A diplomat is a person appointed by a state to conduct diplomacy with one or more other states or international organizations. The main functions of diplomats revolve around the representation and protection of the interests and nationals of the sending state, as well as the promotion of information and friendly relations.
Diplomat is derived from the Greek διπλωμάτης, diplōmátēs, the holder of a diploma (a folded paper, literally a “folding”), referring in this case not to an educational certificate but to a diplomat’s letters of accreditation, which enable him or her to carry out duties on behalf of one country or institution within the jurisdiction of another country or institution.
Though any person can be appointed by a state to conduct said state’s relations with another state, states or international organization(s), a number of states maintain an institutionalized group of career diplomats – that is, public servants with a steady professional connection to the country’s Foreign Ministry. The term “career diplomat” is used word-widely in opposition to political appointees (that is, people from any other professional backgrounds who may equally be designated by an official government to act as a diplomat abroad). While officially posted to an embassy or delegation in a foreign country or accredited to an international organization, both career diplomats and political appointees enjoy the same diplomatic immunities.
Regardless of being a career diplomat or a political appointee, every diplomat, while posted abroad, will be classified in one of the ranks of diplomats (Secretary, Counselor, Minister, Ambassador, Envoys, or chargé d’affaires) —, as regulated by international law (namely, by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961).
Diplomats in posts collect and report information that could affect national interests, often with advice about how the home-country government should respond. Then, once any policy response has been decided in the home country’s capital, posts bear major responsibility for implementing it. Diplomats have the job of conveying, in the most persuasive way possible, the views of the home government to the governments to which they are accredited and, in doing so, of trying to convince those governments to act in ways that suit home-country interests. In this way, diplomats are part of the beginning and the end of each loop in the continuous process through which foreign policy develops.
In general, it has become harder for diplomats to act autonomously. Diplomats have to seize secure communication systems, emails and mobile telephones can be tracked down and instruct the most reclusive head of mission. The same technology in reverse gives diplomats the capacity for more immediate input about the policy-making processes in the home capital.
Secure email has transformed the contact between diplomats and the ministry. It is less likely to leak, and enables more personal contact than the formal cablegram, with its wide distribution and impersonal style.
The home country will usually send instructions to a diplomatic post on what foreign policy goals to pursue, but decisions on tactics – who needs to be influenced, what will best persuade them, who are potential allies and adversaries, and how it can be done – are for the diplomats overseas to make.
In this operation, the intelligence, integrity, cultural understanding and energy of individual diplomats become critical. If competent, they will have developed relationships grounded in trust and mutual understanding with influential members of the country in which they are accredited. They will have worked hard to understand the motives, thought patterns and culture of the other side.
The diplomat should be an excellent negotiator but, above all, a catalyst for peace and understanding between peoples. The diplomat’s principal role is to foster peaceful relations between states. This role takes on heightened importance if war breaks out. Negotiation must necessarily continue – but within significantly altered contexts.
Status and public image
Diplomats have generally been considered members of an exclusive and prestigious profession. The public image of diplomats has been described as “a caricature of pinstriped men gliding their way around a never-ending global cocktail party” J. W. Burton has noted that “despite the absence of any specific professional training, diplomacy has a high professional status, due perhaps to a degree of secrecy and mystery that its practitioners self-consciously promote.” The state supports the high status, privileges and self-esteem of its diplomats in order to support its own international status and position.
The high regard for diplomats is also due to most countries’ conspicuous selection of diplomats, with regard to their professionality and ability to behave according to a certainetiquette, in order to effectively promote their interests. Also, international law grants diplomats extensive privileges and immunities, which further distinguished the diplomat from the status of an ordinary citizen.
Reflecting a dissatisfaction with as the diplomat’s elite and out of touch image, African American author Langston Hughes imagined an alternative figure in the realm of international relations. Hughes spliced the terms “diplomat” and “hip to that” to coin the term “hip-to-mat.” The figure of the hip-to-mat attends summit meetings and takes up the international situation with an eye toward supplying world populations with adequate food and letting “everybody have civil rights, white, black, yellow, brown, gray, grizzle, or green.”
Psychology and loyalty
While posted overseas, there is a danger that diplomats may become disconnected from their own country and culture. Sir Harold Nicolson acknowledged that diplomats can become “denationalised, internationalised and therefore dehydrated, an elegant empty husk”.