Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 February 2020

(p. xxx) Foreword: Diplomacy: Old Trade, New Challenges

(p. xxx) Foreword

Diplomacy: Old Trade, New Challenges

I became a diplomat by accident. It all started with a small poster on a university billboard with the words ‘interested in working abroad?’ written in big bold letters. It informed me that the Foreign Service exam would be held in a few hours in a conference room nearby. I had nothing better to do that night so I went. In truth, I did not realize I was applying to join the diplomatic service of Canada until my first day on the job. I had never been inside an embassy and knew no one in the profession.

The Department of External Affairs of Canada, as it was then called, did not have a diplomatic academy and offered only minimal training to its new recruits. We were left to learn ‘on-the-job’ by observing our colleagues. I wish I had had a Handbook such as this one at my disposal to teach me the rudiments of my new profession.

An early 1970s Handbook of Diplomacy, which is when I joined the foreign ministry, would have been quite different from this one. Modern diplomacy takes place in a more complex environment than four decades ago. As this volume demonstrates, new players, new methods, new topics have entered the scene.1 The distinction between domestic and international issues is increasingly blurred.

Yet contemporary diplomacy is built on ancient foundations and practices. Modern-day diplomats need to understand them as much as they need to be attuned to the more recent trends. One of the many merits of this Handbook is that it offers a comprehensive examination of the practice of diplomacy in all of its dimensions.

Of all the changes that have occurred in my time as a diplomat, none has had a more significant impact than the twin and linked phenomena of globalization and the communications revolution spurred by new information technologies.

Forty years ago, transmitting information was a slow process, especially if this information had to be encrypted. International telephone communications were costly and unreliable. In times of crisis, diplomats were often cut off from their headquarters and had to make judgement calls on the spot. In their letters of credentials ambassadors are still described as ‘plenipotentiary’ but nowadays they rarely if ever have the opportunity to use their ‘full powers’ to bind their government. Headquarters are often consulted up to the minute. As a result, the margin of initiative of envoys has shrunk considerably, at least when sensitive issues are concerned.

(p. xxxi) The communications revolution has also shortened the time available for making decisions. The advent of 24-hour news coverage and multiple information outlets forces governments to react to developments quickly or risk being portrayed as indecisive. The new media environment also creates expectations and standards of performance that are often set unreasonably high.2 Anyone involved in the management of a humanitarian crisis knows how quickly the media will focus on deficiencies in the delivery of relief supplies, for instance.

Traditional diplomacy has often traded in secrecy and unacknowledged understandings. Many ‘backroom negotiations’ still take place but few of them remain secret for long.3 The trend towards greater transparency is irreversible. Contemporary diplomats must pay as much attention to the public impact of their actions and recommendations as to their substantive merits.

Another major difference from my early days as a diplomat is the growing number of summit meetings and, more generally, the personal and ongoing involvement of leaders and ministers in the conduct of day-to-day diplomacy. This is of course not an entirely new phenomenon. There are many examples in history of kings and presidents coming together to make peace or divide the spoils of war. But they did so only in extraordinary circumstances. Now, political leaders meet on a regular basis. Most countries are members of many organizations that hold summits every few years, even, in some cases, on a yearly basis. At any opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, more than a third of the entire membership of 193 states will be represented at the head-of-state or head-of-government level. The Millennium Summit in 2000 was attended by no fewer than 150 leaders.4

These gatherings build enormous pressures on the leaders to deliver results. Too often, they yield minimal agreement wrapped up in grand-sounding declarations. Are these numerous summits worth all the efforts (and money) that go into them? Judging by their outcomes, it is not hard to conclude that the law of diminishing returns has set in. But let us remember these meetings bring other benefits to their participants. They are occasions to conduct a great deal of bilateral business in the course of a few days. Furthermore, leaders get to know one another personally and develop a measure of camaraderie, which may help to steer relations away from confrontation when a crisis occurs.

Summits have become magnets for civil society gatherings of, at times, gigantic proportions. The role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in international relations has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Easy communication and cheap travel have allowed NGOs to mobilize themselves across borders. Individual governments and international organizations have had to adjust and give them opportunities to be heard.

The United Nations (UN) has a long experience with NGOs. The UN Charter makes specific mention of them in article 71, which stipulates that the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) ‘may make suitable arrangements for consultations with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence’. Such consultations have extended well beyond the ECOSOC to include practically every issue before the General Assembly.

(p. xxxii) In the last decade or so, the Security Council has adopted the practice of holding regular, informal consultations with NGOs. The latter have proved to be an invaluable source of information on the fate of civilian populations in conflict zones as well as being indispensable partners of the UN humanitarian agencies in the field.

Traditional NGOs now share the scene with many other interest groups including business associations, think tanks, labour groups, charitable foundations, religious leaders, scientists, artists, and many others. Parliamentarians have always played a role nationally in the formulation of foreign policy. Nowadays, they too seek to make their views heard internationally, through their various international associations.

In many countries, major foreign policy decisions are often preceded by extensive consultations. As Kathryn Hochstetler describes in Chapter 9 of this volume, modern diplomats may be called upon to meet with a vast array of civil society representatives and must be able to interact constructively with people who come to the issues at hand from widely varying perspectives. They will at times find themselves at the receiving end of sharp criticisms and vigorous pressure. Agreement will not come easily, if at all. NGOs are, almost by definition, single-issue driven. Diplomacy, on the other hand, usually requires reconciling different and often conflicting objectives.

In my experience, interaction with NGOs can be rewarding for both sides, even on the most controversial issues. Taking the time to explain one's position is never time wasted. For their part, most civil society representatives welcome encounters with diplomats, provided the latter are prepared to listen and engage in an honest conversation.

The last several decades have also seen a global reordering of foreign policy priorities. The risks of global war have receded and interstate conflicts are less frequent than in the past, while concerns for human rights and the protection of innocent civilians in internal conflicts have moved up the international agenda.

Since the end of the cold war, the international community has taken action to stop abuses in situations that would have been considered off-limits in earlier times. UN peacekeeping, which Pierre Schori discusses in detail in Chapter 43 of this volume, has evolved from the simple interposition of lightly-armed soldiers to the deployment of thousands of soldiers, police officers, and civilian staff mandated to maintain law and order, protect civilian populations, rebuild institutions, and help with the reconstruction of war-torn societies. Recent institutions like the International Criminal Courts5 and norms like the ‘responsibility to protect’6 have embedded the new ethical trends in far-reaching governance tools.

Contemporary diplomatic agendas are also increasingly focused on issues that used to be within the purview of domestic policies but have now crossed over to the foreign policy realm because of significant cross-borders dimensions. Most prominent among them are numerous environmental questions such as climate change, water pollution, biodiversity, and desertification. Modern-day diplomats have to be fully conversant with questions, many of which are discussed in Part V of this Handbook, as diverse as infectious diseases, drugs smuggling and international crimes, food security, human trafficking, cyber-security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and many, many others.

(p. xxxiii) Diplomats used to form a separate ‘brotherhood’ within their national bureaucracy, exercising almost complete control over their country's foreign relations. With the growing globalization of issues that used to be confined to the domestic realm, experts from outside the foreign ministry have become much more active on the international scene. This poses many challenges to governments and their professional diplomats.

One such challenge is the risk of incoherence and ineffectiveness in a country's international projection, as each domestic department unwittingly ends up running its own foreign policy, suited to fit its own particular priorities and concerns. All governments are struggling to find effective ways of coordinating the bewildering array of international engagements. ‘Joined-up government’ and ‘whole-of-government’ are but a few examples of terms used to describe attempts to bring a little order in the international relations houses of nations big and small.

Diplomats are often best placed to note contradictions and discrepancies in the foreign activities of the various arms of their government. They have a natural coordination role to play, but that role can be played effectively only if all the stakeholders involved accept it. That, in turn, rests on the ability of diplomats and the foreign ministries to add genuine value to the treatment of issues ‘owned’ by specialized departments.

In an age of over-abundant information, easy travel, and instantaneous communications, some are tempted to conclude that the services of professional diplomats are no longer required. As former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is reported to have said several decades ago, ‘Why pay good money to keep an army of diplomats abroad so they can report something I have already read in my morning newspaper?’.

Of course, diplomats do a lot more than just report on events in their country of accreditation and the smart ones have long since stopped trying to compete with the media in this regard. Their value added is the profound understanding of the outside world that they can bring to bear on the consideration of issues of interest to their country. Such understanding cannot be acquired simply by watching the news on television, by exchanging emails with distant partners, or by occasional visits to distant lands. This is the fruit of a life-long commitment to the field of international relations and a willingness to spend a good part of one's life away from home, steeped in the realities of foreign societies and cultures. Professional diplomats will never match the knowledge of technical experts and should not pretend that they do. But they are best placed to map out the strategy and identify the tactics to achieve national goals internationally.

Diplomacy is an art, not a science. Once one has mastered the history, studied the norms, understood the institutions, and figured out the players, there is one last, crucial lesson to learn. It has to do with the very human dimension of diplomacy.

Diplomacy is about persuasion, not coercion. It is about looking for and finding common ground, about forging agreement and achieving a balance of benefits that will allow each party to go home with at least some degree of satisfaction.

(p. xxxiv) Trust is an essential element of successful diplomacy. The old joke that a diplomat is a person sent abroad to lie for his country could not be further from the reality. I was taught from the very beginning of my career that ‘a good diplomat never lies’. She may not be able to share everything that she knows with her interlocutor but she realizes that she will lose all ability to build trust if she takes too many liberties with the truth.

Needless to say, a certain amount of discretion is essential. If every piece of information, every comment received in confidence is liable to find itself on the front page of a newspaper, the conduct of diplomacy will be severely undermined. Without assurances of confidentiality, it may be impossible to build the kind of personal rapport that is so often key to convincing rivals, competitors, or enemies to take that one final step to seal a deal, to lay down arms, to forge a new partnership. Total transparency in diplomacy is not a virtue, no more than it is in private life.

Diplomacy requires patience and an open mind. A diplomat who shows genuine interest in the history and culture of the country to which she is accredited, who refrains from passing peremptory judgements on the behaviour of its political leaders and the mores of its people, who listens more than she preaches will easily win the hearts and the confidence of her interlocutors.

Diplomacy remains, in many respects, an old-fashioned trade. Diplomats no longer have the monopoly of diplomatic transactions, if they ever did, but they continue to enjoy a special status in the countries and institutions where they serve. The rituals that surround the presentation of credentials are more than traditions. They serve as a reminder of the basic rules of civility, agreed to centuries ago, that underpin relations among states to this day. It is a great honour to be able to serve one's country as an ambassador. It is never without some emotion and a justified sense of pride that a new ambassador presents his or her credentials.

It is true that with globalization and interdependence everybody is forced to be a diplomat of sorts from time to time, but the intermediation of a cadre of professionals remains an essential tool for the conduct of any country's foreign relations. This Handbook will make the job of learning the tricks of this noble and ancient trade a little easier for the next generation of diplomats.

Louise Fréchette


(1.) For more, see Part I of this volume, where the co-editors chart the changing landscape of diplomacy in the 21st century.

(2.) Shawn M. Powers describes this changing media situation in Chapter 11, this volume.

(3.) A fact that Daryl Copeland addresses in Chapter 25, this volume, through his treatment of WikiLeaks.

(4.) For more on this, see Richard Feinberg's Chapter 16 on ‘Summit Diplomacy’ in this volume.

(5.) For more, see Benjamin Schiff's Chapter 41 in this volume.

(6.) Thomas G. Weiss explores this further in Chapter 42 of this volume.