Diplomats Are Made, Not Born

By Nicholas Kralev
The New York Times

February 1, 2018

Diplomacy 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 politics.

For that 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.

I’m 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.

Few 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.

The 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.

Some 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.

That 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.

Some 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.

The 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 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.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.