H. E. Dr. Lawson Victor Tom, The Kingdom of New Atlantis Continental Ambassador to Africa and Nigeria Ambassador


Ten Principles of Operational Diplomacy: a proposed framework.


The operational level of foreign policy is the essential crucible for the formulation of diplomatic approaches to international challenges. This article identifies ten principles for conducting operational level diplomacy to help practitioners frame the development and implementation of successful foreign policies. Diplomacy, the use of negotiations to advance the international interests of a state, continues to play an important role in the adjustment of state interests and societies to contemporary challenges. The principles proposed below to strengthen operational diplomacy are: national interest, credibility, clarity, comprehensiveness, understanding, perceptiveness, circumspection, confidence-building, decisiveness, and perseverance.

The operational level of diplomacy;

This examination of diplomatic principles focuses at the operational level, that is, the level in foreign policy communities where practitioners plan, design, and conduct diplomacy to achieve objectives in the strategic national interest. In military affairs, the operational level is crucial in the execution of military tasks, and is the focus of significant doctrine and education.

Shaping the principles of diplomacy

In preparing guidelines for operational diplomacy, the principles themselves need to reflect realistic parameters in their design and substance. They should be distinct enough to address the essential purpose and practice of diplomacy, and reinforce prospects for diplomatic success. The list should not be so lengthy as to become a catalog, nor too short to encompass diplomatic situations constructively. The principles should also be adaptable to a variety of diplomatic situations, but not assumed to be unequivocally flexible, or they would not contribute to a systemic approach that distinguishes diplomacy from other disciplines while applicable across a range of circumstances. The principles should also be mutually reinforcing, and neither internally contradictory nor obstructive to the diplomatic process. Ultimately, the principles need to be practicable and relevant in a variety of diplomatic activities amidst the growing complexity and interdisciplinary nature of foreign policy challenges and means of implementation.

Ten principles of operational diplomacy;

The ten principles for diplomatic operations are:

1. National interest

2. Credibility

3. Clarity

4. Comprehensiveness

5. Understanding

6. Perceptiveness

7. Circumspection

8. Confidence-building

9. Decisiveness

10. Perseverance.

1. National interest. The purpose of a diplomatic effort is to advance the national interest of a state, as determined by its legitimate policymakers, representative institutions, and enshrined commitments and values. Progressive agreements pursued by diplomats are rooted in the national interest and propel it forward. The diplomat applies the national interest first and foremost in preparing to form and implement policy, and is grounded in a deep commitment to the core values and vital interests animating the strategy of the state.

2. Credibility. Diplomacy is by its nature the employment of communication, backed by the inherent resources of each side, to establish an agreement resolving a set of differences and outlining a basis for future relations. The policy presentation must be convincing, conveying the formal attitude of the government, backed by clear, realistic rewards or costs, and underpinned by an institutional and individual reputation for candor and reliability. Any advantage sought by the diplomatic presentation by provoking uncertainty must be grounded in credibility, in order to deliver an opening. The credible diplomatic presentation maintains the initiative and aims to increase prospects for compromise in favor of the presenter’s position.

3. Clarity. Diplomacy requires the exchange of views and concepts to weave an agreement together from different strands of interest. However nuanced in presentation, communication must be precise and without ultimately detrimental ambiguity. This is not to claim that diplomacy is literalist or unsubtle; rather, in diplomacy, even a bluff needs to convey its claims convincingly. But greater effort is directed to the communication of intended consequences. The diplomatic approach, informed by a clear communication of the objectives and constraints of the situation, means to unravel misconceptions and determine whether or not agreement can be reached.

4. Comprehensiveness.

The comprehensive diplomatic approach seeks to engage and resolve issues that are often inherently multi-disciplinary and inter-departmental; and to account for the effects on multiple parties of an agreement over time. The comprehensive approach incorporates public and social media diplomacy, and appropriate multiple tracks of engagement, in shaping and implementing foreign policy. Comprehensiveness in diplomacy is prepared for a variety of skills, disciplines, and methods to be employed to advance the policy objectives. Comprehensiveness encompasses inherent flexibility and anticipation of variable consequences, so that goals may be achieved through evolving, alternative and opportunistic courses of action.

5. Understanding. Diplomatic operations must be thoroughly grounded in a government’s policy positions and the circumstances surrounding the issues and flexibility possible in the dialogue. Understanding requires commitment to learning, professional development, and curiosity about the diplomatic situation, environment, incentives, history and motivations propelling policy. Effective operational diplomacy also requires solid understanding of counterparts’ goals, beliefs, and underlying cultural outlook.

6. Perceptiveness. Perception requires discerning nuance and applying insight to distinguish issues, motives, interests, and positions in negotiating a mutually acceptable solution. Perceptiveness is essential in diplomacy to discern key moments and points of debate, potential consensus and pitfalls. Perceptiveness additionally gauges how the policy approach appears to interlocutors and wider public interests, and the uses of informational and social networks in shaping and honing the approach.

7. Circumspection. Diplomatic operations focus on a particular policy aim. While the policy approach should be comprehensive with respect to the issues and implications at hand, the objectives must be focused and delineated. The evolving policy should be wary of distractions and unintended concessions. As fundamentally a representative, the diplomat practices reciprocal discretion within the negotiation and communication process; and works conscientiously according to their policy instructions and ability to undertake commitments on behalf of their government and national interest.

8. Confidence-building. Success in diplomatic processes is the product of the parties’ willingness to take the risk of trust that a consensus agreement will achieve mutually acceptable objectives. Confidence-building is often the means and method for bridging from a host of disagreements to a consensus on where progress can occur. The establishment of a diplomatic process, dialogue between the parties, and reaching incremental agreements lay the groundwork for accomplishing objectives, as well as for future unforeseen exchanges.

9. Decisiveness. Diplomacy is a means of state policy to produce results. Diplomats must possess the judgment, capacity, and sense of consequences to make decisions at the appropriate moment, or when their moral authority can advance national interests and values. Decisiveness enables diplomats to take advantage of uncertainty and hesitation in their counterpart which subtle and dynamic diplomacy can create, setting conditions for a favorable outcome. Decisiveness bridges all levels of policy – the strategic, operational, and tactical — and, far from being a delaying tactic, effectively applied diplomacy can establish change and initiate significant results.

10. Perseverance. The commitment to diplomacy uses dialogue to seek policy ends through negotiation. The outcome of diplomatic processes depends not only on the merits of proposals envisioned, exchanged and debated; but also on the persistence, optimism, and imagination for interlocutors to envision an acceptable end-point to the dialogue. Perseverance includes the commitment to see agreements realized and put into. Diplomacy does not end if a crisis shifts to violent conflict; coalition-building, de-escalation, and conflict resolution dimensions remain. Operational diplomacy thus reflects a strategic framework, while working to achieve incremental steps that accumulate successes and clear a path to accomplishing the policy end.

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