Skip to this page's content

Warburg Chair in International Relations Discusses Tragedy In Libya; Perils and Importance of Diplomacy

September 20, 2012

The tragic deaths of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, who were killed in the uproar over a film that insulted the Prophet Mohammad, highlight the dangers faced by many diplomats overseas. Between 2003 and 2006, Simmons Warburg Chair for International Relations Mark Bellamy served as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, where a bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, and killed more than 200 people. Below Ambassador Bellamy discusses the perils faced by Foreign Service representatives, and the vital role they play building bridges and finding common ground among nations.

What was your first reaction to the murder of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya?
It was shock. I flashed back to a time 30 years ago when I was a very junior diplomat and heard that our Ambassador in Kabul had been killed. That was the last time - back in 1979 - that one of our ambassadors was killed. It's a terrible thing. Foreign service officers and state department personnel work in difficult and dangerous environments, and we accept that; but when something like this happens it's still a great shock.

When you first became a diplomat, did you understand the dangers involved in the job?
It is a dangerous profession simply because the main goal of a U.S. diplomatic representative, a consulate, and an embassy, is to represent the United States around the world, including in countries where we have troubled relations, even sometimes in war zones.

Diplomats are on the front lines around the world. The nature of the diplomat's work is to communicate, to negotiate, and to promote understanding; and to understand misunderstandings and miscalculations. That work is performed in difficult places, and diplomats are not armed.

How do U.S. Ambassadors generally interact with the people in the countries they serve?
Ambassadors are the President's personal envoy to the head of state (in a host country). This person must be the contact with that government and communicate and identify possible areas of misunderstanding; and convey views of the United States, engage with opposing political parties, the media, the business sector, and the academic community. Beyond that, the ambassador reaches out broadly to the population of the host country.

How important is the role of U.S. diplomats in foreign countries?
Diplomats play an important role in helping us understand what is happening in these countries. We should not think that because we have the Internet and telephones that we know what's going on around the world. You have to have people on the ground. It's vital to have a physical presence with someone who speaks the language, knows the culture, and interacts with these governments and reports back.
There is no real substitute for that kind of presence abroad. Our President and government depend on good representation, and information to help them know what to do.

By and large, there is a great deal of appreciation and demand to having an American embassy and an American presence in foreign countries.

What can we learn from this tragic incident?
There will be many. But one thing we have to understand is that ambassadors and diplomats run many risks in the world. Ultimately, we need to do what we can to minimize those risks to make sure that we have as many safety precautions in place as possible. That said, there is no way to secure any embassy against a concerted effort by a mob; you have to rely on the host government to protect it.


Ambassador is the recipient of a Presidential Meritorious Service Award, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Civilian Service Award, a Distinguished Honor Award, and two Superior Honor Awards conferred by the Secretary of State.