From Edward Marks, “Ethics for the Professional Diplomat,” Foreign Service Journal (July-August 2013)
Diplomacy Does Not Equal Foreign Policy
It is important to differentiate ethics in diplomacy from ethics in foreign policy, as the word diplomacy has two general meanings. In the policy sense, it refers to “a government’s diplomacy;” in the operational sense, it describes the conduct of business between and among governments, carried out through bureaucratic institutions and processes. The former is also more generically called “foreign policy,” while the latter is the domain of the foreign policy bureaucracy.
In his 1957 study, The Foreign Office, Lord Strange remarks: “The word diplomacy has always been a liability of the thing it represents. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that by mere chance the dog was given a bad name, which has made it peculiarly liable to be blamed, if not actually hanged, for the sins of its masters. The master is called correctly ‘foreign policy.’”
Although morality is often a matter of judgment, most commentators would classify governments as essentially amoral in their external behavior. As Strange observes, “Diplomacy as an institution can never have morals markedly superior to those of the governments whose tool it is; though, owing to the force of its corporate traditions, they are likely nowadays to be never worse, and usually rather better.”
Despite the distinction between foreign policy and diplomacy, the inevitable, intimate relationship between power politics and the functions of diplomacy means that the two can never be completely separated, at least from the mind of the general public. This has contributed to a popular image of diplomats as untrustworthy double-dealers.
Quotations along those lines are numerous. Here are just a few from Ambassador Charles W. Freeman’s Diplomat’s Dictionary (U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2010):
• Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nice way. (Proverb)
• Diplomacy: the patriotic art of lying for one’s country. (Ambrose Bierce)
• Diplomacy is to speak French, to speak nothing, and to speak falsehood. (Ludwig Boerne) ...
Self-delusion is dangerous for countries as well as individuals, so the diplomat’s job is to introduce into political and policy deliberations the realities of that “vast external realm” which lies outside our borders. As Edmund Burke observed two centuries ago, “Nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality, and the total want of consideration of what others will naturally hope or fear.” The ability to resist that tendency requires a robust adherence to ethical principles by Foreign Service officers.
The ethical quality that stands our in such situations is honesty . ...
The Eternal Dilemma
Diplomacy in modern times focuses on the political and bureaucratic process and institutions by which political entities -- traditionally nation-states, but also non-state actors and international organizations -- establish and manage their official relations. Writing in the May 1961 Foreign Service Journal on “Diplomacy as a Profession,” George Kennan declared: “This is the classic function of diplomacy: to effect the communication between one’s own government and other governments or individuals abroad, and to do this with maximum accuracy, tact and good sense.”
The diplomat is thus charged with a double task: studying and comprehending the nature of the outside world, and communicating with other governments concerning his or her own government’s interests and aspirations. As Kennan puts it, the diplomat’s job is to be “the bearer of a view of the outside world.”
These sometimes conflicting obligations between the amorality of the state – especially when consciously practicing realpolitik – and the professional morality of the diplomacy agent create a murky, ethically ambiguous situation. In a fundamental sense, the professional diplomat cannot effectively perform the agent’s task without acting with a least a modicum of professional ethics.
Ironically, even an immoral government is badly served by an immoral agent. Herein lies the ethical dilemma which often faces the individual diplomat.