Six Things I Learned after Thirty Years in the Foreign Service (Part 1)

January 5, 2014 § 20 Comments

Diplomats have the honour of representing their country, and the privilege of getting close enough to international affairs to touch them, and be touched by them.  When I completed thirty years and contemplated my retirement from the foreign service, I reflected on what I had learned along the way. This in turn led me to identify some general principles to guide diplomatic conduct.  I hope that they may also be helpful to others who work in this tough, but rewarding practice of international relations.

Looking back over the seven countries and 13 positions I have held since I joined the Foreign Service on September 6, 1983 I have drawn six conclusions.

  1. Be careful, because the world is more dangerous than it used to be.
  2. Trust is the most valuable diplomatic asset.
  3. It is fatal to let the prestige of your job contaminate your ego.
  4. When it comes to development, peace and security, it’s really all about governance.
  5. When tough choices are required, you have to do the right thing, because that’s what people remember about you and your country.
  6. The way you say good-bye is more important than how you said hello.

Despatches is a blog of reflection and analysis on diplomacy and international policy subjects. In the next six posts I will write about my personal take on these six critical issues.

I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your comments.


sudan, aid, tim martin, consultant

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§ 20 Responses to Six Things I Learned after Thirty Years in the Foreign Service (Part 1)

  • Steve Horta says:

    Very wise and thoughtful analysis that can equally be applied to other areas and life in general. Um abraço, amigo.

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks so much for your kind comment and visiting my site, Steve. I appreciate your idea that these principles can be helpful more broadly and I will be trying to develop that in future blogs.

  • Chantal Freitag says:

    Love your six points Tim! But…the way you say good bye is more important than how you say hello? Why do you say that? Chantal

    • diplocounsel says:

      Hi, Chantal. Thanks or visiting my site! I remember when we were leaving our posting in Ethiopia. I was so hurried and hassled with all the issues of packing up and handover and thought that I didn’t have the time to dedicate to saying good bye carefully. The day before I left I met by chance an Ethiopian friend and good partner of our embassy. When I told him I was leaving the next day he said “Were you going to leave without saying good bye?”. I could tell his feelings were hurt and I had been culturally inappropriate. I never forgot this and realized that good relationships need good good byes. I will be posting a blog on this topic soon.

      • Darren Schemmer says:

        I have to agree. In diplomacy it’s not (just) about your personal relationship. When you leave someone will take your place and how you leave helps set the baseline of trust your successor will start from.

  • dzetland says:

    Glad to see you putting your wisdom out there for people. I’d love to hear of any experiences where you’ve seen (or had an influence on) improvements in governance. I’ve written a paper about the problem (, but I’m always collecting data 🙂

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks very much for this, David. I look forward to reading your paper.
      In Kandahar, the second priority of Canada’s engagement was “Strengthen Afghan institutional capacity to deliver core services and promote economic growth, enhancing the confidence of Kandaharis in their government.” This was pursued with specific and measurable indicators.
      I hope to expand on each of the six subjects in future blogs.

  • Waheed Khan says:


    You have summarised very well what is needed in any successful international endeavour and I know that you have actually practiced all these principles, particularly building trust, focus on governance, doing the right thing when making decisions,and keeping an eye on the good-bye moment right from the hello moment. You also used to say people never forget humiliation and I eversince keep this important aspect in my mind.


    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks so much for reading my blog and for your comment Waheed. I particularly appreciate that you raised the topic of humiliation, which is indeed toxic with respect to international relations, as it is for interpersonal ones. I plan to explore this topic in a future blog on security.
      Best regards,

  • ekediarkel says:

    Thank you Tim for sending your “Despatches” and including me in your list. I agree entirely with the six conclusions you have arrived at after a very succesful diplomatic career.
    Warm regards.
    Elsa Kelly

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Elsa. Do you think that these six subjects are relevant for all diplomatic services? All the best,

  • Stewart Wheeler says:

    Prudence, trust, humility, humanity….So wise, Tim, and so simply boiled down. Hallmarks of your remarkable career and guiding principles I will hold onto. Thank you.

    I particularly believe in your point on goodbyes, not only because as you say good friendships deserve them, and as Darren adds, they contribute to your sucessor’s success, but in today’s connected world, your friends and your network remain part of your international expertise and support network for much longer. Half my friends on FB and LinkedIn are from previous postings. Modern technology is keeping us connected longer than in the past.

    The big challenge now however is transitioning from daily professional partner or close contact to member of an extended network and doing that in a way that values the connection and friendship you’ve built while marking the transition somehow, and then continuing to nurture it over time.

    ….which reminds me, when will we see you in Iceland?

    All bests with this wonderful new venture. Que les vaya muy bien.


    • diplocounsel says:

      Muchas gracias, Stewart!
      You make a great point about FB and LinkedIn. It’s not like we get on a ship after a posting and lose touch forever. In a way, maybe that means, in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I Can Never Say Goodbye” And, as a recent retiree, I very much agree about the importance of the challenge and opportunity of transitioning from professional to personal relationships.
      Hoping to see you in Reykjavik soon!

  • Excellent synopsis. I agree with all of your points especially, from a communications point of view, point five, which I call “living your message” in a number of my blogs (
    Cheers and keep them coming,

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks Eduardo for your comment. I will be expanding on all of the items, and I agree that the communications element is fundamental. Also, I thought your treatment of communications dimensions of the Fracking technology at your Cross Hairs Communications blog did a great job of unpacking the scientific vs. nuisance factors of hydraulic fracturing.

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks very much, Eduardo. You have a fantastic website! I also really appreciate your emphasis on authenticity in living the message. I guess the opposite is true as well. Hypocrisy is poison.
      Best regards,

  • Andrew Shore says:

    Hey Tim,

    Congratulations on your retirement — you will be missed! Looking forward to keeping up with you this way and hope to also bump into you around town some time.

    All the best,


    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Andrew. I very much hope these postings can be of interest to the Canadian and international community of international practitioners.
      Best regards,

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