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Blog Post | Foreign Ministries’ Responses to Growing Complexity, and How to Study Them

Christian Lequesne introduces the upcoming special issue on Ministries of Foreign Affairs in this blog post.

Winds of Change

From the dawn of time, when groups of gatherers first encountered one another, communication and negotiation have been central to human existence. Yet, the practice of diplomacy is in constant flux. 17th century diplomacy, conducted by Ambassadors stationed in foreign courts, was radically different from 20th century diplomacy conducted by representatives to multilateral institutions. Diplomacy in the 21st century diplomacy will once again show great, and much faster, change. In recent years, many scholars have focused their attention on the migration of state power, upward to transnational organizations, such as the EU, and downward to networks of individuals and businesses.  

A myriad of processes that have directly affected ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) are reshaping diplomacy. Change in the work of MFAs is at the center of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy special issues “Foreign Ministries Revisiting a Crucial Institution”, which will be available online this month. Diplomatic services have altered dramatically. Women now play a crucial role while ethnic minorities have risen in prominence. Moreover, work processes and practices have changed as many MFAs nowadays spend much more of their time on public diplomacy concerns and consular affairs. The remit of MFAs within governments has also altered: civil servants in line ministries, dealing with important sectoral issue areas like health and the environment, now collaborate directly with their peers in other countries. New actors that have entered the diplomatic arena range from more or less familiar civil society organizations to corporations and celebrities. These actors challenge diplomats and MFAs as their rise implies that diplomats have to share power with others.

The Goals of the Special Issue

This special issue sought to demonstrate empirically and theoretically that MFAs in 2021 are radically different from what they were in the 1980s. First, people have changed. Unlike the past, women now play a crucial role in MFAs. Ethnic diversity has entered institutions dominated for a long time (at least in the West) by pale males. Affirmative action policies have been created in the Indian or Brazilian MFAs to reinforce such ethnic diversity. This new diversity needs to be studied. 

Second, practices have changed. Much of MFAs’ work is now devoted to public diplomacy, while using social networks, social media and the internet to support foreign policy actions. New challenges such as fake news demand that MFAs and diplomats adopt new policies and acquis new skills.  

Third, MFAs have list their monopoly on managing a state’s foreign affairs. Indeed, MFAS face competition within their state (e.g. with other bureaucratic agencies, intelligence services) and outside their states (e.g. with NGOs, celebrities). MFAs are relational objects by essence. This empirical observation fits within established theories of diplomacy that highlight the importance of relations and networks. Several theoretical accounts in this special issue offer a stimulating reflection on that. Practitioners (e.g., diplomats) have also been asked to reflect on their experiences and concerns about MFAs.

Early career contributions

Beyond change, MFAs have also had to respond to growing complexity. For instance, greater societal diversity has called for policies that allow for the advancement of women and ethnic minorities. Similarly, the emergence of social media changes how people access information and learn about the world. As one article in the HJD special posits, MFAs have had to adopt new working routines, norms and values as part of their migration online. Similarly, MFAs have had to respond to the rise of tech companies that transcend national borders and influence global markets. In response, some governments, following the example of Denmark, have decided to send resident ambassadors to Silicon Valley.        

Sweeping change across the spectrum of MFA activities affects the study of MFAs. A greater variety of research methods must be employed to study 21st century diplomacy, including network and big data analysis. Testing new theories is important to comprehend fully the institutional changes that MFAs have undergone over the past decade. MFAs are not operating in an autonomous fashion. If they ever have lurked in the shadows, that is no longer the case. Modern diplomacy is more transparent, and MFAs and their diplomats increasingly collaborate with other ministries and government officials. This special issue makes a start with a much-needed re-examination of a crucial institution, and early career scholars make a significant contribution. The contents respond to the need for empirical studies, and include a forum consisting of three theoretical and two practitioners’ essays. Taken together, they provide a variety of insights in MFA responses to growing institutional, national and international complexity.

A central role for the MFA?

This HJD special issue draws attention to the need to diversify the study of foreign ministries. Future studies should not overlook countries in which MFAs do not manage foreign policy, but other state organs. For instance, given the Pakistani National Army’s domination of foreign policy, what is the role of the foreign ministry? What is the relationship between the Russian MFA and the Ministry of Defence? These are just two examples of a myriad of governments where the central role of the MFA in diplomacy cannot be taken for granted.

This special issue offers a first glimpse into a new line of academic inquiry and as such, it poses as many questions as it answers.

Christian Lequesne is a Professor at Sciences Po, Paris.

Foreign Ministries: Revisiting a Crucial Institution”

Research Articles 

  • "Gendered Diplomacy: A Comparison of Female and Male Ambassadors' Networks", Birgitta Niklasson
  • "Ethnic Diversity in the Recruitment of Diplomats: Why MFAs Take the Issue Seriously", Christian Lequesne, Gabriel Castillo, Minda Holm, Walid Jumblatt Bin Abdullah, Halvard Leira, Christian Lequesne, Kamma Tiwary, Reuben Wong (acc.)
  • "Diplomats, Agency Networks and Sanctions: the MFAs of France and Germany at the Age of Geoeconomic Diplomacy", Kim B. Olsen

  • "The Mediatisation of MFAs: Diplomacy in the New Media Ecology", Ilan Manor and Rhys Crilley

  • "From Delhi to Dili: Facebook Diplomacy by Ministries of Foreign Affairs in the Asia-Pacific", Damien Spry

Theory Forum

  • "Diplomacy as Relational Practice", Yaqing Qin
  • "Distributed Agency: Foreign Policy sans MFA", Jason Dittmer
  • "The site of foreign policy: a field theory account of MFA", Thierry Balzacq

Practitioners Forum

  • "Diplomacy in the Digital Age: Lessons from Denmark's TechPlomacy Initiative", Casper Klynge, Mikael Ekman and Nikolaj Juncher Waedegaard
  • "Journeying into the Diplomatic Unknown The 'Vergesellschaftung' of the German Auswärtiges Amt", Emilie Bartonek
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