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Blog Post | Pandemics, Bricks-and-Mortar, and Heads of Mission

Jorge Heine writes about 'bricks-and-mortar' diplomatic posts and their significance during a pandemic.

Brick and Mortar is Passé

In June 2020, the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced that it would close five of its embassies.   The missions to be closed were a bit of a smorgasbord — three of them in Europe (Denmark, Greece and Romania), one in Africa (Algeria) and one in Asia (Syria) — and the precise justification for their closing was unclear. Reference was made to a study by the MFA’s Planning Division, which relied on a number of indicators, including government transparency, innovation capacity and the number of Chilean students at local universities. Those embassies slated for closure allegedly ranked low in the Ministry’s study, which was never made public.

Chile is upgrading its trade agreement with the European Union (of which Denmark, Greece and Romania are members), and Chile has one of the biggest Syrian communities outside the Arab world. The decision to close the embassies was thus met with strong pushback from the public as well as from the broader Chilean foreign policy community. When a new foreign minister was appointed in a Cabinet reshuffle in July, he announced the embassies would not be closed after all.

Before that, however, the heads of at least two of Chile’s foreign policy research centers — the Centre for International Studies of the Catholic University of Chile and the privately funded Athena Lab  — had already come out in favor of the embassies’ closure. Bricks-and-mortar are passé, they argued. Virtual missions are the way to go, especially during a pandemic. Chile´s MFA must be brought, kicking and screaming into the 21st century, or so they said.1

The Benefits of Bricks-and-Mortar

As it happens, and as Shaun Riordan has so eloquently shown, they got it exactly backwards. It is during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic period that “brick-and-mortar” embassies, manned by flesh-and-blood diplomats have become more significant. At a time when overall travel is severely cut back and ministerial travel is at an all-time low, missions on the ground and across the world become increasingly important in reporting international events, helping nationals in need, and having their hand on the pulse of developments in the host country.2

In the West, but especially in the United States and in the United Kingdom, populist attacks on diplomats in general, and heads of mission in particular have escalated, costing at least three of them their jobs and their careers (the US ambassador to Ukraine and the UK’s envoys to Brussels and to Washington D.C.). What will the future hold for heads of mission? Will we continue to see the steady encroachment of other agencies into their turf and the eagerness of headquarters to micro-manage their agenda every step of the way?

Or rather, as the magnitude of the global challenges facing our world become apparent, will governments and MFAs realize that there is no substitute for a national representative on the ground? Indeed, the way forward is to enhance rather than to diminish that role, to empower rather than to belittle and humiliate them, as has become common practice in the Anglosphere.

China’s Warrior Ambassadors

We don’t know the answer to that question. But the outlook is not all bleak. In the case of at least one emerging superpower, the signals are encouraging. As Peter Martin shows in his forthcoming book, China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy (OUP, 2021), China has made a major effort to upgrade its foreign service over the course of the past decade, which today numbers around 8500 diplomats (roughly tenfold that of India). The MFA budget has increased at around 18% a year in this period. In 2019, China overtook the US in becoming the country with the highest number of diplomatic posts abroad with 169 embassies, 96 Consulates General, and 8 Permanent Missions. This has been part and parcel of a broader shift in Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. Xi has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s admonishment to “biding your time and hiding your strength”, taogang yanghui, in international affairs, and has become much more assertive on the world stage.

Beyond the numbers, this has also led to an augmented role for Chinese heads of mission. Starting in 2017, but gaining in impetus in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese ambassadors have left behind the wooden image and style traditionally associated with them that was so well portrayed in Xiaohong Liu’s book Chinese Ambassadors: The Rise of Diplomatic Professionalism since 1949 (University of Washington Press, 2001). They have become more dynamic and proactive players, casting much larger shadows in the public life of their host countries.

Chinese ambassadors have come to the fore, partly impelled by structural factors (China is the world’s largest economy in PPP terms since 2014), but also by agency (the yearly evaluations of Chinese ambassadors now includes a section on public diplomacy, and President Xi sent all Chinese diplomats a letter encouraging them to deploy “a greater fighting spirit” in 2019). They have embraced social media and have not let themselves be intimidated by the anti-China diplomatic offensives that ensued with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This more assertive approach was baptized Zhanlang (wolf warrior) diplomacy after a recent blockbuster film of the same title, which ends with the patriotic admonition: “Citizens of the PRC: When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland!”.

As the results of a 2020 Pew Research survey undertaken in fourteen Western countries show, the impact of this Chinese reaction has been, at best, mixed: “a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China” — though many respondents took an even dimmer view of the United States.

My broader point, though, is that we are seeing a significant shift in the role and responsibilities of diplomatic heads of mission from one of the major powers that is bound to play a key role in the new century. This should not go unnoticed in MFAs across the world.

Jorge Heine is Research Professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University. He has served as ambassador of Chile to China, India and South Africa, and as a Cabinet Minister. He is a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (OUP, 2013).

1. Jorge Sahd, “Diplomacia : Statu quo o futuro?” , Diario Financiero, 1 July 2020; and Juan Pablo Toro, “De embajadas, plataformas y algo llamado intereses nacionales”, El Mercurio, 12 July 2020.

2. Shaun Riordan, “Covid-19 and the digitalization of diplomacy”, Diplomacy Journal  24, July 2020, Diplomatic Institute, Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pp.124-131.

3. “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries”, Pew Research Center,  October 2020.

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