Opinion | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Diplomats Are Made, Not Born
Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
With all the history and professionalism of Western European diplomatic services, why were those countries so shocked by and unprepared for the influx of refugees in 2015? Being intimately familiar with conditions, events and trends in foreign countries is an essential part of a diplomat’s job. Most refugees came from conflict zones. Good diplomats should have anticipated those developments and prepared policy analyses and recommendations for their leaders back home.
And why has it been so difficult for the West to exert meaningful influence with Turkey, a NATO member, to prevent what Western officials view as destabilizing actions, such as its current attack on Syrian Kurds? There are certainly many reasons, but insufficient diplomatic skill and creativity are part of the problem.
Chronic underfunding is also crippling the diplomatic services of rising powers, including those of India and Brazil, which are grossly overextended. India, for example, is struggling to run more than 160 missions with 600 diplomats.
Even China has failed to make a sufficient investment in diplomacy, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on its military, whose budget is almost 20 times bigger than what it spends on foreign affairs. Not surprisingly, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has much less clout in policymaking than its counterparts in other countries.
But most countries do not have proper professional diplomatic services, particularly in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and even in some parts of Europe and Asia. True, they do have civil servants in their ministries of foreign affairs, some of whom are sent to work in embassies and consulates from time to time. Many of these officials have degrees in international affairs or a related field, and that’s enough for many governments to assume that they can excel in diplomacy.
Some countries offer only initial training to new recruits, and it tends to focus on area studies, such as the politics and economics of geographic regions, as well as foreign languages. Others put a big emphasis on humanities courses, forgetting that the ability to converse at cocktail parties is not as important today as it was in previous decades — and that there are plenty of other places to get that knowledge.
Skills-based training in specific aspects of diplomatic practice that cannot be obtained elsewhere is largely absent. In addition, instead of having their experienced diplomats pass on their expertise to more junior colleagues, countries hire academics or send their employees to take a university course. Of course, many countries don’t even do that.
Only a handful of countries, such as the United States and Germany, have dedicated centers that provide training in skills, though most of it is voluntary and few diplomats take advantage of it. At a time when the White House doesn’t hide its disdain for diplomacy, the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute is hardly a high priority — as with many parts of the department, it doesn’t have a director.
Governments must end the decades-long culture that views diplomacy training and professional development as a luxury — or worse, as unnecessary. On-the-job training should not be overestimated — it works great if one is lucky to have good mentors, but that’s not a given — and formal preparation should not be undervalued. It can save time and money, and more important, with more professional diplomacy, the world might just become less of a mess.