British and American Ambassadors
From The Fortnightly Review
OF ALL diplomatic posts I have often thought the pleasantest in most ways and the most exacting in some is that of American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Whoever holds it gets infiinitely nearer to the realities of English life than the representative of any other country. He is treated from the first as a national guest whom it is a delight to honor, rather than as an official emissary. The mayor and corporation of Plymouth or Southampton board his vessel in the bay, and, even before he lands, convince him that the British people have no intention of surrendering him to the Court, Whitehall, and the West End. Nothing, indeed, could well be more significant or of better omen than the semi-official, semi-popular greetings that are extended to each new American Ambassador on his arrival. They are local in form but national in the feeling behind them. They have become, in fact, a custom of British public life, and a custom of which the full meaning is to be found in its singularity. So fas as I know, nothing like it exists anywhere else. No Ambassador to this or any other nation is similarly honored. For the representative of a foreign power to be feted on his recall in the capital of the state to which he is accredited is common enough. But for the representative of a foreign power to be hailed with welcoming words at the moment of his arrival, before he has even presented his credentials, before he has given any token either of his personality or of his diplomatic policy, this is an experience which, alone among the diplomats of the world, is enjoyed by the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. It is intended, I need hardly say, to be precisely what it is—a unique compliment, a distinguishing recognition on our part that Great Britain and the United States stand to one another in a special relationship such as unites no other nations on this earth, and that between them some departure from the merely official attitude is of all things the most natural. It would be against the grain of national instinct if jio distinction were to be made between the American and other Ambassadors. Popular opinion separates him at once from his colleagues of the diplomatic corps. He is the only one who reaches the mass of the people. The ordinary Londoner, who could no more tell you the name of the Italian or German Ambassador than a New Yorker could tell you the name of the Lieutenant-Governor of Kansas, would not only answer correctly if you asked him the name of the American Ambassador, but would probably rattle off Mr. Whitelaw Reid’s predecessors as far back as James Russell Lowell. He is the only one in whom the people as a whole have any interest. From the day of his arrival he becomes an intimate part of English society, and a still more intimate part of the world of English art and letters and public— Inwhich, of course, I do not mean political—life. Other Ambassadors may be as lavishly entertained, may be able to show as full an engagement list, may dispense in return an equally brilliant hospitality. But the quality of the welcome extended to them differs altogether from that which greets their American confrere. He alone gets behind the scenes, is shown the best of whatever England has to offer, and becomes at once a public character. Of him alone is it expected that he will be less of an official and more of a man. One hears, perhaps, once in a lifetime of the Russian or German Ambassador being asked to lecture before an educational or philosophical society, or invited to a literary dinner. However great their command of English, they still stand outside all but a fraction of the national life. The public knows nothing about them, and does not care to know anything. They are what the American Ambassador never is—they are foreigners, and treated as such. A paragraph in the Court Circular is enough to announce their advent or recall, while their American colleague, on his arrival as well as his departure, receives a full-blown editorial salute from the entire London Press. The one is merely an incident of officialdom ; the other is a national event.
The office is a peculiar one in many other ways besides those on which I have already touched. The United States possess some offices in Victoria Street that call themselves an Embassy, but it has no Ambassador’s residence. It acts with republican severity on the theory 'that all work and no sleep, let alone play, makes a good Ambassador. It provides him accordingly with a desk-chair, pens and paper, and the paraphernalia of his official business, but takes no account of his human longing for a bed, or a roof over his head, or anything that might serve him as a temporary home. These are luxuries he is expected to furnish out of his salary, and the fixed and inclusive salary of all American Ambassadors is £3,500 a year. Out of this they have to pay their own house-rent, as well as all private living expenses. This was never a very satisfactory arrangement, even in the days of the modest scholar-diplomat, of men like Bancroft, Lowell, Motley, and Washington Irving, men, that is to say, of comparatively moderate means, who were appointed and welcomed on the strength of their literary laurels, and from whom nothing in the way of a grand establishment was expected. But standards have altered considerably of late years—partly because all the American Legations in the chief capitals have themselves been promoted to Embassies ; and the consequence is that only very wealthy men, who are prepared to pay from £10,000 to £30,000 a year out of their private purse, can afford to accept a first-class Embassy, and to keep up the state that the diplomacy of today insists upon. In one capital you will find an American Ambassador living in a palace, the rent of which exceeds his official salary ; and in another you will find him worse housed than the average representative of a Balkan State. One must remember that in the American diplomatic service there is little security of tenure, no regular and recognized' system of promotion, and no pensions ; and that all appointments are made by the President from men of his own party, and are liable to terminate at a moment’s notice when the other side comes in. Diplomacy, in fact, in American eyes is rather a diversion than a career, and many of the highest posts in the service are given to men who have no official training, but who like to round off a successful political, professional, or business career by a new and pleasant experience. This, again, helps to limit the Ambassadorships at the great capitals to men of wealth. Moreover, my impression of the majority of Americans in Europe is that it gratifies them to see their Ambassadors resplendently housed and maintaining a generous social state^ They do not want their representative in London to live in West Kensington or in the French or German equivalents of West Kensington, but on the Park Lane or the Charlton House Terrace of the city to which he is accredited. It gives them, so far as I can judge, a real pleasure to fe 1 that the American Ambassador is more than holding his own in the social game, and that on all occasions of public or semi-public display, and in all the outward embellishments of life, he plays an elegant and conspicuous, and even brilliant, part. If the Americans in Berlin^ for instance, had been polled a year ago I do not doubt they would have voted to make Mr. Charlemagne Tower Ambassador for life; and they were probably just as disappointed as the Kaiser himself when Mr. Tower’s successor turned out to be a gentleman whose tastes were those of a student and a scholar, and whose resources made it impossible for him to follow in Mr. Tower’s footsteps with the same assurance and eclat. In regard to the London Embassy, the case is even more embarrassing. The last three American Ambassadors have all been men of very large private means, which they have spent ungrudgingly in their country’s service. They have accustomed both Englishmen and Americans to a certain style and scale of doing things ; and the transition from a millionaire to a man of moderate means, whether wholesome or not, would undoubtedly entail a certain amount of social and political inconvenience and unfairness. But that is not the limit of Mr. Taft’s embarrassments. There are plenty of men in America who are millionaires, but who have not the social, literary, and intellectual qualifications that we have come to expect as a matter of course from the American Ambassador; and there are plenty of men who are amply endowed with these latter qualifications but who are vexed by the external want of pence. To hit upon the individual who combines both sets of requisites is no easy matter. That Mr. Taft, however, will succeed indiscovering him I make no doubt. We always think that no American Ambassador can be so good as the one who is just leaving us, and we are always proved to be delightfully wrong; and the Americans themselves are justly jealous of the fame of their London Embassy, and have no intention of lowering its unexampled prestige.
I have long held that the kind of man who should represent Great Britain in the Lhiited States is the kind of man who for the past two generations has represented the United States in Great Britain. Times have changed since Sir Stratford Canning described the Washington Embassy as very pleasant socially, but not requiring any great talents politically. During the past ten or twelve years the office of British representative at Washington has been in many ways one of the most exacting in the service. I know, indeed, of no post which makes so insistent a demand on the level-headedness and adaptability of its occupants. I say occupants, because in Washington less than in any other capital can the British Ambassador’s wife be dissociated from her husband’s failure or success. The prestige of the British Embassy will often depend more on her social flexibility than on her husband’s merits as a diplomatist. Very few Englishwomen, so far as my observation goes, are happy or popular in the United States, or know how to take Americans, or can help being jaired. and, what is more, showing that they are jarred, by the thousand and one little differences between English and American social standards and ways of doing things. The wife of the British Ambassador has to accommodate herself to a social environment that is all the more difficult to gauge because of its similarity in general outline and its dissimilarity in detail to what she is used to at home or in the capitals of Europe. It asks a very high degree of tact and self-control sometimes to accept persons and things as they come without comment or surprise, and to recognize that what would be counted easy-goingness or curiosity in London may in Washington be merely a novel token of friendliness and interest. A British Ambassador’s wife in the American capital has always to bear in mind that in matters of social usage the English and Americans, while aiming at the same mark and meaning essentially the same thing, often behave and express themselves in opposite senses. Not every British Ambassador at Washington has had a wife who possessed these qualities of perception ; and more than one hostess at the Embassy on Connecticut Avenue has passed her time, like Lady Barberina in Mr. Henry James’s incomparable tale, in a state of hopeless alienation from, and misunderstanding of, her new surroundings. When this is the case the result is retroactively disastrous because Washington resembles nothing so much as a whispering gallery, its society is small, exceedingly intimate, and enjoys a highly specialized code of etiquette that is all its own, and a mistake, especially a mistake on the part of the British Ambassador’s wife, becomes public property at once. I count it emphatically not the least of Mr. Bryce’s qualifications for his post, and not the least among the causes of his unequalled success in it, that a mastery of all these social nuances and minutiæ is with Mrs. Bryce a matter of instinct. To a bright and keen intelligence and a fund of real humor she unites a thorough knowledge of American life and of the American people, a disposition that has inherited more than a touch of American vivacity, and a sure command of all the arts of social success.
But if the conditions thus impose on the wife of the British Ambassador an unusual degree of diplomatic wariness, the Ambassador himself has to be doubly on his guard. For one thing, he finds the duties of his office carried on in a glare of publicity that in Europe is not only unknown but unimaginable. For another, there is always a party in the Lmited States anxious to score a point against Great Britain, and there are always votes to be won—though not many, happily, in these days—by an anti-British campaign. Our Ambassador, therefore, has to practise in the sphere of politics the same tactfulness and discrimination demanded from his wife in the sphere of society. Lie must be ever ready to make allowances ; he must constantly remember that America is the exception ; he must know what to discount. This is a kind of knowledge—like the not less essential knowledge of all the intricacies of the American system of government— that can hardly ever be gained by instinct or picked up by a few months’ study. It is the sort of knowledge that only a man with a prolonged and intimate acquaintance with the United States is likely to possess, and that the official type of British diplomatist, pitchforked into Washington from one of the capitals of Europe, is not only most certain to lack but to be unable to acquire. But what, above all, is necessary is that the British Ambassador should have the instinct for taking the Americans in the right way. If he has that he has the one thing needful. If, on the other hand, he confirms the average American’s worst suspicions of British angularity and reserve, if he seems stiff and self-contained and unable to let himself go, if he has not a natural sympathy with the American people and with the spirit of their social life, his abilities are as good as wasted. But a man who can take the Americans as Lord Grey is taking the Canadians may be very sure that the term of his Ambassadorship at Washington will pass pleasantly for himself and profitably for his country. It is because I have believed men of this stamp and flexibility to be more easily come by outside the official service than in it—Lord Dufferins do not grow on every diplomatic tree—and because I have felt that the British Ambassador in Washington should stand out among his colleagues, should be distinguished by attainments other than diplomatic, should be qualified to mingle in American public life, and should be a man whom Americans would honor without reference to his official position, that I have long argued in favor of filling the Washington Embassy from outside the ranks of the professional service.
The experiment has been twice tried and has twice succeeded. Sir Julian Pauncefote went to Washington without any previous training in diplomacy, and by the sheer frankness, honesty, and manliness of his bearing wore down that all too flattering suspiciousness of British diplomacy that fifteen years ago was an American obsession. Mr. Bryce in the last two and a half years has done even better. Indeed, Mr. Bryce appeals to my judgement as the perfection of the type of man who should always represent us in Washington. The appointment, as every one who knew both Mr. Bryce and America foretold, has proved an ideal one. He sailed for New York, of course, with many advantages in his favor that none of his successors is ever likely to possess. He was not only known to Americans but more imtimately known and more highly thought of than any other Briton. For twenty years at least no one on this side of the Atlantic has had one-half of Mr. Bryce’s influence on American opinion.
I cannot better summarize Mr. Bryce’s achievements as Ambassador than by saying he has adapted to American conditions the example set by Mr. Lowell, Mr. Hay, Mr. Choate, and Mr. Whitelaw Reid in England. The past two and a half years have been a continuous record of political and social success. Mr. Bryce has negotiated and carried through some six or seven important treaties. He has practically wiped the slate clean of every contentious issue. More than that, he has won the confidence of Canada and Newfoundland. He is the first British Ambassador at Washing who has visited Ottawa during his term of office. He is the first who has secured for Canada a recognized status in the conduct of Anglo-American diplomacy. He is the first, in short, who has done something tangible towards disabusing the Canadian mind of the notion that the British Embassy at Washington exists to cultivate American goodwill at the expense of Canadian interests. But, above and beyond all this, Mr. Bryce has broken all precedents by declining to confine himself to the Embassy on Connecticut Avenue and his official summer summer residence in Massachusetts. He has made a point of seeing something of the country and its people. He has established himself as an intimate part of the world of American letters and of the yet larger world of public endeavor. He has delivered addresses at meetings, congresses, and universities. He - has attended political conventions; he has received honorary degrees. He has openly shown his passionate interest in all that touches on American life. For the first time the British Ambassador in Washington occupies a position analogous to that of the American Ambassador in London. He is at last a distinctive figure ; he has ceased to be a mere name to the masses ; he is marked out from his colleagues in the diplomatic corps in ways and to a degree that represent and correspond with the special relationship that exists between the two main branches of the Englishspeaking peoples.
THE moving finger writes, and having writ Moves on ; nor all your piety nor wit Can lure it back to cancel half a line : Nor all your tears wipe out a word of it. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam