Information technology and communications (ICT) has impacted strongly on diplomatic systems, bridging to some extent the distance syndrome that dominates the diplomatic networks. One consequence: the relationship between the foreign ministry and the embassy abroad is much closer, and the bilateral embassy has gained in importance for many countries.

The internet provides innovative means for outreach to wide public streams, at home and abroad; “Web 2.0” offers new possibilities that are still under exploration. The foreign ministry website, supplemented by the websites of embassies, provides a starting point. “Intranets” (also called ‘virtual private networks’) permit confi dential exchanges within the country’s diplomatic and public services. Blogs have come into their own both for privileged communication and for open exchanges. Canada has been a leader in the application of net-based communications, for diplomatic training, export promotion and even domestic public outreach; many others have adapted well to the new medium and found their own paths.

Other related changes are as follows:

  • The emergence of the “global information village” has reduced reaction time. Offi cial spokesmen of foreign ministries must react to events as they occur; embassies have to convey local reactions to issues, as they emerge. It has also increased the frequency and diversity of interstate communication.
  • Internet-based social networks are used by foreign ministries and by embassies to reach out to publics, to communicate information, images, and video clips. In the same way, citizens use these networks to exchange ideas and news, circumventing controls imposed by authoritarian regimes. But such regimes are also agile learners of the new techniques, using the same methods for propaganda and to control.
  • Inside the MFA communications are fl atter. ICT permits drafts and proposals to go direct from the desk-offi cers to the top echelons, with copies to the intermediate hierarchy. (In the British and German Foreign Offi ces, seniors do not change drafts from desk-offi cers, though they may give alternatives; embassy recommendations travel similarly to high levels in the MFA, without running the old gauntlet of modifi cation by territorial desks.) This adds to responsibility for young offi cials and for envoys abroad.
  • In a few Western countries, the cipher telegram is threatened (United States and United Kingdom; perhaps less so in Germany or France); it is replaced by the confidential “intranet -based” message sent to a single or limited cluster of recipients (unlike the cipher telegrams which are widely circulated in the government on a standard distribution template). The cipher telegram was a powerful instrument to keep abreast with diverse assessments from overseas missions. In several MFAs the classic dispatch has also withered away—this represents a loss of that comprehensive analysis of a single, usually nonurgent, but important theme. Danger: it produces a fi refi ghting mind-set, perhaps too focused on current tasks. This devalues refl ective analysis of important issues.
  • Some countries pursuing effi ciency prioritize ruthlessly, concentrating on bilateral tasks of direct importance, plus major global and regional issues. This makes embassies more “bilateral” in their activities, less attuned to sustained contact cultivation across a broad spectrum; it also reduces engagement with the diplomatic corps. Embassies that are stripped to the core in manpower sometimes lack reserve capacity for new tasks.

Developing and transitional countries face hard choices in applying ICT. First there is the element of cost, for hardware and software, and the need to replace systems, typically after three or four years.10 Doubts over the security of intranets inhibit countries such as China and India. In contrast, small countries have fewer security worries. At the same time, the opportunity cost of not using modern communications has risen, though this is often not taken into account.

In the past, external affairs drew limited attention from home publics, except during crisis; a national consensus generally supported the country’s foreign policy. The diplomatic machine was insulated from political crosscurrents. It used to be said that politics ended at the country’s borders. That has now changed radically.

Also altered is the old distinction between national policy, as determined by the political leaders, and its execution by an apolitical diplomatic system. The mutual roles are now more permeable, and the boundary is less clear-cut. Professional diplomats are no longer insulated from home politics.

Many countries retain the model of politically neutral civil services (e.g. in the United Kingdom and its former colonies), but this is under strain; at the top levels, offi cials have to be politically acceptable. In Germany, after World War II, civil servants were encouraged to hold their own political affi liation (they even serve in party secretariats on deputation). The French Grandes Ecoles graduates have long had a revolving door relationship, covering the civil services, politics, and the corporate world. The United States runs a highly politicized system of appointment to top administration jobs, including ambassadorships. In many developing countries politics now intrudes openly into the public services; in some Latin American and African countries the majority of envoys sent abroad are political appointees. One challenge: diplomacy is not yet recognized as a specialized profession.

The injection of new issues in the international arena (such as democracy, human rights, universal standards of governance, public accountability) leads to borderline situations where envoy activism in foreign countries can lead to political acclaim at home (for instance, when US and other Western envoys in Kenya pushed for the democratic process in the past 15 years), or political embarrassment (e.g. British Ambassador Craig Murray in Uzbekistan in October 2004, when his criticism of that government’s rights record was initially supported from London, but his subsequent consorting with opposition groups, and leaking of his views to the media, led to his recall9). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put forward the interventionist notion of “transformational” diplomacy in 2005, but the successor US administration of Barack Obama seems to have retreated from the manipulation of foreign states implicit in that notion.

Foreign ministry professionals have to factor the domestic political impact into their actions; in the British Foreign Office, every proposal that goes to the minister must assess the likely public impact. Professionals fi nd themselves mobilized in support of the political agendas at home. In Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom, envoys attending annual conferences are asked to speak to public audiences in different towns on the country’s foreign policy — we may call this public outreach, but it is also a form of political support for the government. Envoys have to consider reaching out to home political constituencies in building support for their work; in India, it is customary for envoys assigned to key foreign capitals to call on leaders of opposition parties, for two-way dialogue on their tasks.

Diplomacy is a system of the interstate communication and issue resolution. As world affairs have evolved, diplomacy as the process of dialogue and accommodation among states, has adapted, responding to opportunities. The volatility of world affairs has accentuated change, to the point that some foreign ministries treat reform as a continual, incremental activity. Today’s dominant framework conditions are as follows:

  • The MFA is no longer the monopolist of foreign affairs. The MFA has to partner all branches of government, since each has its external activity, goals, and priorities, and it has to reinvent itself as a “coordinator” of all external policy, working closely with them.
  • These agencies respect the MFA for the contribution it makes to their agenda, not for its notional primacy in foreign affairs. This is a hard lesson for many MFAs, because their leadership
  • seemed much more assured in the past. Foreign ministries have to overcome this challenge, working for coherence in external policy.
  • Subject plurality compels the MFA to listen to outside expertise, while also struggling to cultivate in-house knowledge. Professional diplomats need to be both generalists and experts in some specific fields; collectively, they are the MFA’s pool of expertise. To put it another way, they need deep skills in a few areas, plus wide-even-if-shallow lateral skills in other fi elds; they must work harmoniously with other experts and become profi cient at networking.
  • Multiple non-state actors are the MFA’s permanent dialogue partners and stakeholders—that is, agencies active in the media, culture, academia, civil society, NGOs, science and technology (S&T), business, and others. Some of them harbor grievances over past neglect by the MFA.
  • The working environment is polarized. At one end are crisis, conflict prevention, movements of peoples and refugees, plus a range of hard and soft security issues. At the other end, traditional exchanges continue among privileged interlocutors, marked by elegant receptions and the trappings of old world diplomacy.
  • The MFA professionals confront dangers of personal hazard, which makes their work that much harder. They also deal with increasing intercultural diversity. They need broad, continuous training, plus high motivation.
  • The focus of professional diplomats has partly shifted from high diplomacy (involving issues of peace and security, or the negotiation of sweeping interstate accords); some of these are handled directly by heads of government and their offices. The professional now works mainly on low diplomacy: issues of detail, such as building networks aimed at specific areas, trade and other economic agreements, public diplomacy, image building, contacts with infl uential nonofficials, consular diplomacy, education, S&T and the like.
  • High volatility in international affairs means that reaction times are reduced. This demands alertness at MFAs, and at key embassies, on a 24×7 basis.
  • Consular protection and emergency actions have become more visibly important than before, owing to the impact of terrorism and natural disasters. Diasporas are especially important as allies in advancing external relations, though not all countries are clear on their “diaspora diplomacy.”
  • Information and communications technology (ICT) is vital, but most countries are still experimenting, to exploit its full potential. The opportunity cost of neglecting technology is high.

The diplomatic network is tasked with multiple demands at a time when resources and manpower in public service in most countries face cutbacks; foreign ministries are seldom treated as an exception. 7 Some countries still believe that the ideas of performance measurement, accountability or value-for-money are not relevant in their national ethos; it may perhaps only be a matter of time before these become near-universal demands. This is one of the consequences of globalization.

One consequence of globalization: many people feel that their lives are shaped by external events that are outside their control. Crisis has many faces. Take the global recession of 2008, producing economic insecurity, loss of jobs, decline in incomes, and slowdown in production, virtually in every country. Terrorism is another pervasive concern, with subterranean roots in foreign lands. Climate change affects all of us, threatening the very existence of small low-lying island states. Other dangers are more insidious, such as the infl ux of foreign cultural infl uence, viewed with alarm by those that struggle to conserve their own heritage. Migration is another interconnected issue, of the “home-external” kind, both for countries from where the migrants originate and for the destination states. Each of these is a new kind of security threat, a consequence of interdependence among states and peoples. These are products of relentless globalization.

Why globalized diplomacy? About two generations ago, politics was in command and was the prime focus of foreign ministry work; the best diplomats specialized in this fi eld. Then, commencing around the 1970s, economic diplomacy began to emerge as a major component of external relations, in some ways overshadowing political diplomacy; export promotion and foreign direct investment (FDI) mobilization became the priority activities of the diplomatic system. More recently we have seen the rise of culture, media and communications, education, science and technology and even consular work as some new priorities in diplomacy. Taken together, this third tranche is seen as a manifestation of soft power and as “public diplomacy”. Paradoxically, after the end of the Cold War, political diplomacy has also regained salience, becoming more open and complex. The techniques of relationship building and confl ict resolution have also become more sophisticated and require measured but rapid responses. Overall, diplomacy has become multifaceted, pluri-directional, volatile, and intensive.

Diplomacy has globalized in other ways. For one thing, with a breakdown in Cold War blocs, there exists no predetermined matrix of relationships. The West and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are now the dominant groups, but their former adversaries are also their networked partners, even while rivalries subsist. These are “normal” situations of contestation, driven by self-interest, as expressed through a search for resources and energy, and markets, to name only a few of the drivers; ideology is no longer an issue. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has been hollowed out, and remains as a loose coalition of have-not states; its ritualistic biennial summits persist, but NAM members are much more preoccupied with smaller, issue-based groupings. In essence, every country fi nds value in working with networks that stretch into far regions, in pursuit of common or shared objectives. Often, economic opportunity provides the driving force, and this too is subject to globalized concerns.

Regional diplomacy has taken on a life of its own. Virtually every country is a member of multiple groupings, many of them geography driven, besides those that have their locus in some other kinds of shared objectives. The membership pattern of such groups takes on a kaleidoscopic character; the names of the groups and abbreviated titles make a veritable alphabet soup. Even seasoned specialists fi nd it hard to keep up with the profusion. Managing membership of such communities, and joining hands with different domestic ministries for this purpose, is a new challenge for foreign ministries (MFAs).

We should consider another change element. Some large and economically successful countries are seen as today’s “emerging powers,” joining the high table of the world’s major and nearmajor powers. One such small group is known by its acronym IBSA, that is, India, Brazil and South Africa; none of these states is quite a major power, but seems to offer the potential of reaching this rank. Another putative group is BRICS, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa; two of the fi ve are permanent members of the UN Security Council, but only one is a member of G-8. Both IBSA and BRICS have emerged on the international stage as groups that pursue mutual cooperation at multiple levels, ranging from summit meetings among their leaders to functional collaboration among researchers and business groups, along mutually benefi cial trajectories. Behind these small clusters are other states, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria that aspire to recognition as emerging powers. Each seeks through its external policy to reshape the international environment in consonance with its own interests. Since 2008, G-20, which began as a gathering of fi nance ministers, is now a major politicoeconomic forum. The international process is more kinetic and more volatile than ever before, resembling a large, multi-arm mobile, constantly in motion, continually reshaping interrelations among its composing elements, large and small.

Another element merits consideration. Some countries—be they large, medium-sized or small—manage their external relationships in distinctly better ways than others. What is the key? This issue dominates the analysis presented in this book. Briefly, the success factors are clarity of objectives and mobilization of all available resources to attain these, clearly prioritized. In diplomacy, effectiveness hinges not on the money spent, or numbers of people deployed, but on well-considered actions, nimbleness, and sound calculations of risk and gain. The best foreign ministries optimize the talent that resides within diplomatic services—the only real resource that they possess—and pursue reform and adaptation. Public-private partnerships (PPP) also contribute; governments have seen the utility of joining hands with non-state actors, both at home and abroad. Benchmarking and mutual learning are among their regular practices. They also manage knowledge in a calculated and consistent manner.


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