So what does George Saliba, an ambassador whose three-part definition of a diplomat is "protocol, alcohol and cholesterol," do in Washington when he comes from Malta, a tiny Mediterranean archipelago described by the Encyclopedia Americana as having "position but virtually no magnitude"?
Saliba was uncharacteristically flustered Wednesday morning after six firetrucks and a helicopter screamed around and buzzed the Maltese residence on Albemarle and 29th streets after a defective exhaust fan in the attic set off the smoke alarm, blowing out a few power lines without causing a fire.
Now that Moammar Gaddafi of neighboring Libya has decided to cultivate a more moderate persona and Russian and American vessels have stopped chasing one another across the Mediterranean, Malta, a crucial electronic listening post in troubled times, finds itself in more tranquil seas.
This suits Saliba just fine. "I don't want to be in the shoes of countries who have problems," the ambassador said in response to an assertion that to get onto the Washington radar screen as a small country, you have to have a crisis.
Saliba's interest in foreign affairs was sparked by his grandfather, who had lost his sight and relied on his four grandchildren to read him the news for the last 15 years of his life.
That passion landed the graduate of Plater College in Oxford, England, at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 1968. Those were heady times on American campuses and Saliba, whose old college friends still refer to him as "the Maltese Falcon," joined protests against the Vietnam War. Saliba said he has had time since then to adjust from anti-war militant to diplomat.
"But I still have a social conscience from my student days. I never lost that," he said.
His ambassadorial career has taken him from the Arabian Gulf, where he served as ambassador in Riyadh, to Tripoli, Libya; Moscow, the United Nations and now, Washington. In his free time Saliba is an ardent theatergoer and sports buff.
"He must be the veritable jewel of the Maltese diplomatic service. He has had every post that is vitally important to Malta," said G. Philip Hughes, senior director of The White House Writers Group, an organization of former presidential speechwriters, and a former ambassador to Barbados.
"The only way one draws assignments of that importance is to be an absolutely consummate diplomat who has national interest in the forefront of his thinking and is extremely effective in pursuing it."
"Very quiet, very canny, very sharp," is how Maltese-born Washington writer and journalist Roland Flamini described his friend. "This is not a mega relationship, but the Maltese like to keep it good." Malta has had to repair some of the damage its close association with Libya has done to its image in Western and American eyes as it turns westward and seeks membership in the European Union. Libya still invests heavily in hotels and businesses in Malta.
Saliba was dispatched to Libya in August 1987 just in time to attend the Sept. 1 celebrations commemorating the Libyan revolution. Gaddafi, still smarting from the previous year's U.S. raid on the Gulf of Sidra, delivered a virulent speech to cheering crowds as diplomats sitting behind him on the platform squirmed in their seats.
In Moscow, Saliba witnessed the exciting Yeltsin years with tanks showing up on the street where he lived and crowds with red flags storming the Ostankino television tower.
"You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your neighbors," Saliba said. "We have to live peacefully. Part of our relevance to the European Union is our relationship to North Africa. We never were a colonial power and never had an agenda, so our role can be helpful."
"No man is an island," the ambassador observed as he explained how Malta has always had a global perspective and how its population of 380,000 has to remain connected by the Internet and other means "We have no resources. We have had to survive by living with others, by being global. It has been our destiny since we have had to make a living. Otherwise, we have no future."
Strategically located between Libya, Sicily and Tunisia, Malta once served as a natural harbor for Britain's Royal Navy. The fortress island became a British protectorate at the request of its inhabitants in 1814. Its valiant resistance in World War II despite heavy bombardment led Winston Churchill to call Malta "our only unsinkable aircraft carrier." It gained independence from the British in 1964.
The two-man embassy, a small town house on Connecticut Avenue, has just been boosted by an additional diplomat, who will concentrate on attracting investment.
"I would like to encourage tourism to Malta, but it is hard to sell Malta on sun and sand, when you have the Caribbean and Greek islands," Saliba noted. "If you want to travel for history and archaeology, you go to Malta. We need to build that up."
"What I am trying to do is to put Malta on the map and make Malta known for what it is -- a country with a lot of culture and history," Saliba said of his crusade to expand Malta's dimensions in Washington. His role here also focuses on attracting investment and reviving a double taxation agreement with the United States.
He gave a talk at the Smithsonian this year on Megalithic prehistoric temples that sold out, and he is busy setting up an exhibition for November to promote the acquisition by the Library of Congress of a copy of the archives of the Knights of Malta that date back several centuries.
"I can see how he is different from predecessors and how he reaches out," said Maria Zamit, the vice president of the World Affairs Council, an American born to Maltese parents.