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Qualities of a Good Diplomat

H.E. Dr Hisham Al-Alawi, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to The Netherlands.

By H.E. Dr Hisham Al-Alawi, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to The Netherlands.

History of Diplomacy:  Diplomacy is a profession like medicine or law; its goal is to advance the national interests of a country through dialogue, negotiation and cooperation with the governments of other countries. It was only in the 18th Century that the organization and administration of Diplomacy within a single entity i.e. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), run by a Minister, came into force (Berridge, 2005).

The Foreign Office in UK was created in 1782 and the US State Department in 1789. Between 1840 and 1880, the world witnessed the emergence of more such ministries in China, Japan and Turkey. The role of MFA has expanded greatly over the years as a result of the multiplicity of actors and factors affecting international politics, international relations and, therefore, the formulation and conduct of Foreign Policy.

Traditional diplomacy was highly formal, institutional, slow, interpersonal, and usually protected by secrecy.   In his famous “Fourteen Points” speech of 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson advocated “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view” (Wilson, 1918), thus heralding what came to be known as the “new diplomacy”. This was primarily associated with exposing diplomacy to the media and public opinion.

Interrelated changes in politics, international relations, and mass communication that occurred in the last few decades have greatly expanded the media’s role in world events. The revolution in communication and information technologies (IT), the capability to broadcast –often live e.g. CNN effect- almost every significant development in world events to almost every place on our globe, and the creation and expansion of the internet, have led to the globalization of electronic communication and journalism and to substantial growth in networks, stations and consumers worldwide.

The communication and IT revolution also made the politics of international relations more interactive and enhanced the role of non-state actors such as opinion leaders and NGOs (Marshall, 1999).

These revolutionary changes have altered the meaning of power in contemporary world politics. It is a nation or leader’s image, control of information flow, ability to build good bilateral and multilateral cooperation with other states, and not just their military and economic power, that help determine their status in the international community. “Soft power”, defined as the ability to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion, is gradually replacing the more traditional forms of power (Bennis, 2006).

Governments have had to focus on multilateral cooperation and adopt new tools to deal with the new challenges of international terrorism, drugs trafficking, money laundering, global organised crime, illegal immigration, enforced migration, environmental degradation and cyber terrorism. 

H.E. Dr Hisham Al-Alawi, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to The Netherlands.

Qualities of a Good Diplomat:

The following are the qualities a Good Diplomat should possess, according to Sir Harold Nicolson (Nicolson, 1998): “Health, rapidity of understanding, patience, comparative sanity, great physical endurance, charm, no class prejudice up or down, immense curiosity, a neat manner with maps and papers, industry, accuracy, the power to ask inconvenient questions at the wrong moment, intimacy with the private secretaries of one’s own plenipotentiaries, the good taste to disguise that intimacy, the habit of looking upward and not downward when one does not know the answer to a question, courtesy, ability to type and fix carbon papers, acquaintance with economics, cleanliness, sobriety, cheerfulness, statistics from sources never mentioned, some proficiency in architecture and literature, capacity of enduring long dinner parties, honesty,  faculty of speaking well some foreign languages, no consummate belief in the immediate wisdom of the people or the press, a good memory, truthfulness and a complete sterilization of all human vanity”.

The main functions of diplomats are representation, negotiation, promotion of friendly relations, protection of the interests of citizens living abroad, and information gathering, analysis and distribution.

In my view, the most important and relevant topics that diplomatic training courses should cover are the qualities and functions of a good diplomat, how diplomats perform their duties, the risks they are exposed to and the means/tools they can use to protect themselves, negotiation and communication skills, the relation and interaction between diplomats and the media as well as the impact of IT on diplomacy.  

Diplomats are now required to be expert in at least two regions and fluent in two languages in order to be promoted to senior ranks. Currently, record numbers of diplomats are being trained in critical languages like Chinese, Urdu, Arabic and Farsi. Public diplomacy is now an important part of every diplomat’s job description. It is crucial to provide a common vision of hope and prosperity while engaging foreign publics and media.In the absence of clearly defined structures and predictable operational context, Diplomats rely on their Knowledge in all its variety, as their ultimate resource.

Information is increasingly available. The main question is how to process all the information that has become available in the era of information explosion and even saturation, in order to obtain value-added elements. This is the process known as Data-Mining. It entails combining Data, corroborating information related to them, drawing the analytical conclusions and thus, creating useful knowledge. Knowledge is the combination of information, training, experience and intuition. In Diplomacy, Knowledge takes different forms: the general knowledge gathered in education and upbringing, knowledge of Special Subjects gathered through specific Diplomatic training, knowledge gained through experience (knowledge of religions, cultures, procedures…etc.).

It is this knowledge that enables Diplomats to act appropriately in unpredictable situations Diplomacy these days has many new partners, but no single substitute. Political leaders and policy makers may get news of a crisis first from CNN rather than the relevant embassy cables, but diplomats are still necessary to provide the detailed political reporting from foreign lands.  
Adequate training of diplomats is very important:
To meet the challenges of “new” diplomacy, diplomats must be diverse, well-rounded, active, and able to carry out multiple tasks. Diplomacy in the 21st Century requires that the right people have the right skills in the right place at the right time. Continued training and career development programs will better prepare diplomats and advance their expertise.

Diplomats are definitely still needed, but what we need are good diplomats. Diplomats are necessary to preserve world peace, and maintain and promote friendly relations between states. Apart from what is required of diplomats in the past, diplomats of the 21st century must follow the latest developments of IT technology and make full use of them. They will not only be analyzing policy and shaping outcomes, but also running programmes.

They might be also asked to help foreign citizens to promote democracy and nation building, fight corruption, start businesses, improve healthcare, and reform education. To reach beyond the borders of the traditional diplomatic structures and beyond foreign capitals, diplomats will have to move out from behind their desks into the field, from reporting on outcomes to shaping them. In addition, 21st century technology will be used more widely to engage foreign publics more directly via the media and Internet, and to better connect diplomats in real time. 



1. Bennis, A.I. (2006) The Powerful Tools of Foreign Policy, Diplomacy: Practice, Procedure and   Dynamics, Module Workbook: Lectures Volume II, Diplomatic Academy of London, University of Westminster.

2. Berridge G.R. (2005) Diplomacy: Theory and Practice 3rd ed. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

3. Marshall P. (1999) Positive Diplomacy. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

4. Nicolson, H. (1998) Diplomacy. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Washington DC.5. Wilson, Woodrow. Fourteen Points Speech of 1918. Accessed on: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=62. Retrieved on 02/11/2012.

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