US-Hungarian relations and how she tried to shape that relationship.
On the personal, she is a proud Greek-American, who uses her roots in that community to accomplish a great deal as a businesswoman, a political activist and finally, an ambassador. Her family both immediate and extended is a significant part of how she defines herself. She is not sentimental in her personal narrative. Instead, she is proud without giving to conceit. This helps the reader understand how she views her role as ambassador.
And, as an ambassador, she scores high marks. There is often skepticism on the part of career foreign service officers about serving under a politically appointed ambassador. Political appointees won't know what to do; they won't listen or work well with the professionals. There are, however, those who do not fit into this stereotype and win kudos for their work instead of criticism, people like Charles Rivkin, who was the US Ambassador to France during President Obama's first term. Eleni Kounalakis is in the same mold as Charles Rivkin, someone who wins praise for her hard work and dedication. This is borne out by the way she works closely and effectively with embassy professionals.
She appreciated her staff. She learned from them. She developed a rapport. She used their abilities to help move the embassy agenda. There does not seem to have been tension between her vision, their vision and the need to manage the important US-Hungarian relationship.
Ambassador Kounalakis' story also demonstrates the power of a political appointee - that is, how a politically-wired player can use connections with key political figures in this Administration, the Clinton Administration and on Capitol Hill. And though she is a Democrat, she shows how to work closely with those on the other side of the political aisle - using the example of connecting with Republican political and professional figures who came to Hungary for the Ronald Reagan centennial celebration. She paid particular compliments to former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who came to Budapest for the ceremony.
She did not try to compete with her embassy staff. She tried to find ways to apply her skill set to accomplish her responsibilities as Ambassador. In particular, she helped the State Department navigate some tricky twists and turns involving real estate transactions with the Hungarian Government, using her professional experience as an important asset in achieving a mutually beneficial result.
But neither is she politically naïve. She did her homework on US relations with Hungary. She developed a keen understanding of the security aspect--she went to Afghanistan twice, once with the Hungarian Foreign Minister--and the political. While she did not always agree with the policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, she was respectful. And she displayed a definite affection for others in his government and most particularly for the Hungarian people, culture and history.
There was another theme that she emphasizes subtly but clearly throughout - a motivation we often take for granted: her patriotism. She is proud to have been chosen to be an ambassador. She knows that this job is not about her; it is about representing the US. She worked at making sure she was doing her best to serve her nation, sometimes disagreeing with the policy experts if she felt it was the right thing to do. She used her experience as the key interlocutor to US relations with Hungary to the benefit of the State Department and White House.
After reading this book, one can only hope that this is not a capstone for Eleni Kounalakis' work in public service. She has a great deal to offer.
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