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Key skills for the next generation of diplomats

Published on 12 October 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our October WebDebate focused on the key skills that the next generation of diplomats needs in order to succeed in a changing world. While there seems to be a core and timeless skill-set for diplomats, an increasingly connected world places new demands on the diplomatic profession.

Some trends should be welcomed as useful innovations and a meaningful addition to the diplomatic skill-set, while others might be a distraction from core functions. Prof. Paul Sharp, Professor and Head of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Mr Shaun Riordan, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, had a critical look at some recent trends and highlighted the key skills for the next generation of diplomats.


Traditional vs modern skills

The debate began with a poll for participants. We asked: If you have limited time for training young diplomats what would you focus on? The majority of the participants opted for traditional skills (negotiations, protocol, law), while fewer chose new skills (use of social media, data mining, online representation). Mr Riordan suggested that networking should be added to the set of traditional skills. This skill also extends to the modern age, only that networking becomes easier with changes in technology. Diplomats will have to increasingly deal with the non-state actors to take the global issues agenda forward. This kind of diplomacy requires very different skills in terms of personal interrelationships. The networking speaks to the essence of diplomacy as intermediation. The question is how, and this is where the new media are crucial tools. However, they do not replace traditional one-on-one communication; they just create more options.

Prof. Sharp pointed out a few distinctions. The first is between the generic skills associated with working in large organisations and the skills that are particular to diplomacy. The second distinction is between the impact of wider accessibility of information on diplomatic practice, and how this is changing our attitude about privacy and discretion. The final distinction is between what is good for political leaders, administrators and managers on the one hand, and what is good for diplomacy and diplomats on the other hand, which are not always the same.


The role of discretion in contemporary diplomacy

The participants engaged in the lively discussion, and many interesting questions were raised. One of the questions asked: how do we distinguish between diplomacy influenced by the social media, and the ‘high-level’ diplomacy which still requires some level of discretion?  

Mr Riordan pointed out that the certain confidential issues will remain, but not to same extent. With time, confidentiality will decrease.  In geo-political negotiations between government representatives, confidentiality will remain important. In complex, multi-level negotiations involving many actors, confidentiality is generally much less relevant. Prof Sharp said that the question of confidentiality is evolving; we need to adjust to the fact that we hear each other’s thoughts more.

The participants noted that academies are turning more towards the traditional curriculum. Mr Riordan said that the new approaches to diplomacy may be focusing more on social media while neglecting other innovative aspects, such as crowdsourced analysis, data mining, and online platforms that can be used for scenario-building simulation exercises.

Participating in the WebDebate, Dr Yolanda Spies argued that training needs to change, and include skills such as etiquette and protocol, as the circle of recruited diplomats is widening in socio-economic terms. Prof. Alan Henrikson commented on the distinction between ‘content’ and ‘skills’, saying that new agenda issues are very technical, and the relevant knowledge does not come ‘natively’. Therefore, specialised education as well as training is needed for today’s diplomats.


The art of diplomatic reporting

Was diplomatic reporting changing? Mr Riordan said that the 24/7 news coverage changed diplomatic reporting significantly 30 years ago. Good diplomatic reporting should try to get under the skin of an issue, giving the officials the depth of understanding. Its advantage over journalistic reporting is that it does not need to be driven by the headlines. Reports can provide timely, thoughtful, and analytical reporting. Prof. Sharp suggested that we might be moving back towards the more politically-focused reporting, which is based on certainty and how it can be managed by diplomats, rather than on problem-solving. Diplomats need ‘slow reactions’ to the fast changing world. They have to step back to see the bigger picture, put information in context, and provide sound advice on what is happening.

Dr Spies argued that diplomatic reporting is changing due to self-censorship of diplomats, as they know there is generally no guarantee of secrecy, even if the report is classified.

Amb. Stefano Baldi said that diplomatic reporting should be analytical, but at the same time, concise. Amb. Kishan Rana added that diplomatic reporting has not changed as much as some believe. Speaking truth to power, that is, to authorities back home, remains as vital – and at times risky – as ever. Mr Riordan shared his experience of writing reports for former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – they needed to be very short and concise, and at the same time very analytical. The issue of speaking truth to power is not so much the question of training, but structured diplomatic services and culture within diplomatic service. According to Prof. Sharp, speaking truth to power has become more difficult, and we are much more constrained by structural objectives, goals that are becoming the basic reference points. Also, he said that in diplomatic reporting it is important to keep up with the cycle of information and the way the events unfold. Therefore, there is a real skill in being able to speak briefly and analytically.

The question of whether there was need for emotional intelligence and empathy training in diplomatic institutions was posed to the panelists. Profs Sharp said that the focus is shifting from issues and problems to places and people – a shift that is long overdue. Both Prof. Sharp and Mr Riordan agreed with Prof. Henrikson that people from other backgrounds could also benefit from diplomatic training. This included NGOs, companies, and corporations which are involved in modern diplomacy. Mr Riordan said that empathy is essential to the diplomat’s work. One cannot have good policy analysis without empathy. It is necessary to be able to see the situation from the eyes of others.

The WebDebate provided a good overview of the new diplomatic skills that diplomats, from traditional skills (empathy) to new skills, related mainly to technology. The importance of data mining and other tools in digital diplomacy were also mentioned. Interesting remarks were made on the topic of diplomatic reporting, which should be fast, concise, and analytical. As the modern era continues to shape diplomatic practice, we can expect more discussions on the skills required by the next generation of diplomats.


The WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are organised by DiploFoundation within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT), which gathers close to 100 diplomatic training institutions worldwide. Join us every first Tuesday of the month.



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