Opinion | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Diplomats Are Made, Not Born
Angelina Jolie, a filmmaker and special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, on Wednesday.CreditEmmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
and politics may go hand in hand, but their partnership isn’t one of equals. It
is logical — especially in a democracy — for a country’s diplomacy to serve its
political leaders. Sometimes, however, smart leaders allow diplomacy to
influence to be truly worthwhile, governments around the world must solve an
acute problem: Global diplomacy today is not very effective, in part because it
is misunderstood and starved of resources. The best diplomacy carries out
foreign policy professionally, yet most countries let amateurs practice it.
talking about appointees who receive diplomatic posts thanks only to political
connections. To resolve at least some of the many conflicts, disputes and other
problems around the world, governments must start building or strengthening
professional diplomatic services, providing them with proper training and
career development, and giving them all the tools, resources and authority
necessary to get the job done.
countries come close to this standard today. No one is born with the ability to
practice international diplomacy — to manage a country’s relations with other
states, understand and engage foreign societies, influence governments and
publics, conduct difficult and consequential negotiations, anticipate threats
and take advantage of opportunities. These are skills that have to be acquired.
mantra among career diplomats has long held that on-the-job training — not
lessons in a classroom — is the only way to learn how to practice diplomacy. As
a result, many countries’ official representatives don’t get anything that
resembles proper training before they are posted abroad. They are left to
figure things out as they go along, taking months or even years to get a decent
grasp of what exactly their job entails.
governments have outsourced a big part of diplomats’ work to lobbyists and
consultants. Many embassies in Washington use the costly services of public
relations firms to do their bidding. At the same time, some of their own
employees arrive with barely any knowledge about how Washington works and how
to navigate the government bureaucracy. Another recent trend — no doubt
following an example of a regrettable American practice — has been to increase
political appointments in ambassadorial and other diplomatic posts.
is a misguided response to the challenges that diplomats are facing. Countries
would be much better served in the long run by having an embassy staff that is
well prepared and has all necessary tools, and that benefits from continuity
and an institutional memory as diplomats pass the torch to their successors.
Western officials say that if Ukraine had better-trained and more-effective
diplomats, the international community might have inflicted a harsher
punishment on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its interference in
eastern Ukraine. If India, the world’s second most populous country, had a
diplomatic service that was more effective, perhaps it could have achieved its
goal of winning a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
German diplomatic service, while one of the best in the world, has suffered
from being led by foreign ministers who have doubled as party leaders of the
junior partners in successive governing coalitions. The French service, a
historical example of excellence, has made significant progress in addressing
the lack of diversity in its ranks, but a majority of its most senior diplomats
remain white men.
The United States Foreign Service is under
assault by the Trump administration, which is driving out dozens of its members
and seeking to cut about a third of its budget, resulting in the lowest morale
in recent history. The British Foreign Office neglected formal training for its
diplomats for decades; it finally established a dedicated center in 2015, but it hasn’t
instituted mandatory professional development.
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
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.
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