“Foreign Services: Crucial Institutions that Social Sciences Should Revisit” Interview with Christian Lequesne

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Christian Lequesne is the editor of a special issue of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy focusing on Ministries of Foreign Affairs. In a post published on the journal’s blog , Prof. Lequesne introduces the issue. He also agreed to answer our questions on how the project emerged, how Foreign Affairs Ministries are studied today, what has changed, and why scholarship should not disregard this classical yet changing actor of world politics.

Can you tell us how the project of this special issue emerged and give us a brief presentation of its contributors: are they all scholars?

I started working on diplomatic practices in 2014 when I resumed doing research full time after having been director of CERI for five years. Quickly, I became passionate about this research topic and I published an ethnographic book on the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Ethnographie du Quai d’Orsay (CNRS Editions, 2017). Through this new research, I met an international community of scholars specializing in diplomatic studies. The International Studies Association (ISA) helped me a lot to make contacts with colleagues from all over the world. In 2017, I organized a round-table at the ISA Convention in Baltimore, resulting in a forum being published in Diplomacy and Statecraft, entitled “Why Studying foreign service remains a research priority?”. I was convinced I could do more, and editing a special issue of a peer reviewed journal appeared as an obvious outcome. I met Jan Melissen, one of the chief-editors of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, and he expressed enthusiasm. After two meetings, one in The Hague and one in Brussels, supported by the Fonds Tremplin of Sciences Po’s Directorate for Research, the project was launched. It took roughly two years and the special issue is today the final outcome. I hope that it will constitute a reference in the IR academic literature.

You mention that academic interest for classical actors of power such as Foreign Affairs Ministries has decreased and that continuity attracts less interest than novelty, yet you also mention that “21st century diplomacy will (...) show great, and much faster, change” than it would it the past. Does this mean that scholarship should return to the study of diplomacy?

It is not at all surprising. In general, social scientists prefer studying new phenomena or institutions rather than the ones that have been existing for long. What is true for foreign services is also for parliaments. For some researchers, studying foreign services is not politically correct; it means looking essentially at institutions for the “elite”, in which the main activity would remain drinking champagne and eating canapes. Of course, this is far from reality and it is because this kind of representations remains that we must study MFAs. I see many researchers, in the younger generation, who have understood the necessity to consider diplomacy as a new research object. This is very encouraging.

What research methods do you recommend to study Foreign Affairs Ministries?

My answer is obviously related to the thirty-two years I have spent at CERI: doing field work. It is not easy for a scholar to have access to MFAs that dislike being transformed into research objects. Yet it is what social scientists have to do. In practice, two methods exist. The first one consists in interviewing practitioners. Scholars know how to do it and how to avoid biased interviews. The second method is participatory observation. This is what I did in 2014 for my book Ethnography du Quai d’Orsay . It is also the method chosen by Iver B. Neumann while preparing his book on the Norwegian MFA At Home With Diplomats: Inside a European Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Cornell University Press). However, being accepted inside a MFA as an academic observer requires negotiation skills.

Participatory observation is necessary, because knowledge on MFAs cannot rely exclusively on practitioners’ testimonies, and especially ambassadors’ memoires. There needs to be an intrusion of academics in the diplomatic milieu. Some diplomats do understand this necessity very well. But the scholar must never forget that diplomacy exists only because some people practice the activity. It is the very meaning of the practice that has to be discovered by the scholar. To reach this goal, the scholar must meet diplomats and understand how they make diplomacy, but also how they think diplomacy on a daily basis. In a review of my book Ethnographie du Quai d’Orsay a young French scholar asked: Has the author written this book because he is fascinated by diplomats and wants to become one of them? Reading this question made me laugh. But the comment is interesting because it reflects a posture, according to which interactions of scholars with practitioners are equivalent to compromising with power. The real question for the scholar is not if he/she loves or hates the diplomat. It is to understand what the diplomat makes and how he/she thinks.

The special issue examines FAM under three main perspectives: diversity of actors, new practices, and new competition. Would you mind briefly presenting these three aspects of research on Foreign Affairs Ministers?

We do not know much about diplomats in 2020. In many countries, their recruitment is still an effect of their closeness to power politics. In the countries where there are diplomatic exams and a career, there are some elements about the social background of diplomats. It explains why public opinions still believe that diplomats remain essentially aristocrats and members of the upper middle class. This does not correspond to reality anymore. MFAs are partly responsible for the lack of knowledge, because they do not encourage scholars to work on the social backgrounds of their staff. It would however be in the interest of MFAs to show that there is more diversity than what is generally believed. Diversity also means gender issue. Today, more and more women do a job that used to be reserved for men. Private life issues, such as sexual preferences, are less stigmatized than in other administrations. And there is the question of ethnic diversity. In Europe, foreign services reflect more and more the cultural diversity of societies and public debates do exist on this topic.

I like the concept of practice developed in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology but also in an IR school of thought existing in Northern America with authors like Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot. Practices correspond to material and discursive acts of agents. In diplomacy, practices have changed because of the rise of new actors but also the use of new technologies, especially social media. This leads to a diplomacy that has become more public. The diplomat must master the practices of public information rather than secret.

Regarding competition, yes definitely! What makes the study of foreign services interesting is that they have lost the monopoly of diplomacy making. The competition between actors within and outside the state requires studying how a diplomat works in a world of networks, exchanges, competition and bargaining.

Has your own research focused on one of these three aspects? Can you develop?

I have interest for the diplomat as an individual, what Harold Nicolson called the ‘diplomatist’. My contribution to the special issue deals with ethnic diversity in the recruitment of diplomats. Why are foreign services concerned with this issue, now? In the global North, this is because the issue is part of public debates within society. What about the Global South? In India, there are very few Muslims in the MFA (a trend that is not about to change with Narendra Modi). There are, however, some “Muslim stars” among the ambassadors that are put at the front, for instance in the relations with the Gulf countries. In Brazil, the policy of affirmative action launched by Lula led to create a special entrance exam for Afro-Brazilians. But the results are very limited so far, because the costs to prepare the exam remain discriminatory. In the end, the Brazilian MFA counts very few members of the black community, in total disconnection with the composition of the society. But this situation also creates a problem of legitimacy for Brazil’s African diplomacy. All these questions, not very investigated beyond the US case, are fascinating research topics.

Do FMAs worldwide equate a monopoly on official diplomacy?

Not at all. No MFA in the world can pretend to have a monopoly on diplomacy today. The de-monopolization is a good reason to study foreign services and ask the question of their added value. In a certain number of countries, they are just there to fulfil a discursive task while the decisions are made by other agencies whose practices are sometimes referring to what the American scholar James Der Derian calls anti-diplomacy. The case of Russia is interesting and will be discussed by Katarzyna Syzk during a forthcoming seminar of the research group ‘The diplomat, the military and the spy’ that I am co-chairing with Hugo Meijer at CERI. Russia is a country where intelligence agencies play a larger role than the MFA in diplomacy. In Pakistan, the National Army and the different intelligence agencies also play a more crucial role than the MFA. Looking at such countries, scholars must not pretend tracing the decision-making process in great details, risking otherwise ceding to what I call ‘neo-kremlinology’. At the opposite, scholars should explain why in such countries it is impossible to know precisely who is making decisions in foreign policy, as the actors themselves are unable to know all the facets of the diplomatic process they are participating to.

Is current diplomacy more transparent? What could allow to say so?

More transparent, I do not think so. More public, yes. Diplomats are more accountable to national public opinions. In democracies, there is a ‘domestication’ of diplomacy. As the number of diplomatic actors has increased, especially non-governmental actors, diplomats are forced to explain more what they are doing. It is a consequence of the multiplication of NGOs which constraint the diplomats to legitimize their declarations, actions and expertise. This legitimization process is not very different from the rest of public action in democracies. Foreign services in authoritarian regimes are less concerned with this problem, but it will be misleading to consider that they do not have to legitimize their diplomacy at all. China and Russia have developed public diplomacies precisely for this reason.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI