The Foreign Ministry and its Context

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.


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