Belgian Economic Affairs Advisor, Joris Totté, explains that while governments are reducing diplomatic presence around the world, the role of the diplomat is becoming ever increasingly complex with the world globalisation trends.
Globalization, defined as the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of life (Held, 2000), has not only changed the way in which nation states do business with each other, but questioned the relevance of having embassies on the ground all together. Recently, this trend has been reinforced by the budgetary constraints faced by many Western countries after the global financial crisis. According to the Global Diplomacy Index, more than half of the developed nations have reduced their diplomatic presence over the last decade (Oliver, 2018).
A canary in a coal mine?
The question seems valid. Who needs diplomats and embassies in a globalized village-like world where travel is easy and information and analysis is readily available? Especially the ever faster turnaround time of information has dramatically challenged two core businesses of a diplomatic mission: the quality and speed of information analysis, and the quality, speed, dependability and flexibility of consular assistance (Stern 2015, Campbell, 2015, Manojlovic, et al. 2007). This in turn has led to a questioning of the cost/benefit of having an expensive operation of more than one hundred embassies worldwide. Putting this in terminology of Slack et al., we can say that globalization has profoundly questioned the structure and scope of diplomatic operations. Facts seem to confirm the argument. Belgium for example closed eighteen diplomatic missions in 2015, mainly smaller embassies and consulates-general in Europe. Some see in this a confirmation of the idea that diplomatic representation is redundant in the age of easy travel and fast communications.
But faster communication and easy travel, are just a part, albeit a very visible one, of the story. Globalization has led to increased mobility of citizens and companies globally, leading to a dramatic increase in demand for visa, in combination with raised security concerns because of the surge in non-state actors, and cross-border crime (Manojlovic et al., 2007). This places new strains on the process of visa delivery. Digitalization has also reinforced the need of credible and independent analysis in an age where endless new suppliers of information have challenged not only the quality of the product of an embassy, but also the speed at which it is delivered. In addition, information gathering and consular affairs are only one part of diplomacy, besides the building of meaningful relationships, protect national interests and represent the nation and negotiate on its behalf. Globalization has led to a myriad of new actors on the diplomatic scene, leading to the emergence of a sub-state diplomacy (Manojlovic et al., 2007) and a multiplication of themes and issues to be discussed among nation states (Cambell, 2015).
The conclusion is that globalization has challenged and changed the way diplomacy works rather than the nature of it. Diplomacy continues to be about building and maintaining relations. (Campbell, 2015). In a more global, interconnected world, diplomacy as a tool, and diplomats as executors, are needed more than ever. (Stern 2015, Campbell 2015, Manojlovic et al., 2007)
This explains how the reduction of the diplomatic footprint by closing embassies is not a sign of diminishing relevance, but of a way to adapt the network to a changing reality. Rising to the challenge, closing operations is part of the answer, but outsourcing, integration, innovation and adaptations in capacity are just as much part of the picture. Embassies try to cope with the increased pressure on consular affairs by outsourcing the non-strategic logistical part of visa processing. This has the added benefit of providing extra security by locating visa counters outside of embassies. Integrating operation with likeminded countries has been another way to adapt. Belgium is currently co-locating embassies with the Netherlands in some parts of the world. Countries also invest in product innovation like new security features on passports, the emergence of digital embassies, and providing e-services to citizens. Capacity changes involve the opening of new diplomatic postings where national interest demands so and reinforcing others, especially there where the ‘interconnectedness’ takes place, in multilateral fora in Brussels, New York, Geneva and other political ‘hubs’.
This being said, government organizations like ministries are only slowly responding to these challenges, often reluctant to change (Manojlovic, M. et al. 2007), while change is happening at a fast pace. The future of diplomacy holds challenges such as increased polarization and conflict, foreign interference in elections, digital warfare and an increase of climate related disasters, to name a few. But the future also holds opportunities like consular data mining, block chain technology for visa delivery, 3D printing, and even remote sensing.
So there is no time for complacency in diplomacy. Embassies and diplomats will have to keep increasing their flexibility and adapt faster to an ever changing reality. They need not fear their job or relevance, but more losing their grip on what’s happening around them. They risk losing the necessary time to develop in in-depth knowledge of their host state, a prerequisite for good understanding and analysis (Campbell, 2015)
Campbell, F. (2015). Has Globalization changed the Nature of Diplomacy? Ethical Standards in Public Life, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University (online). Available at: https://www.vhi.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/resources-folder/campbell-2015
Held, D., et al. (2000). Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Politics at the Edge. Political Studies Association Yearbook Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London
Manojlovic, M., Thorheim, C. (2007), Crossroads of Diplomacy: New Challenges, New Solutions. Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, The Hague (online). Available at: https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/20071000_cdsp_paper_manojlovic.pdf
Oliver, A. (2018). The Irrelevant Diplomat. Foreign Affairs (online), Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2016-03-14/irrelevant-diplomat
Slack, N., et al (2016). Operations management. 8th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.
Stern, M. (2015) 5 trends for the future of diplomacy, World Economic Forum(online). Available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/08/5-trends-for-the-future-of-diplomacy/