Recent publicity about the hostile reaction in South Korea to Harry Harris, appointed as US ambassador at Seoul by Donald Trump in June 2018, serves to underline an important point: choosing a new ambassador is a matter that requires particularly careful thought in the age of so-called public diplomacy.
To secure the ready agreement of receiving states to the appointment of new ambassadors and then ensure they have a good chance of being successful, it’s generally been thought expedient – unless there is some larger issue at stake and risk of a rebuff can be shrugged off – to choose an individual whose background and personal characteristics are as much as possible in harmony with the political and religious reflexes of the governments and wider societies of their hosts; or at least not manifestly at odds with them. Hence Catholics to the Vatican, a man rather than a woman to Muslim states, Ottoman Christians from the Sultan to Britain in the nineteenth century, an African-American to South Africa when the writing was on the wall for apartheid, and so on. One is bound to ask, therefore, whether it was really a good idea for Donald Trump to send Harry Harris to Seoul with the not exactly modest task of demanding a fivefold increase in South Korea’s annual contribution to the cost of maintaining America’s 28,500 troops based there to protect it from the DPRK. For the appointment came at a time of serious tensions between Japan and South Korea and the US ambassador is not only a Japanese-American but also one sporting a moustache that makes him resemble a Japanese governor-general of less than fond memory anywhere on the Korean peninsula. But, then, when did the Donald ever have a good idea?