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Why bilateral diplomacy? Is it relevant in an age of multilateral activity and global conferences?

Published on 22 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The diplomacy process is under transformation, as part of the churning in public affairs, in our age of globalization. But in the midst of change, some constants remain, as immovable compass points.

We see this in a report that European Union has just published, a study on its diplomatic service that was reorganized a couple of years back, now called the ‘European External Action Service’ [Document: EXPO/B/AFET/2012/07, February 2013].

What were called ‘EU delegations’ are in the process of becoming ‘EU embassies’, though that title is still not in formal use. This is part of a complex process in which some of EU work of political representation in non-member countries is carried out as a joint process, even while EU embassies handle many activities on their own, such as economic promotion.

The report calls EEAS ‘an indeterminate entity’, still in a kind of transition, ‘top-heavy…(with) several duplicating layers of management’. It wants it to become ‘the prime diplomatic entrepreneur in EU external action by fostering reciprocal information sharing, cooperation and coordination between national and EU levels, shaping and proposing novel policy ideas, and proactively promoting coherent external action across all policy domains.’

Implicit in this report is the notion that a crucial scene of action is at the bilateral level, the engagement of the EU with individual non-member countries. Key issue: it is this engagement where the EU deals with the external world. Whether conducted by the EU as a collective entity, or by its members, this is where relationships are forged with a whole panorama of global state actors. Thus in effect the bilateral and the multilateral are the two legs of international affairs.


Editor’s note: Ambassador Kishan Rana teaches Diplo’s online course on Bilateral Diplomacy, currently open for registration until 1 April 2013.

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