17 January 2020

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?