What It’s Like to be a U.S. Ambassador

Dean Alan Solomont, former U.S. Ambassador to Spain, shares his experience representing American interests abroad and offers advice for new ambassadors under President Biden
"Every federal employee in Spain, except soldiers under combat command, reports to the U.S. ambassador, and that carries an enormous amount of authority," said Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College of Civic Life. Video by Jenna Grace Schad
May 25, 2021

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One of the many things on President Joe Biden’s to-do list is nominating up to 190 U.S. ambassadors to embassy postings around the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe. Many of those ambassadors will head to nations that the U.S. considers allies, such as France, Germany, and Canada. But some will serve in countries with which the United States disagrees on key issues, such as Russia.

Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra under President Barack Obama. His 50-year political career began as an undergraduate at Tufts in the 1960s, when he “got swept up in the antiwar movement and civil rights work.” It continued after graduation when he became a community organizer in Lowell, Massachusetts, and over three decades of raising money for Democratic candidates for elected office. He was involved in six presidential campaigns before Obama nominated him to be the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra.

“There's an inscription in the lobby of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, which reflects my belief about politics. It reads, ‘This library is dedicated to … all those who through the art of politics seek a new and better world.’ That's what I grew up with, what I started to learn as an undergraduate at Tufts, and what I've carried with me through the years,” said Solomont.

Ahead of his retirement at the end of June, Tufts Now sat down with Solomont to talk about becoming a U.S. ambassador, what it was like to represent the United States in Spain, and his advice for future ambassadors.

Tufts Now: How does someone become a U.S. ambassador, and what was the process like for you?

Alan Solomont: Most U.S. ambassadors are career foreign service officers. They are people who decided to make diplomacy a career and who, as foreign service officers, have dedicated their lives to representing American interests around the world. But the United States has a somewhat unique tradition of appointing about a third of its ambassadors who are not members of the foreign service. They are considered political appointees or non-career ambassadors.

These are people who are generally close to the president and who have relationships with the president’s White House staff. They are likely to have played important roles in the president’s election campaign, and in some respects, their appointment is a reward for both loyalty and hard work. They are also people who the president trusts and who understand the president's approach to diplomacy and foreign policy. About a third of President Obama’s ambassadors were non-career.

When the Obama campaign ended in 2008, I was asked if I wanted to serve in the administration and what I'd like to do. At that time, I wanted to be the chair of the bipartisan Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service. That is the federal agency, created by President Bill Clinton in 1993, that houses domestic service programs like AmeriCorps, VISTA and Senior Corps. I was already a member of the board, having been appointed by President Clinton in 2000 and reappointed by President George W. Bush in 2005. Choosing the chair is really the prerogative of the board, and I served in that position for the first six months of the Obama administration.

But I was also asked if I'd be interested in leading an embassy as a US ambassador, and I said yes. Before the inauguration, I was told to submit the names of 10 countries where I'd like to serve, and interestingly, Spain was not on the list. It is left to a fairly small group of the president’s advisors, including some who were involved in the campaign, to prepare a list of candidates for the president’s approval.

One Sunday afternoon in February 2009, I was at home, and my phone rang. It was one of President Obama’s advisors who’d been in the room when candidates for ambassador were discussed. “Would you be willing to go to Madrid,” I was asked. It was a pretty exciting moment, and I ran to the next room to tell my wife, Susan. “We're going to Spain,” I exclaimed, having trouble hiding my enthusiasm.

Alan Solomont was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra by Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew (second from right). Photo: Courtesy of Alan Solomont

I didn't have a particularly close connection to Spain. I had visited twice, once in 1971 as a recent college graduate. When I graduated from Tufts, I won a Watson Fellowship for independent study and travel abroad, and frankly, I did more independent travel than study. I was driving a Volkswagen bus from London to Marrakesh, and I spent about 10 days in Madrid over the Christmas and New Year's holidays in 1970-71, hosted by a Fletcher School student and his Spanish wife’s family. In retrospect, I got to see Spain as the poor and backward country it was during the time of Franco’s military dictatorship, and that made me appreciate, when I returned as ambassador, what an amazing transformation the country had undergone in its transition to democracy.

Before there was any public announcement of my nomination, I had to be vetted to make sure nothing in my background would be an embarrassment to President Obama. It was quite strange and a little awkward having the FBI knocking on doors in my neighborhood and asking neighbors about me, without their knowing why they were being asked.

Finally, I was nominated in August 2009. I went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September, and after the drama of being held up by a Republican Senator, I was confirmed by the Senate on the last day of its session in December 2009.

What was it like to represent the United States in Spain and oversee an embassy?

It turned out I had nearly a year, before being confirmed, to prepare for my assignment, and I threw myself into learning about Spain’s relationship with the United States, its role in the international community, and the issues I needed to master as President Obama’s representative in Spain. An ambassador represents our federal government and the American people, but ultimately, you are the personal representative of the President of the United States to a foreign government. It helped that President Obama was adored in Spain.

On January 9, 2010, my wife, daughters, and I—along with our dog, Stella Blu—flew into Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. One daughter was in college, and she brought a group of college friends, and the other had recently graduated from Tufts and was working. It was great they were both able to accompany us before going back to the U.S. several days later. When we landed, the television stations were at the airport to film our arrival, and we were escorted into a private reception area where the senior staff from the embassy were waiting to greet us. Afterward, we climbed into an armored limousine — something I had to get used to since in my position — I wasn't allowed to drive, and I always had a driver and a security detail accompanying me. We lived in sort of a bubble, which made it difficult for us to really get to know the country and for the country to get to know us. Therefore, we worked extra hard to overcome these barriers, and we especially tried to humanize ourselves so people could see the real people behind the role of ambassador and ambassador’s spouse. That said, I constantly reminded myself that I was the temporary steward of a very important position, and it wasn't about me. It was about the office of U.S. ambassador and all the responsibilities that accompany that.

"Being a United States ambassador means every door in the country is open to you, and you have access to the top businesspeople, political leaders, artists, celebrities, athletes, etc. This combination of authority and access makes the job unique," said Alan Solomont. Photo: Courtesy of Alan Solomont

An embassy is a miniature version of the federal government in a foreign country. All the federal agencies that have any kind of business overseas, and that is virtually all of them, have representatives at the embassy, including commerce, agriculture, the justice department, the defense department, etc. Every federal employee in Spain, except soldiers under combat command, reports to the U.S. ambassador, and that carries an enormous amount of authority to apply the levers of the United States federal government to your relationship with the host country’s government, its business community, and its public. U.S. Embassy Madrid has about 130 foreign service officers and 250 Spanish nationals, who work at the embassy and carry out the diplomatic mission.

Having the presence of those agencies and the authority of the U.S. President confers an enormous amount of power on the ambassador to advance U.S. interests. And being a United States ambassador means that every door in the country is open to you, and you have access to the top businesspeople, political leaders, artists, celebrities, athletes, etc. This combination of authority and access makes the job unique, and it presents an incredible opportunity to do important things on behalf of our country and our world.

On an average day, who did you meet with and what did you do?

I have kept copies of my daily schedule from almost every day of the three and a half years I served, and I picked one out of the stack randomly: August 31st, 2010.

8-9 a.m.: Meeting with my Spanish tutor which I did every day that I was in Madrid.

9-10:30: Media briefings on Afghanistan, followed by an interview with a radio station.

I had recently gone to Afghanistan to visit Spanish troops and to familiarize myself with the situation there. Early in my tour, one of the main priorities of our government was prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. Spain was part of an international alliance of 49 countries who had military troops in Afghanistan, and one of my jobs was to reinforce and maintain their commitment to the work of the alliance. In the second year of the Obama administration, the President had ordered a surge in US troops, and we asked our allies to do the same. Spain increased their troop strength by 50%, and we wanted to show our appreciation for their being good partners. The Spanish understood the mission, which was to prevent Afghanistan from falling into the hands of a government that would allow terrorists to locate there and from where they could do damage to the United States and our European allies.

11: Meeting with the Embassy health unit.

Noon: Meeting with the Iraqi Ambassador to Spain in my office at the embassy.

1 p.m.: Meeting with Spain’s Minister of the Interior, which oversees the national police, to ask Spain to help train the Afghan national police, because part of the mission in Afghanistan was to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces themselves.

2 p.m.: Every day around this time, I would pause whatever I was doing to call my daughter in Boston. She was usually on the bus on her way to work, and we would speak for just a few minutes, but it was important for me to preserve that time to touch base with her. I didn’t hide this phone call because I wanted people to know I was a dad as well as an ambassador. My other daughter was in college, and since she was unlikely to be awake at that early hour in the States, we called her at other times of day.

3 p.m.: Courtesy call with new Marine guards coming to guard the embassy.

4-6 p.m.: Reading, emails, etc.

9 p.m.: Dinner with one of Spain’s great contemporary artists.

What was it like when then-Vice President Joe Biden visited during Spain’s economic crisis?

The overriding issue I had to deal with during my three and a half years in Spain was the impact of the worldwide economic and financial crisis. Unemployment in Spain went up to 27%. Their federal deficit got to 11% of gross domestic product. Spain teetered on the brink of insolvency, and the U.S. regarded Spain as too big to fail. If Spain required a bailout from the European Union, like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal had, the coffers of the European Union were insufficient for the size of Spain’s economy, and that could put our own economic recovery at risk.

My task was to work closely with the Spanish government, with the president's office and his economic advisors, to monitor the situation and to relay accurate information to Washington, in order to guide our government’s policy and interventions. We didn't think that Spain was taking the measures that were needed or facing up to the seriousness of their situation. In fact, the left-of-center government that was in power when I arrived was voted out of office in the next national election because of its failure to address the economic crisis sufficiently.

"Among the memories I hold most dear from our service in Spain are what my wife and I call “pinch me” moments. Standing next to Vice President Biden ... was one of those moments," said Alan Solomont. Photo: Courtesy of Alan Solomont

It was decided that Vice President Biden should visit Madrid to express our government’s concerns. He arrived with a small group on a Friday afternoon, and that night, Susan and I took them all to dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Madrid. I had earlier inquired about the Vice President’s food preferences, and I was told he liked pasta and red sauce. Therefore, we chose an Italian restaurant. It was a delightful evening that we got to spend with this wonderful man, who now happens to be the president of the United States.

Early the next morning, I went to the vice president’s hotel suite to brief him. I had 20 minutes to explain all the issues that were likely to be raised by the Spanish government and to suggest talking points for the message we hoped he’d deliver to the Spanish. I felt a heavy responsibility, but I think I acquitted myself well. We rode in the Vice President’s car to the Spanish equivalent of our White House, which is known as Moncloa, after the Madrid neighborhood in which it is located.

The vice-president met privately with President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero for over an hour, going through all the talking points we had suggested about the economy. The message was clear. We know how tough this is and how difficult the decisions are, but there is no substitute for bold and decisive action. We’ve had to confront this ourselves and taken measures that were politically unpopular and difficult, but there is no alternative. Following that, we had a roundtable discussion led by Vice President Biden with all of Zapatero’s cabinet ministers, touching on issues having to do with energy, trade, Iran, and the Middle East.

We knew we could hold one public event with the vice president, and we thought hard about what would make the biggest impact. We decided to take him to an army base outside of Madrid where there were troops about to be deployed to Afghanistan. We were situated on large parade grounds across from 500 Spanish troops standing in formation. There was a red carpet leading to a podium, and accompanied by my military attaché, I walked in next to the vice president of the United States. The president of Spain walked in with his ambassador to the United States, accompanied by his military attaché. A military band played the Spanish national anthem and The Star-Spangled Banner.

Among the memories I hold most dear from our service in Spain are what my wife and I call “pinch me” moments. Standing next to Vice President Biden on that day and listening to our national anthem was one of those “pinch me” moments. I never took these for granted because I knew what a privilege it was to occupy this position.

What advice would you offer to future U.S. ambassadors, including the people soon to be appointed by President Biden?

One of the realities of being an ambassador is that Washington lacks the bandwidth to manage all of these bilateral relationships, and therefore, that responsibility falls on the embassy and on the shoulders of the US ambassador. There is surprisingly little oversight, and sometimes it is frustrating trying to get Washington’s attention. The best ambassadors work really hard, but some get away with not working as hard as they could, or they focus more on the social aspects of the job.

My advice for future, non-career ambassadors is to realize that this is a very serious job. The work that our diplomats do has a huge impact on our own security and prosperity. Be mindful of the gravity of the position and remember that it's not about you. But do take advantage of the “pinch me” moments.

We live in a world where we no longer have national problems. Every problem the United States faces is a global problem: climate change, transnational terrorism, global inequality, nuclear proliferation. The only way we as a country can deal with these problems is in partnership with other countries with whom we have common interests and shared values, and even with countries with whom we differ. An ambassador should speak out about the importance of diplomacy and the work of our embassies. It involves not only foreign policy, but economic policy and trade relationships as well. Ambassadors also should try to share this experience and be receptive to Americans who reside in the host country or who travel there. My wife and I lived in the ambassador's residence, but it belongs to the American people. We made our home there, but we felt obliged to share it and to invite people in.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.