On diplomacy, best of all worlds?

With an exam scheduled some months ago for 815 on a Saturday morning, my Friday night stretched into 3am reading Monocle. The culprit was an article on Brazilian diplomacy. The article discusses the investment President ‘Lula’ has made into foreign affairs, expanding the size of Foreign Affairs personnel and, between the lines, the intended consequences this should have. Naturally, this got me thinking about my experiences and contact with diplomats/diplomacy and why Brazil’s strategy is smart.

For instance, to enter the Turkish Foreign Ministry, you take a general exam, where you must score stratospheric points, then move on the the Foreign Service exam, then interview, specialised tests and so on, with a maximum of three attempts for entry. I have 4 friends/colleagues in this years class of just under 70 total, a quite larger class than usual. One drawback is the age and, to another extent specialization limit. The cut off is 28 and recruitment is largely from those with social sciences background. Some years ago a professor had commented on why Turkish Foreign Affairs are ‘weak’. With a population edging towards 74 million there are less than 1500 personnel in the Foreign Ministry, versus 5,700 serving the UK, 5,800 serving France, sufficient staff provides one clue.

One thing Turkey has done right is streamlining the MFA pages – the home page and also templates which are replicated in all Embassy/Consular offices around the world, with customizations in the form of Ambassador’s messages, country specific information and so on. This accessibility, particularly English versions of the home page, is a step forward by the Ministry.

Viva la hobnob!

The Canadian Foreign Service attracts their best and brightest from all fields – it is not necessary to have a political science or international relations background. The logic behind this is that diplomats represent the country, therefore the diversity in individuals and background provide an accurate reflection of the country.

The Australian Foreign Service recruits generally and via specialized programs, such as graduate recruitment and finance specialists. There is no age limit on either. Approximately 0.5% of those who apply make it through. One particular beautiful thing about the written component of the exam is that it is conducted over the internet – all you need is a reliable internet connection. It is ‘open’ book – meaning, you can refer to sources online or otherwise, but the exam is not testing rote learning on restatement of known policy but analytical and reasoning skills.

One thing missing in the analysis is incentive. If, as Monocle Editor in Chief, Tyler Brule suggests that the ministry be equipped with the smartest and best looking people in the country, then the ministries are up against some heady competition. How can the civil service compete when it comes to the private sector when it comes to compensation? It does depend on country but here are some parallels: number of (long) hours, travel opportunities, the cocktail/meet/greet/hob circuit, tax incentives (sometimes) but it does end about there. The diplo life is not for all. A few years out, then back to home base, then repeat the cycle again, and again. Skills can sometimes be seen as a bias – for instance knowing Japanese language and culture could be seen as unintended sympathy towards Japan. So much for skill acquisition versus private sector added values. Postings usually work along the following lines: home-hardship-home-nice posting. Private sector….not so much.

What can ministries offer that would attract (and complement) an even more diverse, clever, committed cadre? To serve one’s country is a matter of pride. That means that country needs to be attractive to serve – especially in untapped potential and opportunity. Shouldn’t work be about pursuing something personally satisfying, but also pursuing something greater than oneself? Perhaps that’s where the deficit lies – unsatisfactory links between the day to day and the long term, and without the little victories at postings along the journey, the gratification the private sector offers will continue to dilute the potential pool of promise… especially in those places which need them most.


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