In the movies, U.S. ambassadors often appear to come to the aid of jailed foreigners in inhospitable prisons. In the press, they’ve been vilified for not spending all of their time in the country they’ve been assigned to represent or for not being fluent in the language. Some critics have even referred to their appointment as a kind of payola scheme, with positions being awarded in exchange for campaign contributions to the sitting president.
Ambassadors for the United States seem to wear a variety of faces, but which of them is accurate?
“It varies widely from country to country,” Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and current professor of international affairs at Penn State University, tells mental_floss. “France will be very different from Russia. But generally, ambassadors have two functions, one internal and one external.”
The internal function is managing the U.S. embassy itself and all of its employees, which can number from one to 1000 and involve several representatives from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and other government branches. The external function is dealing with the native government, missionaries, and local press in representing the President of the United States.
“You explain what Washington is thinking,” Jett explains, “and explain to Washington what the other government is thinking. You have a lot of people wanting a lot of your time.”
For Jett, that meant getting involved in Mozambique’s highly volatile civil war that resulted in the country’s first free and democratic election in 1994. He had to live up to his diplomat label, encouraging democracy while being careful not to agitate the sitting government with criticism as the press swarmed around him.
On one occasion in Peru, Jett arrived for a social engagement and left early. A half-hour later, terrorists from the country’s Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement