The First Practical Diplomacy Textbook Is Out. What Took So Long?

"Diplomatic Tradecraft," published by Cambridge University Press, focuses on the knowledge and skills that in the past could be learned only on the job.


The first time I remember being aware of diplomats was a television news report I saw at age 10 in 1984, about a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. In the next five years, as I watched more television footage of Shultz and his successor, James Baker, coming down the stairs of a white-and-blue plane with “United States of America” emblazoned on it, I wondered why these men’s frequent travels commanded seemingly endless media attention.

As a child in Bulgaria, I had a hazy notion that, when American and Soviet leaders met, they discussed matters of war and peace. But I was far removed from any global centers of power and could not relate to what I saw on television. I certainly had no reason to think that I would ever meet the likes of Shultz and Baker. Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the United States, along with other Western countries, set out to help former communist states behind the Iron Curtain, including Bulgaria, to transition to democracy and market economy. I realized that international diplomacy was not so distant after all — in fact, it affected my own life. The end of the Cold War opened up opportunities I would have never had otherwise, and it brought me closer to the highest levels of diplomacy than I ever thought possible.

The first time I flew on that white-and-blue plane I had seen so many times on television was in 2000. Now living in the United States and working as a journalist, I was part of the traveling press corps covering another secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. On that whirlwind trip to Iceland, France, Germany and Egypt, I began to understand the critical role of career diplomats, or Foreign Service officers, in carrying out U.S. foreign policy and managing international relations. At every stop during the trip, they made my work easier. As soon as we deplaned and jumped in the motorcade, the officers assigned to the traveling press made sure we had everything we needed to report, write and file our stories. It was in the motorcade where I first learned about the Foreign Service and its unique way of life.

Over the next few years, as I traveled with Albright’s successor, Colin Powell, I became more and more interested in the lives and careers of the officers I met. It was a turbulent and consequential time in U.S. foreign policy — right after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 — and the policy stories my colleagues and I wrote from Washington made front-page news. But I often found the personal stories of the career diplomats I met even more intriguing and compelling.

I also realized that the general idea I had about what diplomats did was superficial and outdated. And if that was the case with me, what of the public’s perceptions? As I continued to travel with two more secretaries of state, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, I decided to write a book about the Foreign Service at the beginning of the 21st century titled “America’s Other Army,” which was published in 2012. During my research, I interviewed about 600 Foreign Service officers at 77 embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions on five continents. I found that their work directly affected the everyday lives of Americans, including their safety and security, their ability to travel and communicate with people in other countries, their employment and overall prosperity.

I made two astonishing discoveries. First, almost all officers I met told me that they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they joined the service. They had only a vague notion of what diplomacy was about, based on what they knew from academia, the media and movies. They had no knowledge about what they would be required to do in a diplomatic career, let alone how to do it. As I traveled from country to country, I also met diplomats of dozens of other nationalities and asked whether they had the same experience. They did. A sobering realization sank in. Governments around the world expected their diplomats to represent their countries abroad and advance their national interests, to move around every few years and commit to a long career, because recruiting and onboarding new officers was a costly investment. Yet there was no way for aspiring diplomats and even new recruits to gain true understanding of what the diplomatic profession entailed and how to prepare for it.

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The lack of proper training and professional development was my second big surprise. New officers were thrown into the deep end with few skills, and it took them years to reach the necessary level of competence. As I presented my book at several countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs, it became clear that they did no better at training than the United States — in fact, many did worse. They recruited entry-level officers with master’s degrees in International Relations, expecting them to know how to practice diplomacy. What they apparently didn’t appreciate was that International Relations is an academic discipline, not diplomatic practice, and the difference is crucial.

This is largely still the case today. In this context, professional diplomacy training becomes essential to learning how to navigate a foreign country in order to get specific things done that advance one’s national interest. Given the state of global diplomacy in recent years, I was so convinced of the urgent need for such training that I literally put my money where my mouth was, creating the Washington International Diplomatic Academy (WIDA) in 2017. From the beginning, I was determined to focus exclusively on teaching diplomatic tradecraft, defined as the set of skills, duties and responsibilities required in the daily work of modern diplomacy — and to have career ambassadors and other senior diplomats with decades of experience teach it. As far as I could tell, no such organization had ever existed.

Many of our alumni, who come from dozens of countries, wish they had learned what we taught them when they were in college or graduate school. Some of them must have spoken highly of our training to their universities, because we have noticed rising interest in academia in offering diplomacy courses that go beyond theory and history, aiming to teach practical skills. However, universities are running into a serious problem: there are no adequate textbooks they can use.

It was a natural step for me to try filling that void, and I decided to adapt the material we at WIDA have been teaching and produce the first practical diplomacy textbook, with contributions from some of our instructors and other experienced diplomats. It’s titled “Diplomatic Tradecraft” and has just been published by Cambridge University Press. Unlike previous works on this subject, whose focus is on the “what” and “why” of diplomacy, we went deeper and explored the “how.” Many of our case studies come from their authors’ experiences. They either managed the processes they write about or were active participants in them. You will notice the similar writing style across chapters — evidence that I was a very active editor. I saw part of my job as making sure the text reads like one book, rather than a collection of disparate chapters.

As the book makes clear, there are different definitions of diplomacy, which is a testament to its complexities and intricacies. I define it as the profession or activity of managing international relations with measures short of war. Diplomacy is also a tool for implementing a country’s foreign policy by engaging and influencing nation-states, multilateral organizations and other actors on the world stage — I believe it should be the tool of first resort. It’s not this book’s intention to analyze, debate or assess policy, or to deal with diplomatic theory and history. Rather, in the case studies and other examples from the authors’ experiences or the historical record, we have included discussion of policy processes and decisions to illustrate diplomats’ role in them. Although we recognize the need for modernizing the current system, it wasn’t our goal to criticize it and offer recommendations for its improvement.

It won’t be a surprise that we focus on U.S. diplomacy and use examples from its practice — all but one of the contributors to the book are Americans. We recognize that U.S. diplomatic ambitions and resources may be bigger than those of other countries. However, the skill sets we aim to teach are fundamental to the profession and universally applicable. National, cultural and bureaucratic differences by no means negate the importance of superb interpersonal, communication, analytical and negotiating skills, among others. For example, different governments may deploy distinct communication tactics, but every diplomat should be able to write clearly, succinctly and persuasively, even about complex and confusing matters.

Political leaders around the world have long failed to appreciate professional diplomacy and to understand how much it can help them achieve their policy objectives. As a result, they have starved their diplomatic institutions of resources and ignored the need for training. Few realize that transactional diplomacy rarely works, especially in the long term. Embassies and other permanent diplomatic missions exist to give diplomats the time and opportunities to learn a country’s language, history and culture, and to understand how its government and society function. Great diplomats use the relationships they build and cultivate to understand how their foreign interlocutors think and where they are coming from when making decisions. Those accumulated insights, experience and — ideally — a reservoir of goodwill in the host-country come into play in times of crises or strained official relations.

No one is born with the skills to practice international diplomacy. They have to be acquired. But as one of our contributors, Chas Freeman, writes, “professional diplomatic doctrine — a body of interrelated operational concepts describing how to influence the behavior of other states and people by mostly non-violent means — does not exist. So there is no diplomatic equivalent of military doctrine. This is a very big gap in statecraft. The absence of diplomatic doctrine to complement military science eliminates most options short of the raw pressure of sanctions or the use of force. It increases the probability of armed conflict, with all its unpredictable human and financial consequences. Working out a diplomatic doctrine with which to train professional diplomats could have major advantages.”

In other words, as I wrote in the New York Times in 2018, “with more professional diplomacy, the world might just become less of a mess.” I hope “Diplomatic Tradecraft” is a modest contribution to making sure that day dawns soon.