The Importance of Being Ernest


May 12, 2017:  We were saddened to learn of the death earlier this week of Ambassador Ernest Corea. A journalist turned diplomat, Ernest served with great skill in the 1980s as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. The feat of his we most remember among many is his adroit management of the state visit of Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene to this country in June 1984 during Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. Ernest was living in retirement with his wife Indra in suburban Virginia when he passed away in his mid-eighties.

As deputy assistant secretary for the subcontinent in the old Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian affairs I had worked closely and admiringly with Ernest during his Washington years. I recall that one of the things that most impressed me about the way he went about his diplomatic chores as the representative of a small power in the capital of a big and powerful one was his talent in befriending people who could provide him access to U.S. government VIPs when he needed high-level help. It is an important asset for diplomats to have as they navigate the city’s brutally competitive foreign affairs scene.

One of those Ernest cultivated was a tough, formidable woman named Millie – I can’t recall her last name – who made officers throughout the State Department quail.  Millie was secretary to the even more formidable Larry Eagleburger, then undersecretary of state for political affairs, and was an effective guardian of the gates of his seventh floor Department suite. Ernest made it his business to get to know her well and would often stop by to chat her up during his visits to Foggy Bottom.

One otherwise quiet morning I was informed by a distraught Embassy Colombo that the Government of Sri Lanka in its wisdom had declared one of the embassy’s junior officers persona non grata and ordered his prompt removal from the island. He was charged, as I recall, with making inappropriate public comments about the Sri Lankan president. It was clear to me that we would have to follow the time-honored practice of reciprocity and expel an officer of equivalent stature from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington.

I was going down the Diplomatic List to identify a proper scapegoat whom we could cast into the wilderness when an urgent phone call came in. It was from Millie. She informed me that (unbeknownst, of course, to me) Ambassador Corea had just met informally with Under Secretary Eagleburger and discussed the PNG issue with him. Mr. Eagleburger, she recounted, had decided that it would not be necessary or advisable to practice reciprocity in this case and the NEA Bureau should take no further action on the matter.

I asked Millie what had led Eagleburger to make this ruling. She said she understood that he recognized that Sri Lanka was a small and friendly country. After talking with Ambassador Corea he had concluded that the United States had better things to do than beat up on the island’s junior diplomats.

A diplomatic win for an effective ambassador, and further evidence of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Howard B. Schaffer

2 Replies to “The Importance of Being Ernest”

  1. Excellent biography of a distinguished diplomat. A gap: it doesn’t deal in depth with the tough foreign policy crises SL faced, especially from India.

  2. Thanks for sharing the memory Howie. I remember that incident very well, and I can’t think of a better anecdote to mark my dad’s service in Washington. I hope you and Tezi are keeping well. Mum sends her love. Andy Corea

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