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.