About the Event

A program focused on the realities American diplomats face when serving our country. We unpacked key scenes from the popular Netflix show “The Diplomat” with Alexander Vershbow and his wife Lisa Vershbow, alongside robust audience Q&A.  Light hors d'oeuvres and a small open bar were available. For discussion: how “real” the show is and questions about negotiations, staffing, resource availability, whether diplomats really get their phone taken away, how elaborate are diplomatic breakfasts, whether they can pack their own bags, how often they can call the President, and much more.  

Ambassador Vershbow addressed the question of how glamourous a life ambassadors really live. He explained that posts like London involve grand accommodations, but that burdensome security measures like armored limousines are also part of the job. Regarding the show’s portrayal of dialogue, the ambassador stated that discourse is the foundation of diplomacy. Diplomats have to be tactful about what they say and sometimes need to use their judgment on how to speak about events before Washington can provide instructions. Direct access to the president is not very common, with the exception of presidential visits. Ambassadors typically interact with the State Department’s chain of command rather than communicating directly to the top. The State Department trusts ambassadors and consequently empowers them to make decisions and rarely bypasses the embassy.

Lisa Vershbow answered questions about being the spouse of an ambassador on mission. She described the options for a separate career that spouses have when posted abroad. When she accompanied Ambassador Vershbow to Moscow, she organized an art exhibition and used her visibility to support local artists. She described how ambassador’s spouses formerly were required to act as hosts or hostesses but that this rule was phased out in the 1960s.

During the Q&A, audience members asked how much control ambassadors have in selecting their staff. Ambassador Vershbow explained that they can choose their Deputy Chief of Mission, which is typically an experienced officer who was serving at the post before the ambassador’s arrival. Other positions are decided by the State Department with the ambassador’s input. Another question was on the difference between political appointees and career diplomats. The Ambassador noted that most of the former category are major donors to election campaigns. Political appointees often bring qualifications from outside of the diplomatic corps and can contribute substantially to the embassy’s mission. Problems arise when ambassadors do not work well with their staff. The conversation then moved on to the topic of diversity. Ambassador Vershbow said that he sees a lot of progress toward gender equality in the diplomatic corps but less so regarding racial diversity. One audience member asked whether it is normal for an ambassador to travel all the way to D.C. for a minutes-long briefing. Ambassador Vershbow noted that such a journey occasionally happens, but that video conferencing has reduced unnecessary travel. Another question was how long it takes for someone to be promoted to a significant post. Ambassador Vershbow explained that it can take more than two decades for career diplomats. Political appointees receive most of the postings in Europe. Thus, he expressed the opinion that a limit should be placed on political appointees in order to allow more career diplomats to receive promotions from their medium-sized posts. The final question was how Foreign Service officers navigate their careers if they disagree with the State Department’s positions. Ambassador Vershbow replied that the State Department offers career counseling but that officers generally rely upon networking to open up new opportunities.

About the Speakers

  • Speaker: Alexander Vershbow, Former Ambassador to the Russian Federation
  • Speaker: Lisa Vershbow, jewelry designer
  • Facilitator: Lauren Swartz, President & CEO, World Affairs Council of Philadelphia