EDITOR, The Tribune
Successive governments have adopted the practice of appointing ambassadors plucked from the private sector who often have no formal training in diplomacy or even the public service.
The effect of this is beginning to show across the foreign service as was evidenced by the rather unfortunate diplomatic faux pas witnessed when our ambassador to Belgium called on the King to present her letter of credence.
If we are to be fair to the Ambassador, Maria O’Brien, and accept her eyebrow-raising choice of dress for this regal occasion, we would reveal yet another lapse at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We have been in the business of direct diplomacy for nearly five decades and by now there must be a wealth of knowledge in protocol, etiquette and statecraft reposed in our foreign service establishment.
When a foreign ambassador presents letters of credence to our Governor General it is a high diplomatic event accompanied by pomp and circumstance with everyone in their Sunday best.
On the morning of the event, Royal Bahamas Police Force aides in full dress uniform proceed in an official state vehicle to pick up the new ambassador and, with outriders and country flag fluttering, escorts him or her to Government House for the formal ceremony.
The ambassador carries a formal letter of credence signed by his or her head of state and addressed to ours, Her Majesty the Queen.
The same protocol is afforded to our ambassadors when they present their credentials abroad. In our case it is a formal diplomatic letter from the Queen to the receiving head of state. Her Majesty entrusted Maria O’Brien to present such a letter to His Majesty the King of Belgium who would then accept her at his royal court.
Royal protocol demanded that she observe a centuries-old implied dress code which is usually formal attire. The King came dressed to the nines in full military regalia accompanied by military equerries and aides similarly bedecked.
And how did our ambassador roll up into Le Palais Royal de Bruxelles? Why Her Excellency chose a rather elegant but quite inappropriate haute couture ensemble with a skirt that was way too high above the knee for the royal occasion.
By contrast, when Ed Bethel presented at the same Palace, he turned up in full morning suit with a very natty white tie. And he fit right in. Our last ambassador to Belgium, Rhoda Jackson, a career diplomat, dressed very conservatively, in a culturally sensitive but smart business suit.
Ms. Obrien’s resume says she studied international affairs. Well enough, but the briefing book on her new assignment that hopefully was supplied by the Foreign Ministry staff must have included a chapter on diplomatic etiquette.
Ambassadors assigned to the Court of St. James (as a diplomatic posting to London is called) have the benefit of the mandarins of Buckingham Palace to set them straight before they are received by any member of the royal family, much less by the Queen.
Any Bahamian ambassador need only ask the Palace’s office of diplomatic protocol to be advised on how to comport themselves at any diplomatic post anywhere in the world.
Failing that there is a 250-year-old UK company that publishes a book, Debrett’s, that is the definitive handbook on diplomatic etiquette and gives advice on everything from dress codes to proper forms of address all the way up to the modern-day art of correct styles for email communications in the diplomatic world.
In brief, there is no excuse for Ambassador O’Brien’s “short” sightedness.
We must not dismiss such slip-ups as nit-picking. In addition to representing the Queen, our ambassadors represent us all, and if it’s all the same to the Foreign Ministry, we would much prefer if they erred on the conservative side when putting their best foot forward overseas. Their sartorial choices should never become the lead story from a credentialing ceremony.
June 25, 2019