A group photo of people in formal attire at the Singaporean residence
Category: Academics, Student Experience

Title: Finding the Art in Diplomacy at the Dinner Table With DC’s Ambassadors

Step into Washington, DC’s, Kalorama neighborhood, and amidst the stately homes, a beacon of Franco-American solidarity shines. A miniature Statue of Liberty, once a Parisian landmark, now stands proudly draped in the Ukrainian flag. As you approach the residence, built in 1910 by a French-born American architect, its beauty unfolds before you. Stepping inside, the scent of French wine mingles with the murmur of conversation as you’re offered hors d’oeuvres. But the real treat awaits — a tour led by the ambassador himself, navigating a gallery of portraits featuring legendary figures like Marquis de La Fayette. This wasn’t just an average dinner party — it was a history lesson served on a silver platter by French Ambassador Laurent Bili who was about to become our guide through the intricacies of international relations, one bite and historical anecdote at a time.

In the Art of Diplomacy, we learn lessons in international affairs and diplomacy over the dinner table from ambassadors representing their countries in the U.S.

For me, it was another session of class in the Art of Diplomacy.

This unique course, co-taught by Professor Mark Vlasic and Belgian Ambassador Jean Arthur Regibeau, explores diplomacy over intimate dinners with ambassadors in Washington, DC. I aimed to gain firsthand insights into the intricacies of “backstage diplomacy,” conflict resolution, cultural understanding and the daily work and challenges faced by ambassadors in navigating international relations.

My interest in the course came from having spent many years of my adult life on military missions with major diplomatic implications overseas in countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Norway. On these deployments and missions, I have been fortunate to learn the importance of relationship-building over a meal or outside a formal meeting. Learning about different cultures and engaging in dialogue to learn about people — their experiences, what motivates them, how they think — has been a core passion of mine since before I can remember.

The chance to learn from seasoned ambassadors, alongside talented professors and diverse classmates in the Art of Diplomacy course was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. In my upcoming role at the Pentagon, this class seemed like the perfect tool to enhance my understanding of U.S. relations with the nations we engage with.

Nerves and Etiquette: A Learning Curve

While these dinners seemed undeniably nerve-wracking at first, wining and dining with some of the most important diplomatic officials in the world, our professors put us at ease during our first dinner which Ambassador Regibeau, one of the professors of the course, hosted at his residence as a sort of practice run. Together, Professor Vlasic and the ambassador offered guidance on navigating conversation etiquette and striking a balance between policy-driven questions and those that delve deeper into the “how” of their work.

A man with folded hands at a formal dinner setting.

While a grasp of international relations is likely a given for this course, our education extended well beyond policy discussions. Each embassy dinner served as a masterclass in cultural etiquette. Navigating these unspoken rules was an eye-opening experience. One classmate also pointed out the fascinating French custom of keeping your hands on the table during meals — a historical tradition signifying the absence of weapons. Addressing the Ambassadors as “Your Excellency” and expressing gratitude through handwritten thank-you notes were essential aspects of demonstrating respect in each cultural context. These dinners proved that diplomacy is as much about building rapport through proper etiquette as it is about the words exchanged at the table.

The diverse backgrounds and experiences of my fellow students also play a crucial role. Through a dedicated class group chat, we share insights about the countries and ambassadors we will meet, ensuring we come prepared for meaningful discussions. Beyond individual preparation, we gather before each dinner to brainstorm questions collectively, ensuring engaging conversations once inside.

Beyond the Books: Ambassadors as Teachers

While our course has been rooted in ideas from American statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and Robert Zoellick, our most valuable lessons have come directly from the ambassadors themselves. This semester, we’ve so far visited the residences of ambassadors from Belgium, France, Switzerland, Thailand and Singapore. Each ambassador’s unique background, shaped by diverse experiences in military, public and diplomatic service, informs their approach to their role. 

Many ambassadors view their duties as extending beyond simply representing their nation’s interests. They actively engage with the diaspora in the United States. Thai Ambassador Tanee Sanger, for example, embraces “culinary diplomacy” by actively participating in the Thai Restaurant Association of America, and even offers his personal phone number to local Thai people for support. Meanwhile, other ambassadors emphasize the importance of embracing their host countries. This was a lesson I learned from Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud, who displayed an impressive knowledge of U.S. Civil War history.

Our exploration of diplomatic customs took an unexpected turn at the Luxembourg embassy. Gone were the traditional portraits of statesmen. Instead, the walls were adorned with glamorous photographs of Hollywood A-listers, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action-hero pose to Jennifer Lawrence’s captivating smile. This unique display, we learned, reflected the ambassador’s personal passion for film. An avid photographer herself, the ambassador curated these works by Luxembourg-Italian photographer Fabrizio Maltese, hoping to create a bridge between Luxembourg and the United States through a shared love of cinema.

Throughout these interactions, a consistent theme has emerged: the paramount importance of human connection. Every ambassador, regardless of their approach, has highlighted qualities like empathy, trust, goodwill and even humor as essential to diplomacy. Singaporean Ambassador Lui Tuck Yew further emphasized the value of positivity and enthusiasm, sharing this belief that infusing these elements into diplomatic interactions fosters a more productive and enjoyable environment for all parties involved. Luxembourg Ambassador Nicole Binter-Bakshian showcased the diverse methods of fostering connection, employing not just “culinary diplomacy” but also “sports diplomacy” and “pet diplomacy.” Similarly, Ambassador Regibeau has hosted soccer — or, rather, football — watch parties at his residence, while other ambassadors find common ground through hobbies like bird watching. These firsthand experiences have provided invaluable insights into the human element at the heart of effective diplomacy.

Lessons Learned, Actions Taken

Diplomatic etiquette always holds surprises, but the cultural nuances have been particularly fascinating. While certain formalities might be prevalent in one embassy, another might embrace a more casual approach. Recognizing and adapting to these differences is a key takeaway.

Looking ahead, I plan to leverage the invaluable lessons from this class in my career in the military. The importance of building genuine human connections and fostering empathy and trust will be fundamental in navigating international relations. As the saying goes, “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” This class has shown me that the “art” lies not just in the strategy, but in the genuine human interactions that pave the way for lasting connections and effective dialogue.

Daniel Jin-Su Sprouse is a master’s in policy management student at the McCourt School of Public Policy as a part of the U.S. Army’s Bradley Fellowship. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2014 and has served for 10 years as an active-duty U.S. Army infantry officer.