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The image of ambassadors has changed greatly over the years. Until the mid-20th century, ambassadors were said to be “dwellers among the clouds” — a Japanese phrase for the nobility. This metaphor showed what ordinary people thought of nobles. To the commoners busy with their daily work, the privileged class people seemed to live in a fancy wonderland.

In the masterpiece film “My Fair Lady,” the climax is the grand Embassy Ball in all its glory and splendor, where only aristocrats, generals and renowned academics or artists are invited. It was her dazzling debut at the ball that marked the transformation of the flower girl Eliza Doolittle from a ground-dweller to an inhabitant of the clouds. The story tempted viewers to catch a glimpse of romantic court life painted in ancient picture scrolls. Today it seems nothing but a fairy tale far removed from reality.

The arrival of the jet age and rapid advances in information technology have changed the style of diplomatic negotiations. Even when presidents and prime ministers fly across continents to hold summit meetings, they don’t necessarily make banner headlines.

The diplomatic negotiation process, once considered a somewhat mysterious ritual, now must be as open as possible in order to win public support. It looks as if ambassadors have descended from the clouds.

For all that, an ambassador’s words sometimes can still change the course of international relations. That responsibility was vividly illustrated by a meeting between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, on July 25, 1990. Hussein talked at length about Iraq’s dispute with Kuwait.

Glaspie responded by saying the United States had “no opinion on inter-Arab disputes such as your border dispute with Kuwait.” It is now generally accepted that Hussein took her words as a go-signal to his plan to invade Kuwait. The Iraqi Army marched across the border into Kuwait a week later on Aug. 2.

It must be rare for such a tragic misunderstanding to occur in diplomatic talks. The incident shows even in this age of technological innovations and the growing influence of mass media that actions by an ambassador can affect the trend of international relationships.

In my opinion, it is necessary to recognize the difficult task of ambassadors before critically evaluating their work. They are entrusted with two seemingly contradictory missions: One is to transmit the home country’s views to the host country. Since ambassadors represent their countries, it is a matter of course that they must act as spokespersons for their governments’ interests.

The other mission to ensure that their own governments are better informed about the assigned country’s political, economic and social conditions as well as public sentiments. So the ideal type of ambassador is one who serves as a bridge between countries by balancing those two functions. This is easier said than done.

Ambassadors sometimes must reason with their governments despite a barrage of impatient instructions. How close the ambassadors can approach the ideal type depends on the ability and insight of the individual ambassador.

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, who is leaving as the Bush administration starts its second term, has won the admiration of many people in Japan. This is because he managed skillfully to maintain a balance between the two functions.

According to media reports, he has sent frank advice, or sometimes rebuttals, to Washington in the course of his term. Baker himself recently recounted one episode in his talk at the Japan National Press Club. Soon after his arrival in Tokyo in 2001, Washington sent him one order after another to take a tough stance with the Japanese government and to demand the quick cleanup of nonperforming loans.

Baker told policymakers in Washington that “the Japanese have their own way of solving this problem. It’s better to let them do it their way.” As Baker told reporters this episode at his farewell press conference, he beamed and said “And now I have been proven right.”

A U.S. ambassador to Japan in the early 1990s was well known for using a high-handed approach to force American views on Japan. He often went over the heads along the usual diplomatic route and resorted to the tactic of meeting directly with the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The Japanese media gave this ambassador the nickname “Mr. Outside Pressure,” which hinted at the bitter sense of resentment Japanese people then felt toward the U.S.

By contrast Baker has been referred to as “the big-time ambassador,” a nickname that reflects a sense of respect for someone who is both broad-minded and highly influential.

A maxim says “International relations boils down to personal relationship.” Baker demonstrated the truth of this by his words and actions. We appreciate his patient accommodation with the Japanese way of doing things, which sometimes seems peculiar to American eyes.

Sayonara, Baker-san. You will be missed.

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