From last-minute interventions in global crises, to flying the world over, to being an intrinsic cog in your government’s foreign policy machinery, a career as a diplomat is not as dull as sitting in an embassy. Now if we are completely honest, yes, it will begin as such but much of it will be fast-paced and exciting. There is always something enlivening happening somewhere across the world and diplomats, no matter from which nation, need to be skilful in the art of pleasantries but also need to be direct when the situation demands it. Ever the highly respected career, diplomacy does not need to be restricted simply to working in embassies; international organisations, such as think tanks, NGOs, and – of course – the United Nations, are just some of the other lucrative career opportunities.
Becoming a successful diplomat requires a great many things, for the list can become daunting. However, most traits of top diplomats come with age and experience; it is not for strangle-holding jobs that old fogies dominate the diplomatic world. They have some of best communication skills for those tense negotiations and, often, a rare and very valuable asset – situational awareness – for predicting the moves of their counterparts. However, they all start out somewhere and it is usually in undertaking humanities or law courses at undergraduate levels. YES! Something useful to do with that humanities degree at last. An innate understanding of history, the cause and effect of the big, and small, events goes a long way. The Cuban Missile crisis is an excellent historical example of how the successful use of diplomatic means, though secret for the most part, prevented the Doomsday Scenario: thermo-nuclear war!
Understanding law also is vital: “Diplomats are constrained first by their state’s national interests and second by international law”, says Dr. Basil Germond, researcher and lecturer of Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Lancaster University in the UK. Maritime and cyber law are international in their outlook and require international collaboration to combat naval and online piracy.
A good grasp of the commonly spoken languages around the world is equally vital. English, though the international language of diplomacy, only goes so far. Especially when dealing with non-native English speakers, knowing the nuances of their language and being able to communicate your thoughts in another manner can lead to successful negotiations of trade deals, as well as averting war and other non-lethal conflicts. Nonetheless, being a good communicator will make smooth your path from a random aide to a high-ranking official.
A keen interest in literature combines all of the above and provides an excellent source of first-hand accounts of what to do and what to avoid in certain situations. Countless memoires by former diplomats and power brokers are on the market for the interested. Studying those “what if” scenarios develops another skill that cannot be taught: critical (or situational) thinking. Literature provides examples of blunders and successes, while discussing those semi-imaginary scenarios.
Of course, understanding the geography of a region and, more importantly, the economy, should go unmentioned but a combination of all the above is needed to interpret events for what they are in reality. Often, much is opaque in the diplomatic world and the most decisions are made by éminence grises. Having good morals and unyielding patriotism will not take you very far; being considerate of the effects of actions and being flexible in the ever-changing landscape of diplomacy is key to becoming . Additionally, should you not give credence to the past, remember George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Part II deals with specialised courses and the examinations required.