Becoming a Diplomat: A Choice Unbecoming of a Critical Mind?

I recently gave a keynote speech at a high school in the Bronx, NY for which I had been asked to offer some reflections on the career choice of becoming a diplomat. Note that becoming a diplomat was in fact one of my professional aspirations. Upon joining the UN however, I found the reality of bureaucratic routine rather sobering. I am sketching some of the systemic reasons below. Ultimately [years down the road, that is] these soundbites are supposed to feed into a book-length manuscript on organizational theory in international affairs, using the UN as a rich case study. Therefore, comments are not only welcome (as usual) but strongly encouraged.

One of the most striking inherent contradictions of the profession of diplomacy as I came to see it is that it tends to attract the brightest young people [I exclude myself here] who then volunteer to become muted and streamlined into ideologies and goals they rarely admired in the first place. International diplomacy in general and multilateral diplomacy in colorful conferences in particular tends to attract idealists, even though realists fare much better in the windowless world of meeting rooms, dispatches, and backroom deals.

At the same time, bureaucracies require specialization to manage complexity; this is in fact one of their defining features. Yet most international diplomats are decidedly generalist, and new recruits are screened accordingly. This mismatch lies at the core of what could be called a system of ‘meritocratic mediocrity’.  Diplomats are chosen for breadth, not depth, and therefore rarely understand local contexts well enough to justify their agenda-setting role in international politics.

Moreover, the context in which conventional diplomacy is taking place renders it highly anachronistic. Global diplomacy is firmly dependent on upward accountability (see also the ‘Independent Diplomat‘ by Carne Ross). Reports, memos, case scenarios are sent ‘up’ for decision-making, not down, even though most stakeholders are located ‘down here’. The core problem is thus the definition of stakeholder. When the UN holds its umpteenth global conference, genuinely poor people are flown in to represent ‘the poor’ everywhere. The Voices of the Poor are collected in massive primary research exercises. But decision-making power is rarely shared. Participation is, in reality, consultation at best. So how can diplomacy play a positive role for change if it merely listens on occasion?

In sum, becoming a diplomat today is probably best compared to being ordained as a priest: preaching values that are widely shared but regularly broken; defending positions that are strategically compelling but increasingly seldom in tune with ordinary lives; and bathing in public respect and recognition while coping with personal realities of seduction and sin. The key difference is that one profession serves the divine; the other serves the profane. Surely there are alternative ways, and professions, to do more good in this world.

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6 thoughts on “Becoming a Diplomat: A Choice Unbecoming of a Critical Mind?

  1. congratulations on your new blog! It is quite a pleasure to read! This post, however, made me sad. As someone neatly on track to join the rank-and-file at the Foreign Service, I still hold my own idealistic viewpoints. But, I feel much more a realist with a pragmatic outlook, merely possessing the drive and rigor of an idealist. You fault the structure of diplomatic institutions, but is that reason enough to discourage the entry of new classes of diplomats to the UN, the State Department and the like? Clearly something needs to be fixed. The Marines that have been “surged” into Afghanistan and their Operation Khanjar comrades are already asking, where is the civilian “surge”? Of course, the State Department response is that they are still being trained. Again, I agree that something needs to be fixed. BTW, for those that like questioning assumptions, I found this good: http://blogs.uit.tufts.edu/gettinghumanitarianaidright/2009/07/insufficient_ev.html

  2. Thanks a lot for your comment, Matthew.

    Let’s begin where we agree: that something is in need of being fixed. As you rightly point out, I believe that this ‘something’ is located in the structure of global diplomacy. But when we speak of individual career decisions, we speak of agents and not of structures. Therefore, it seems to me that the central question at hand is whether or not large bureaucracies such as the State Department or the United Nations can be changed by well-meaning actors from inside.

    For clarity’s sake, let me distinguish the two main types of entities in state-led international relations: bilateral and multilateral. I would argue that in general, bilateral agencies are more powerful but also more prone to abuse. Conversely, multilateral agencies are less (ab)usable while at the same time also being less influential, at least in the short term.

    You are stating that that you are about to join a bilateral agency. My primary concern in this case is that your personal attitude, whether realistic or idealistic, ultimately won’t matter. Yes, I do believe that realists fare better in these bureaucracies, but not because they necessarily make better policies but because they are more willing to work with what’s there. And that’s precisely the problem: what is there is the structure that we both believe needs to change.

    How, then, can this structure be changed? Like many others in the social sciences, I have had the opportunity to speak with officials working for US, UK and German governmental bodies as well as servants [NB: there is a reason why these people are officially called servants] of multilateral agencies. I did so during my three years inside the United Nations as well as while conducting field research. If anything, these conversations have strengthened my doubts that bureaucracies might enlist for the ‘right causes’–for simplicity let us assume that these matters are those which both of us find worthy of international support–as a result of internal decision-making. Quite the contrary, they tend to do so in response to external pressures.

    Since you are getting ready to join the world’s most powerful bilateral agency, my primary concerns are that (i) your idealism will be asphyxiated within a few years, if not months; (ii) in turn, your sense of realism (including your entirely legitimate career aspirations) will prompt you to become part of compromises that serve to stabilize the overall structure rather than catalyzing the kind of radical reform that is needed; and (iii) you ultimately become a functional component of this influential but politically (ab)usable structure.

    [Were you to join the UN instead, my concerns would of course be different. I would be less troubled by the possible evils in which you may become complicit. I would, however, be even more perturbed by the inevitable loss of talent.]

    All of this would be merely theoretical banter if no workable alternatives existed. Yet there are many. Become a investigative journalist, for instance. Write a book. Make a movie. Run for state-level politics. Build your own non-governmental organization, one that fully espouses your values without compromise. Start a company; if it succeeds, donate a chunk of its profits to a charitable cause that fascinates you. Better even, start a company in a location marked by high unemployment and rampant poverty, whether in the US or abroad.

    The most common objection to these suggestions is that the influence that one exerts in these roles is likely going to be smaller compared to a job in interstate diplomacy. I firmly believe that this is a misjudgment, at the core of which lies the all too uncomfortable admission that by joining one of the aforementioned systems, you sacrifice–or severely compromise at least–what is most precious: your moral compass.

    Granted, they pay well for it. But so does the devil when he tempts your soul.

  3. Congratulations on the blog. You are one of the few people I can think of that really should have one. It is enormously enjoyable and instructive. Not surprisingly, I wholeheartedly disagree with you on all this.

    Now I didn’t join the foreign service out of idealism, but mainly becaused I liked the workplace climate, the benefits and the status. But I do like to think of myself as a critical mind. I also have a moral compass that I like to consult. And I am quite certain that this job has given me more opportunities to influence important decisions in the way my compass tells me than I could have attained with any other career choice at my age, and given my set of skills and attitudes.

    Of course multilateral diplomacy doesn’t work very well. Neither does democracy, for that matter. Or capitalism. But for now we are stuck with them for want of a better alternative. That shouldn’t keep good people from seeking positions of influence within those systems. Even a flawed system will tend to produce relatively better results if it is not left to crooks and morons.

    I think the main source of my disagreement isn’t on the inherent disadavantages of diplomacy as such, but rather in the comparison you draw with other possible career choices:
    – Journalist/ Book/ Movie – Granted, if you have the skill to really excel at any of these things, becoming a diplomat might be a waste of your talent and will demand more moral compromises. But as a mediocre journalist, author or director your chances of making a difference are pretty damn slim.
    – Politics: If you are an idealist, politics will crush you. Except if you have exceptional charisma.
    – NGOs: Too small to have an impact, Except if you are exceptionally patient. Or big and just as bad as government/multilateral bureaucracy.
    – Business: Seriously?

    As I am proud to have learned from you some time ago, in the end it all comes down to POWER. The structure you so decry is based on power, and if you want to change it you need power. The problem with power: “They” won’t just hand it to you for free. And as an idealist, you forgo some of the tools for wresting it from “them”. There are a few exceptions: Great artists, inventors, charismatic leaders. For those of us whose main assets are intellectual, the one niche we have cut out for ourselves relatively close to power is bureaucracy. In some areas such as diplomacy and public financial institutions “they” have entrusted us with some of their power because we have somehow convinced them that it is too hard for them.

    If politics is “slowly drilling through thick boards with passion and perceptiveness” (Weber), diplomacy is as good a drill as any, and depending on your set of skills it might be the right drill for you. Just don’t expect the boards to be thinner at the UN than elsewhere. And don’t expect your fancy new diplomatic status to to be a power tool that does the drilling for you.

    • Dear dasbeh,

      Belatedly but with no less appreciation, let me thank you for your thoughtful and justifiably passionate comment on my original posting. Allow me to encourage you and other readers to check out a promising new program produced by BBC Radio 4. It is based on nine so-called ‘valedictory dispatches’ submitted by Her Majesty’s Ambassadors upon their departures from the countries where they had been serving the Crown. These dispatches have only recently been made public and can be downloaded from the BBC website. They illustrate rather beautifully, imaginably in perfect URP English, what the diplomatic service was and continues to be first of all: a parquet for initially gifted people struck by a quasi-schizophrenic trauma which makes them demand status and privilege for subordinating their lives to superstructures which, as we seem to agree, are seriously inefficient.

      Yet inefficiency is only one side of the coin. The other side is this institution’s continuing leverage to derail and exacerbate political processes through exclusionary practice. It is this lack of control and accountability about which I am primarily concerned. Carne Ross’s book offers an excellent depiction of this crucial disconnect. I would therefore argue that although my own exposure to international diplomacy leads me to cast serious doubt on your apparent faith in individual moral compasses (given diplomats’ seemingly omnipresent sense of personal entitlement), what ultimately condemns the institution is its systemic ignorance of the ‘locations of politics’ in the present day.

      Never before have conferences, gray corridors and red telephones been so challenged by alternative fora of political deliberation. International politics is no longer an affair between states. The spread of democracy (which has been caused by popular demand and not by allegedly well-meaning top-down supply administered by diplomats) is precisely the reason why any young woman or man joining the diplomatic service of her or his country today forgoes critical avenues of political change. Worse even, the more the institution of international diplomacy is challenged, the more its organizations will focus on their fight for survival. I fail to understand how this dynamic offers anything to a young university graduate that would be enticing enough to join the last long battle of an anachronistic behemoth.

  4. I mostly agreey with Daniel and would like to stress/introduce two points: Lifestyle and ‘micro-level’ observations. As an anthropologist who is engaging with the international aid and peacebuilding community I have come across quite a few instances were the diplomats/diplomatic community seemed particularly weak-especially compared to other ‘players’ in the field.
    But let’s start with lifestyle: (Stereo)typical white UN Landcruisers, facebook pictures of cute NGO girls partying hard and humanitarians posing in front of disused tanks-we all know by now that ‘development’ is an industry, a lifestyle for some and attracts what anthropologist Jock Stirrat calls ‘Mercenaries, missionaries and misfits’. But for some reason the diplomatic community often seems to be the least approachable, most out-of-touch-with-reality and most status-oriented group of expats in many developing countries. I can see how there are 10% or so fun jobs, that either carry some political clout (Ambassador in Washington, D.C., for example) or offer amazing insights into current affairs (Afghanistan, maybe)…but there are roughly 200 countries in the world and many are simply not that relevant in a global perspective or are geographically close and culturally familiar that the ‘wow-factor’ is missing. Clinging to the diplomatic lifestyle seems one way of coping with this problem. The reason why this lifestyle attracts so many bright people is that the diplomatic service is one of the few international careers that provides stability within changing jobs, rather than making people chase after short-term contracts or rushing from one emergency to another.
    So what *do* diplomats do all day in the ‘90%’ of the countries? In today’s world, (aid) money is often not channelled through embassies, political intelligence is gathered by NGOs and Think Tanks and advice for tourists, business people and everybody else can be found on the Internet or social networking. I am not saying that diplomats do ‘nothing’, but they easily get caught in the bureaucratic machine, because the procedures etc in your tiny embassy must be the same all over the world and in your home country’s foreign office. This is true for the UN system, too, and probably many other organization, but bending the rules as a country director for an NGO is different than bending rules as economic affairs officer…all of the sudden this whole issue of protocol appears and governs what you can say and how you have to send a cable message to HQ.
    Bottom line is that the diplomatic service relies too heavily on traditional rituals-but that they also have to, because this is what differentiates them from the many other players in international affairs-except that none of them can issue a passport to you or charges high sums of money to deter locals to apply for a visa…

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