Ambassadors are known for being diplomatic. It is, after all, their job.
But Ebrahim Rasool, South African Ambassador to the United States, demonstrated a keenness for this delicate skill during a speech last week at the Commerce Club.
Somehow, he slighted Americans for their ignorance while eliciting laughter from, well, a room full of Americans.
"Where there are pockets of conflict we need to move in decisively to stabilize the situation because we know that there are many people in America whose strong suit is not geography. If there is an Arab Spring in Egypt, they disinvest in South Africa without understanding that the whole United States geographically can fit in our Sahara Desert," Mr. Rasool said, noting the need to foster African integration through the African Union.
"That's what the distances are like between countries, so we can try and teach 300 million Americans geography, or we can solve five conflicts. In Africa, we're choosing to solve the conflicts. That's easier," he joked.
While he touched on some stubborn flash points like Mali and Somalia, he noted that one no longer needs two hands (and a few toes) to count the serious conflicts across Africa's 54 countries.
The absence of American business leaders in the continent worries him, he said, especially given the choices of partners that remain without U.S. participation. The Chinese are building infrastructure, but it's mainly for the purpose of extracting agricultural goods and natural resources to fuel their own economy, he said.
All things equal, African countries would rather work with U.S. companies, who will leave the place better than they found it by training local workers instead of importing their own, Mr. Rasool said.
"There is this mistaken idea that Africa falls in love with the first suitor," he said. When economic explanations fail to explain South Africa's frustration with choosing the less appealing of two partners, he resorts to song lyrics.
"At the end of the day, I just give up. All I do is, I quote Crosby, Stills and Nash: 'If you can't be with the one you love, you love the one you're with,'" he said to more laughter.
But the benefits are not just one-sided, he stressed. Africa as a region is growing at faster than 5 percent, and tapping markets there provides part of the answer to hastening the sluggish U.S. recovery.
That is, if Americans can begin to know the differences between Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon and the Gambia.
If one interaction at the speech is any indication, it's an uphill climb: A legislator in the audience commented aloud that the opening of the newly expanded Panama Canal could help expand trade links between the Port of Savannah and Africa, which sit across the Atlantic Ocean from each other.
Many in the crowd traded puzzled glances at the geographic faux pas, but perhaps as a testament to his diplomatic skill, Mr. Rasool resisted the urge to say, "I told you so."