So, you think that you might like to become a diplomat…

If you are stimulated by the challenge of global issues, the excitement of international travel, and the opportunity to make a difference in a world desperate for more talking and less fighting, then diplomacy may be a good choice.

But it is also widely misunderstood and it might not be quite the job you imagined.

Some diplomats work for regional institutions, such as ASEAN or the OAS, and more work for for multilateral organizations, such as the UN and its specialized agencies. There are a few private sector diplomats available for hire, and some who work for NGOs and offer their services pro bono. Licenses are not required – or even available – and the profession, unlike medicine or engineering, is not self-regulating.

There is, nonetheless, a centre of gravity for diplomats, and that, for better and for worse, is the state. The vast majority of serving diplomats are employed by national governments. The observations offered here are drawn from my own experience in that regard.

I won’t bore readers with a rundown of entrance requirements. These vary somewhat between countries, but most foreign services are looking for proficiency in a second (and preferably third) internationally relevant language; at least one, and sometimes an advanced university degree, and; recruit actively in an annual process. The front line is usually a comprehensive exam which assesses aptitudes, knowledge and writing skills and serves as a primary screening tool. This is typically followed by an interview (or several) to assess the personal suitability of top rated applicants, often through role-plays designed to pry the candidate’s lid off. The last step is a series of reference and security checks. The whole thing may take a year or more from start to finish, which is itself problematic for many job-seekers.

Your local foreign ministry’s web site will set out recruitment details. What it won’t do is provide the information required to help you assess whether or not this might be the career choice for you. Nor will it provide much advice on what it takes to succeed.

Diplomacy is in flux, and today’s effective diplomat will need all of the skills of the traditional envoy – judgement, tact, intellect, discretion – and a good many more. Some crucial “competencies” will be more easily acquired by backpacking the world than through enrolment in the programs offered by the finest Ivy League colleges. More than a few of the key skills will be specific to place and have as much to do with receiving messages as sending them.

In most governments, becoming a diplomat means joining the foreign service, which consists of a distinct cadre of career employees who alternate between serving at home and abroad. Foreign service officers may specialize in negotiation, analysis and cross-cultural representation, or in particular issue clusters such as area knowledge, international law or multilateral institutions. As the primary expression of the human factor in diplomacy, the foreign service is a critical component in the diplomatic ecosystem. But as an institution it is also somewhat of a curiosity in government – the membership is not only dispersed around the world, but even at home members are often spread across several departments and different occupational groups. This can be a disadvantage, for instance, when it comes to negotiating the terms and conditions of employment.

Any competent public servant can assemble a briefing book or organize the program for a high-level visit. Far fewer can talk intelligently about the differences between British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonialism, for example, or the economic impact of Taoism, or the comparative political influence of Islam. The capacity to produce the kind of value-added analysis borne of intimate familiarity with a subject, country or region has been a defining feature of the foreign service, but today, due to resource reductions, overstretch and a debilitating mix of internal difficulties, that capacity has been diminished. And while there is almost endless talk about knowledge workers, continuous learning and professional development, not to mention addressing problems related to family income maintenance, pensions and spousal employment, the reality often subverts the rhetoric.

The defining characteristics, skills and abilities of the twenty-first century diplomat? Developing and maintaining key interpersonal contacts, nurturing networks and sustaining relationships by connecting with populations, decision-makers and opinion-leaders; partnering with civil society actors in business, universities, think tanks and NGOs, and; using the new and conventional media strategically. Judgement, experience, intellect and instinct are pre-requisites. The capacity to manage complex issues, many rooted in science and driven by technology, and to be effective interpersonally and cross-culturally is an unusual mix. The critical representative function, moreover, cannot be delivered by haughty snobs or sullen sociophobes. Nor can it be entirely sub-contracted to local staff.

In an ideal world it might be possible to convince most people of the intrinsic value of diplomacy and the foreign service. Unfortunately, we don’t live there, and in the real world many believe that anyone can do the job. I believe that conviction not only misguided, but damaging, and complicated too often by feelings of resentment or envy. To be sure, some political appointees and domestic public servants appointed to the foreign service have performed with distinction. Yet while there will always be a place for talented amateurs and well-meaning “wannabes”, in the foreseeable future most national governments will need the services of a highly dedicated group of employees, both generalists and specialists, who are ready and willing to go almost anywhere, and to do almost anything, at almost any time.

I set out some of the main personal and professional elements required of a contemporary diplomat in an article commissioned by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is entitled No Dangling Conversation: Portrait of the Public Diplomat, and you can read it here.

To wrap up. Diplomacy matters, but it is in crisis, and neither it, as a tool of statecraft, not its conservative and risk-averse institutions, the foreign ministry and foreign service,  have adapted well to the challenges and imperatives of globalization.  Yet there is no equivalent to or substitute for the unique role that these  institutions in integrating the actions of national governments abroad. In my experience no other government department or group of employees understands the world better, nor has a more comprehensive, holistic view of the interconnectivity of issues. And, with generational change looming and attrition running high,  new diplomatic recruits are needed.

If you think that you are the kind of person who can get from theory to practice, from saying to doing, from looking to seeing, and from hearing to listening, then diplomacy might be a career worth investigating. That said, if you want to know more, and to have an edge on the competition in the rigorous and highly selective recruitment process, then you should read Guerrilla Diplomacy.

It is imperfect, but it does contain everything I’ve learned so far.