Sunday, August 19th 2012
Many years ago, The Economist newspaper (yes, in England, it’s called a newspaper, not a magazine) published an article about the best embassies in world capital cities.
I remember this issue because it cited the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square as the best of the foreign diplomatic operations in London. Now that’s pretty impressive, given that many countries – then and now – send their best and brightest to London.
The reason: the Americans had an outstanding record of identifying and building relationships with the Britain’s best and brightest – an uncanny record of targeting the next generation of British society’s leaders, whether in arts, politics, economics, journalism or any other field of endeavor important to the “Special Relationship.”
It is not often that a major newspaper or magazine in a world-class capital devotes some ink to a foreign embassy, or even more infrequently, a single diplomat from a foreign country. Sometimes an ambassador may get a mention, but the spotlight rarely slides down the diplomatic list to lesser staff.
So it’s particularly newsworthy that today (August 19) the Washington Post has devoted a large essay to the departure, after eleven-years in America, of the French cultural attaché. There is no question that Roland Celette has left an indelible mark on Washington, and maybe America.
Personally, I know Roland’s work through the lens of the DC International Film Festival, the annual international cinema showcase in the nation’s capital managed by Tony Gittens and Shireen Ghareeb. Each year, the French embassy jumps in with both feet to support and make the most of this annual spring film showcase. Roland’s embassy can always be counted upon to bring in French actors and directors, to host and sponsor events where the French engage their American counterparts, and to ensure that France is a source of energy behind one of the area’s major international festivals.
The Post article makes a number of good points about Roland Celette’s winning ways as a cultural attaché, calling him “a strategic cultural mastermind” and a “soft power broker.” Reflecting some of the characteristics of any good public diplomacy officer, he is “an educator first, a diplomat second,” a man who used concert series, cinema nights, street festivals and stage productions” to educate audiences and promote French culture here.
The Washington Post article could be a text for students of public diplomacy tradecraft. Besides getting out of the office and “making friends” with the important people who run the important institutions, Celette partnered with prestigious, existing institutions such as the Kennedy Center. He made alliances with other embassies, especially those from the European Union countries. He listened and learned from his target audience, especially about the American propensity for private and corporate philanthropy.
The U.S. Foreign Service has produced some remarkable cultural attachés in the same mold as Roland Celette. I have in mind people whose record was not only one of being capable program managers, but genuine masters of their subject – American culture and creative society – people such as Ed McBride, Dick Arndt, Mark Jacobs, Greg Guroff, Dick Key and many others.
Cultural Affairs Officer is a difficult job. There are dual and parallel, if not competing, demands. You must be a successful FSO in terms of program management and bureaucratic responsibilities inside the embassy and you must be a genuine, cultured person (a “subject matter expert”) who can hold his or her own with the host nation's creative elite and intelligentsia.
FSI can teach the first, but not the second.