by Jolyon Welsh/19 May 2021/Category

All states have international interests.  We all need to sell our products overseas, attract investment, bring tourists to our countries, build cooperation with our neighbours, and have our views heard in international organisations and in international decision-making.  We all have an interest in global issues.  Climate change, international terrorism, peace and security, ease of trade, and the international rule of law affect every country.

But many states do not maximise their ability to deliver against their international interests.

States protect and promote their interests through diplomacy.  States without effective diplomatic capability engage the world with one hand tied behind their backs.  States with effective diplomatic capability can shape their international environment.  Even the smallest states can have a surprisingly disproportionate impact on the world around them if they are clear about what they want, if they are smart, and if they precisely target their diplomatic effort.

All states have limited resources and need to allocate their budgets carefully across competing priorities.  But when done well diplomacy is extraordinarily cost-effective and can generate far more value for a state than it costs.  When diplomacy is ineffective often it is not because States are not spending enough, but because they are not spending efficiently.  An ineffective ambassador costs as much as an effective ambassador.

Consulum’s unique Diplomatic Outcomes programmes help states to deliver real world international results more effectively and more efficiently.  We tailor our programmes to individual clients so they meet our clients’ precise needs and circumstances.  But all our programmes are based around four principles.

  1. Clear Objectives

Clear objectives are the essential starting point for any diplomatic programme.  If governments are not clear about what they want to achieve internationally they will achieve very little.  If they are clear about what they want to achieve they can achieve a surprising amount.

Setting public policy objectives – whether for domestic or foreign policy – is complex.  Most business decisions can be brought back to a couple of basic questions: will this help us to stay in business; will this make us more money?  In other fields decisions can be brought back to an even purer imperative.  Sir Peter Blake, the yachtsman who led New Zealand to victory over the United States in the 1985 America’s Cup, famously tested every decision against one question: will it make the boat go faster?  But governments aren’t trying to run a successful business or win a race.  They’re trying to achieve a wide range of outcomes meeting the diverse needs and aspirations of their people.  And they need to prioritise rigorously, deciding what they most want in the face of competing interests and competing views as they choose where to deploy their limited resources.

Good international objectives balance long-term and short-term interests.  They are set with an eye to the availability of resources to achieve them.  They are realistic – there’s no point setting and chasing objectives which can’t be met.  But they are challenging – achieving nine challenging objectives and failing on one is better than achieving ten easy objectives.  And they change with circumstances – diplomacy operates against a constantly shifting backdrop.

So it is essential, in developing diplomatic programmes, to understand what a country’s highest priorities are, and the capability which exists within the government to achieve them.  From this governments can craft specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound objectives which can be easily understood and used to task their diplomatic machine.  The impact of clear objectives can be game-changing.  Not only can they help governments to deliver results they might never have considered possible.  But clear objectives – and the sweeping away of irrelevant activity – can empower and enthuse diplomatic staff to achieve more and more.

  1. Engaging Decision-Makers

Most international decisions are taken by individuals or small groups of individuals.  A decision to deploy armed forces overseas is usually taken by a head of state or a head of government.  A decision to provide development assistance might be taken by an overseas development minister.  A decision to open an overseas factory might be taken by a company CEO, perhaps with a requirement for a vote in favour by the company board.  The success of a country’s tourism industry ultimately depends on decisions by individuals or families where they want to go on holiday.

To get the international outcomes they want, states must engage these decision-makers.  And the most effective and most cost-efficient way for states to get the foreign policy outcomes they want is to engage those individual decision-makers as directly as possible.

So it is critical to identify who the decision-makers are on each issue, and determine what those decision-makers’ positions and concerns are, how to approach them, and how to manage meetings with them.  Often the best approach is to frame issues as shared challenges and work towards shared solutions.

But effective diplomatic strategies often need to go beyond the decision-makers themselves.  Sometimes this is because there is limited access to the decision-makers themselves.  No state can directly engage the US president on every foreign policy issue.  Sometimes it is important to shape the environment within which the decision-maker is making up his or her mind.  Consulum’s approach identifies three concentric rings of influencers around decision-makers: direct influencers – in the case of a president, perhaps a foreign minister; indirect influencers, perhaps a group of interested members of parliament or a trade association; and environmental influencers, for example the journalists and academics and bloggers who shape the broader public mood.

Mapping the decision-makers and influencers is an essential basis for developing the most effective and the most cost-effective diplomatic programmes.

  1. An Integrated Approach

In centuries past the business of international relations was carried out by small and select groups of diplomats representing each state overseas.  With the development of international communications and with globalisation this is no longer the case.  Many government ministries and agencies now have international interests, and many engage directly with their counterparts overseas.  This is true across a wide range of issues: environment, trade, investment, education, tourism, law enforcement, security, disease control and many others.  This creates great opportunities for global cooperation.  But too often countries end up with a jumble of international relations, without clear objectives, and with different parts of the government conflicting and sometimes competing.

It is vital that governments manage their range of international relations with as much coherence and order as possible.  This is often best managed by presidents’ and prime ministers’ offices working closely with the central foreign policy ministries to develop a single and comprehensive set of international objectives and a cross-government approach to achieving them.  This takes skill, and often considerable tact.  But ultimately it gives heads of government control over their countries’ international relations, and delivers the outcomes most important to the government as a whole.

  1. A well-functioning diplomatic machine

For long-term diplomatic success countries need well-functioning diplomatic institutions and capable diplomats.  Sometimes this means more funding.  But more often it just comes down to better use of existing resources.

Building a full suite of world-class diplomatic institutions, staffed with experienced people with the skills to engage and persuade the world, takes time.  But governments with pressing international priorities can much more rapidly develop capacity in the specific areas where they need it most.  Small but high-functioning presidential or prime ministerial foreign policy units can be built rapidly, and can be powerful tools to ensure the broader government machine is delivering the outcomes most important to a country’s leaders.  Dedicated policy teams working directly to foreign ministers can transform the deliver capacity of foreign ministries.  And high achieving ambassadors, appointed to a country’s most important embassies, with the devolved authority needed to get things done and with access to external support where needed, can deliver outcomes in specific markets.

The importance of ambition

Diplomacy is complex.  And to the outsider it can seem impenetrable.  But the core principles of diplomacy are actually quite straightforward.  Where a country’s leaders have ambition and confidence, where they take a focused and rigorous approach to foreign policy making and planning, and where they have the right expert support, they can achieve extraordinary outcomes. 

Back to Insights