Diplomacy is a bureaucracy within a bureaucracy. It has kept bits of its old noble aura that still sets it apart from the rest of the state administration, an aura of perks and privilege that makes diplomats subject to envy and loathing from the other bureaucrats. Ultimately, nonetheless, they are – we are – all bureaucrats.
Since every bureaucracy loves orderly books, there is no better scene setter than cold facts and figures. Looking at the numbers, ours is a Golden Age of diplomacy as a profession.
The British Foreign Office, the diplomatic arm of the world’s mightiest empire of yesterday, still keeps an extensive network of posts. Following the merger with the government department responsible for overseas aid in September 2020, it now employs some 17,300 staff.
France, another relegated superpower, boasts Europe’s largest network totaling 267 embassies, consulates, and permanent missions, according to the Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index.
Not surprisingly, it is China and the United States – superpowers of today – who dominate the Global Diplomacy Index ranking. In the 2010s, Beijing overcame the United States as the world’s biggest trader. Shortly later, China’s diplomacy too has muscled up to the top. In the latest edition of the index, China is the country with the largest diplomatic network of 276 posts dotted around the world.
There is a natural ceiling to diplomatic figures. The United Nations has 193 members. Even if we throw in territories whose statehood is disputed in the global arena, there won’t be many more than 200 realms to send envoys to. In fact, even China or the United States have less than 200 political outposts as the rest of their diplomatic representation are consulates serving citizens rather than the political agenda.
It is realistic to assume that even the biggest foreign services employ no more than some 20,000 diplomats. France may have 59 diplomatic posts more than the United Kingdom but Quai d’Orsay with corps diplomatique counting around 13,500 staff limps behind the British Foreign Office. The U.S. State Department staff is in the same league as the British and the French. However, reality here is, as always, more nuanced than the first look at the bare-bone statistics.
More than 70 years after the creation of the United Nations as the global, permanent negotiating chamber, the law of the jungle still holds the upper hand. Or so it seems when diplomacy and the military are juxtaposed. A rough illustration: China has 2.2 million active military personnel. That’s 100 soldiers versus one diplomat. (After all, diplomacy is what you have got to fill the gap in between wars, Machiavellians would say.)
And yet, not all countries are as carnivorous as the superpowers. There are 23 states in the world without an army and they have all deemed it necessary to sustain a diplomatic service. Their arms are diplomatic arms. Dozens of others play it safe with a balanced hand of both the military and diplomatic cards. For example, Luxembourg’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs is only slightly smaller than the country’s active military of 900 troops.
The real diplomatic giants are often dwarfs. Brunei, an oil-rich sultanate in South East Asia with 400,000 souls, has a network with 42 diplomatic posts. In other words, there are 9,500 Bruneians per one diplomatic outpost. Similarly, each Icelandic diplomatic post (25 in total) translates into 16,000 Icelanders (and zero soldiers).
While there is a small Brunei and Icelandic town behind each of the countries’ diplomatic posts, there is a Chinese megapolis per each and every Beijing’s diplomatic representation.
I remember an anecdotal story told by my Qatari host when I visited Doha. Once upon a time, there was a royal tired of answering questions about his native Qatar when staying in Britain. Does the country even exist? He was set to put his country on the map. When he became the emir, he turned Qatar, a desert backwater, albeit oil-rich, into a distinct global player.
Al Jazeera, Qatar’s mediation of peace in Afghanistan, or FIFA 2022 World Cup are smart soft power stunts that scream loud on the global scene.
For giants, diplomacy might be a box to tick off well after they have ticked off the military box, but investing into diplomacy is a necessity for dwarfs, especially those locked in delicate geopolitics. Dwarfs’ war scream is a carefully weighed, flowery diplomatic speech.
Curious case of Vatican
The Holy See, too, is a dwarf. A super-dwarf in fact: Vatican’s population is around 800 and its size is a fraction of the Central Park in New York City. Yet, it is a diplomatic power like no other.
Vatican diplomats, or apostolic nuncios, represent the pope in all continents and in the U.N. multilateral fora. There are more than 110 nunciatures around the world.
This in itself is an impressive reach for a village of 800. In reality, this is but a top of the iceberg of papal diplomacy. There are over 220,000 Roman Catholic parishes worldwide and the priests serving them are more than Ambassadors of the God. They form a diplomatic network sui generis.
Where even the super-powers rely on dozens of diplomats per country, Vatican has thousands of priests with an unparalleled access to the minds, hearts and souls of the local population. A good reason for China and other authoritarians to vet Catholic priests and tolerate only those loyal to the regime. Amen.
United Diplomats of Europe
The European Union is a strange animal on the diplomatic scene. It has its own diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, conducting the E.U.’s foreign policy, which is forged by unanimity in the club of the Union’s 27 member states.
The European diplomatic service, partly staffed by member states’ diplomats, should act as an honest broker steering the oft-painful task of reaching unanimously a common position.
Globally, the network of E.U. delegations operates alongside diplomatic outposts of the 27 member states. With some 140 delegations, the European diplomacy matches in size the largest national diplomatic services such as France or Germany only falling short in the consular field, still a member state competence.
The United Diplomats of Europe is a diplomatic enterprise like no other. Europe’s pooled sovereignty in foreign policy translates into a massive diplomatic machinery. Imagine that in Beijing, Washington D.C., Moscow, or New York (U.N.), there are 28 European diplomatic missions, or a few hundred diplomats, working closely together and easily outnumbering any other political entity (fine, Catholic priests excluded).
What do Europe’s hefty numbers mean in real world? As an old anecdote goes, Europe is a global payer but as a global player it punches below its weight. Certainly so when the output of its huge joint diplomatic infrastructure is considered. Europe’s diplomacy is a strange animal – gigantic, polycephalous, and largely herbivorous.
Butchers’ shops, diplomats’ shops
The number of butchers’ shops has been dwindling, a U.K. newspaper reported in 2019. Back in 1990, there had been about 15,000 meat shops in Britain. Less than three decades later, more than two thirds of them closed down, hit by vegetarian boom, cattle and pig diseases, and thrifty customers.
How about diplomats’ shops? The numbers I have presented here tell a different story. Diplomats’ shops seem flourishing. New stores open to sell war and peace. The number of diplomatic outposts has steadily grown over the last years. The latest Global Diplomacy Index lists 7,320 diplomatic offices opened by 61 countries covered, almost 400 posts more than in 2016.
Still, do diplomats face their own vegetarian boom threat, their mad cow disease? Diplomacy is undoubtedly more democratic today than ever before and there are visible cracks in the Westphalian order of sovereign states as the only movers and shakers of international politics.
The rise of global grassroots movements and para-diplomats – agents of civil society organizations, businesses, regions, or cities – might herald a new era of diplomacy. More democratic and less state-centered.
Yet people’s diplomats are still a futuristic thought. Westphalian diplomats are our presence. After all, even the state-like animal like the European Union is a pariah in the U.N., a mere observer relying on its member states to be heard loud and clear. When the United Kingdom parted ways with the E.U., the British enraged the Europeans refusing to grant full diplomatic status to the Ambassador of its newly opened Delegation in London. The E.U. is not a state, they said with a great deal of schadenfreude before eventually backing down.
And so, there is no rush to rewrite the statistics about diplomacy and diplomats. In the United Kingdom, there are 17,300 staff in the British Foreign Office (and counting), less than 6,000 butchers’ shops (and dwindling), some 6,000 Catholic priests, approximately 73,000 journalists and about the same number of sex workers.
Pas mal, diplomats. Ours is a Golden Age of diplomacy as a profession.