Skip to main content

by Kishan S. Rana

Editor’s note: The author was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Environment Program and to UN Habitat at Nairobi, 1984-86.

In foreign ministries, as in all organizations, training has risen to the top of the institutional agenda.[1] ‘Life-long training’ has taken root. In the past, most foreign ministries believed that diplomats needed training on entering the profession, and thereafter learnt on the job. In the past 20 years, at least 30 foreign ministries have established training institutes, including the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which had managed without one for over two centuries.[2] Thanks to increased work demands (new issues on the international agenda, the range of official and non-official partners involved, and concepts like public and diaspora diplomacy), the pace of work, especially multilateral, is more frenetic, complexified.

Another question comes up: is multilateral work a speciality, or is it just a different diplomatic setting, compared with work in a bilateral embassy or consulate? For most countries, around 85 to 90% out of the diplomatic staff based abroad (as distinct from those in the foreign ministry), engage in bilateral work, also working in embassies and consulates, i.e. handling relations with individual foreign states. The balance are to be found in ‘multilateral missions’, accredited to international or regional organisations. But this is an oversimplification. At around 20 capitals, find the headquarters of multilateral and regional organizations, and the diplomatic missions at such places double as permanent missions accredited to that entity; examples: Addis Ababa (AU), Brussels (EU, NATO), Jakarta (ASEAN), Manilla (ADB), Nairobi (UNEP, Habitat) Paris (OECD, UNESCO), Rome (FAO), Vienna (IAEA, UNIDO). At the headquarters, multilateral and regional affairs may occupy around 10 to 15%. In this essay, we will subsume regional work with multilateral affairs.

Other questions come up. How should diplomats be trained for multilateral work? Who should be selected for this work? What are the contemporary trends? We look also at senior management at the US State Department, and professionalization, related to multilateral work. These issues are interconnected.

Size of Diplomatic Services

The US operates the world’s largest diplomatic service, and has, jointly with China, the most extensive diplomatic footprint across the globe.[3] The US diplomatic service numbers 13,000. China’s numbers around 7500 – an estimate as no official figures are published. UK has just under 5000; France and Germany have slightly fewer.[4] Brazil has nearly 2000, while India’s is exceptionally small, at just around 1200, especially in relation to its network of over 125 embassies and permanent missions.

Size naturally guides the specialization that can be pursued. Small states, be it Botswana or Trinidad and Tobago, have foreign services with fewer than 200, and those of micro-states number 50 or less. It stands to reason that with its diplomatic resources the US should treat multilateral work as a major specialized area.

Training Options

What are the key elements that should be covered in training, and how? Why should multilateral work be a ‘speciality’?

Most foreign ministries do not run special programs on multilateral diplomacy, but China and Russia are among the exceptions. Mexico, India, are yet to develop such courses. Canada has always treated multilateral work as a priority, and provides focused training. It even has a self-paced course on multilateral diplomacy, covering only the basics.[5] In contrast, courses on negotiations are a staple at all training institutes, with some elements that connect with multilteral diplomacy. The premise here is that there are differences between bilateral and multilateral negotiations. UK offers a popular online course on multilateral negotiations covering cultural issues, powers of persuasion, and ‘influencing’ skills.

Independent agencies that provide training for diplomats, such as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), DiploFoundation, and the many academic schools that specialize in international affairs in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere, typically offer short multilateral diplomacy courses that range from two to ten weeks. They may also cover narrower specialities, such as disarmament, conflict, dispute settlement and mediation, humanitarian work, international trade, internet governance, peace-making, and related subjects.[6]

We should also note that e-learning programs are especially suited to a profession that has around half or more of diplomatic staff dispersed abroad. Such virtual training has gained salience with the outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Selection for Multilateral Work

We may ask: what kind of diplomatic personnel are needed to staff a permanent mission that represents a major power? In a word, it needs generalists, specialists in important multilateral themes, as well as languages and region experts. Why language/region specialists? Because those with experience, say in the Arab states, or in Latin America, possess the skills and connections to work closely with counterparts from those countries. Remember, a multilateral organization is primarily a continual negotiation machine.

Large permanent missions bring in subject experts for conferences and major committee meetings; for ongoing issues (say climate change issues or international law) domain specialists are borrowed from other organizations and sent on full time assignment. But the diplomatic system also needs its own experts, to interface with domain experts; they can use their craft skills to locate interconnections between issues that at first sight appear unrelated. One may ask, why not staff permanent missions only with multilateral specialists? My response may displease some; at major multilateral posts, especially New York, some specialists inhabit a bubble, i.e. so fascinated by the world of multilateralism, that they can lose touch with the outside ‘real’ world.[7] The goal is always: a united, balanced pursuit of the national interest, in harmony, as in a symphony orchestra.

Most countries deploy diplomats from the same pool of ‘generalists’ for bilateral and multilateral assignments. European states, and the major countries of Asia invariably send only professional diplomats as their Permanent Representatives in New York. That is also the practice with many African and Latin American states. They, and their deputies, would have served at a variety of foreign assignments. It is rare for a Perm Rep with no multilateral experience to be sent to New York or Geneva by countries that have active multilateral diplomacy agendas.[8] The US practice of political appointees as Perm Reps is in stark contrast to the above, and emulated only by some Latin and African countries that routinely send non-professionals to head their permanent missions and embassies. The wisdom of that policy is another matter.

Why do foreign ministries not treat multilateral diplomacy as a speciality, i.e. a ‘cone’ or a ‘sub-cone’? The major reason is practical – the primacy of the rotation principle for foreign assignments. For Global South countries, Ministries of Foreign Affairs have to balance assignments in attractive locations with those with ‘difficult’, and even ‘hazardous’ living conditions.[9] A foreign ministry cannot afford a sub-cadre or a cluster that rotate only between the home capital and multilateral posts, almost all at salubrious places with excellent living conditions.

Major exceptions are China and Russia, which override such considerations. Multilateral specialists are sent on repeat assignments to the same international entity; at home, they continue to work on issues relating to that same multilateral organization. Some develop sub-specialities, be it cultural, health, or labor diplomacy, i.e. focused respectively on UNESCO, WHO and ILO. Some are deployed for jobs in the UN and its specialized agencies. Egypt and Turkey also cultivate specialization. In contrast, most European countries send to their permanent missions diplomats with wide experience, selected from a common pool.

Despite that, we find a few professional diplomats in many countries that have used their initiative, dedication and networking skills to get repeat multilateral assignments. Thus, at the New York permanent missions of Indonesia, Singapore or Thailand, one usually encounters diplomats who are there on their second or even third multilateral assignment.

The US State Department

Finally, some questions for the US State Department:

First, should not the US, with the world’s largest diplomatic service, treat multilateral work as a sub-cone within its ‘five cone’ system? This might mean that diplomats sent to NY or Geneva, whether working on political, economics or public affairs, should have multilateral diplomacy skills relevant to their cones. This would permit deeper, sustained multilateral expertise that the world’s leading power surely needs to marshal. At the same time, this should be leavened with wider experience, to be able to take broad perspectives, sometimes missing in US multilateral missions.

How might this work? First, at international organizations dealing with a speciality, domain experts in covering that subject are a must. At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), disarmament expertise is required. At the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) at Paris, similar narrow expertise is needed. There are also cross-cutting wide frame issues, be it climate change, disarmament, foreign trade or international law; over-specialization is to be avoided. Hence a need also for generalist diplomats.

Second, the US Foreign Service Institute’s multilateral courses should be a requirement for those posted to US permanent missions to the UN and to other international organizations. This is all the more pertinent in a system that staffs its permanent missions with non-professionals, often sent on a one-time assignment. For a newly appointed non-professional Perm Rep, or deputy Perm Rep, a customized seminar-type immersion program seems essential, as a normal pre-assignment familiarization process. Of course, some knowledge transfer will take place through the experience shared by predecessors.[10]

Third, multilateral affairs management at the State Department also needs attention. It is incomprehensible that out of its 28 top managers, i.e., the Assistant Secretaries, only one was a professional US diplomat, during a nadir point in the Trump Administration. How can those with no professional experience direct multilateral or any other form of diplomacy, or respond meaningfully to their external outposts, the permanent missions and the bilateral embassies? It is not sufficient that desk officers are professionals with broad-based diplomatic experience. No other foreign ministry with major international engagement ‘outsources’ management in such fashion, with the partial exception of Mexico.[11]

The new administration that took office in January 2021 will have its hands full in working to restore professionalism across the board in the US State Department.End.



Kishan S. Rana: MA economics, St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Indian Foreign Service (1960-95); Ambassador/High Commissioner: Algeria, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, Mauritius, Germany. Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi; Professor Emeritus, DiploFoundation; Archives By-Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge; Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington DC. Authored and edited eleven books on diplomatic studies. Multilateral experience: First secretary and de facto deputy to the Perm Rep in the Indian Mission to Geneva, 1967-70; Perm Rep to UN Environment Program and to UN Habitat at Nairobi, 1984-86.









[1] Some of the details in this essay are from confidential sources, mainly diplomat colleagues. My thanks to all of them. I remain responsible for errors.

[2] Traditionally, the UK gave in-house initial briefings to new entrants to its diplomatic service and then put them to work (much like the US), and also sent officials to training courses run by other agencies. (The other entry level training model is that pursued by Germany, India, and many Latin American states, of around a year’s entry level training). In 2015, the UK Diplomatic Academy was set up, organizing training at the levels: beginner, professional and expert, but does this mainly by co-opting other institutions like the London School of Economics and Kings College, London. The Academy operates on with lean staffing, and outsourced training. Language training is given at specialized centers.

[3] See Lowy Foundation, Canberra’s ‘Global Diplomacy Index’:

[4] German figures: ‘higher service’: 1703, ‘higher intermediate service’: 1995, i.e., about 3700 in the diplomatic ranks.

[5] In 2007 I worked with a Canadian diplomat to develop a self-paced course on ML Diplomacy. That and two other courses of the same kind I had drawn up for their Foreign Service Institute was after I had overcome initial doubts on the utility of such online courses that did not involve any faculty guidance (it is easy to add to such courses a ‘live’ interactive element). The US Foreign Service Institute also uses such course, as does the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

[6] DiploFoundation is to shortly offer a course on ‘working in permanent a mission’.

[7] Disclosure: in 35-years I worked mainly on bilateral diplomacy. But I handled ML diplomacy in Geneva in 1967-70, and was a later part-time PR to UNEP at Nairobi, while high commissioner at this bilateral post, 1984-86 (I was fortunate to chair the G-77 Group, and the UNEP committee that interfaced with the Brundtland Commission).

[8] Excluding the earliest years of Independence, when its Foreign Service was in formation, India has sent only one PR to New York with no prior ML experience. Singapore, which has an exceptionally able diplomatic service has similarly sent a PR to Geneva with no ML experience, who performed so well that she went on directly as PR to New York.

[9] Most foreign services classify overseas posts in 3 or 5 categories, ranging from ‘very comfortable’, to ‘normal’ and ‘hazardous’. The nomenclature varies.

[10] Wel- organized foreign ministries require officials ending an assignment to write out a detailed note on their accumulated work experience. Often called a ‘handing over note’, on a standard template. See, Rana, Diplomacy for the 21st Century: A Practitioner Guide, (Continuum, New York, 2011), Chapter 15, Annex II.

[11] Historically, the Netherlands foreign ministry separated its diplomatic service that exclusively served abroad, from its ministry staff who were home-based and never served abroad. That anomaly ended in the 1960s.




Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.