Need a thesis topic? 2017-07-24T12:22:23+00:00

Postgraduate research required on contemporary diplomacy

It is, of course, an elementary mistake to believe that only new subjects are worthy of research; where old subjects are concerned (usually old because so important), the key point is to offer new interpretations. Nevertheless, some aspects of contemporary diplomacy remain seriously under-researched, and they also deserve attention. These include the following:

The problem of  ‘sham diplomats’
‘Sham diplomats’ are individuals  (usually wealthy or influential in their own countries for some other reason) who have no relevant qualifications whatever and secure diplomatic posts in order solely to obtain diplomatic immunity for personal reasons; they usually hold ranks below head of mission and are therefore not exposed to much scrutiny – or much, if any, work. (For these reasons, they are not identical to the ‘political appointees’ commonly made by US presidents to ambassadorships.) They present an important public policy question that became topical in the UK in 2016 with the Estrada v. Juffali case, and it is crying out for investigation. What is the size of the problem? Are some kinds of state more guilty of it than others? Is it usually easier to make ‘sham’ appointments to permanent missions to international organizations than to embassies to states and, if so, why? What can be done about the problem without breaking diplomatic law (see especially Articles 9 and 39.1 of the VCDR)? These seem to me to be the main questions to be tackled. The work of Professor Craig Barker is a good place to start. You would also need to study the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (or ‘General Convention’) (1946) and the numerous more specialized conventions shaped so heavily by it: the various ‘headquarters agreements’ (plus later amendments) as well as the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the Specialized Agencies (1947) and national implementing legislation. An example of a headquarters agreement is that between the IMO and the UK (1968), see esp. Art. 7.

Interests sections in US-Cuba relations
US-Cuban relations have been much under scrutiny since their dramatic improvement beginning in 2014. Nevertheless, as far as I am aware, there has been no serious study of the working of the large interests sections that have been such a marked feature of this relationship since the time of the Carter administration in the late 1970s. This is the more surprising because the American materials for such a study are abundant. For example: the US Interests Section in Havana (USINT) has been the subject of a number of OIG Reports available on the Internet, most recently that of May 2014 (just google ‘OIG USINT’); and numerous US diplomats posted to it (including five chiefs of mission – there is a complete list of them here – and one DCM) have provided revealing accounts of its activities in the course of interviews for ADST’s oral history programme, to which I draw attention on the ‘Resources for Study’ page (the easiest way to find the relevant passages is to go to the ‘Cuba Country Reader‘ page and then search ‘interests section’, which will also pick out the observations of Department of State officers on the operations of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington). Anyone contemplating a PhD thesis on this subject would ideally need to get at any Cuban, Swiss and Czech materials available as well. Having just read the astonishing account by James Cason, chief of mission at USINT in 2002-2005, of what he was allowed to get up to, I would be particularly interested to know something about the attitude to him of his nominal boss, the Swiss Ambassador at Havana! USINT is certainly a very unusual interests section.

[3 May 2015]

Unionization of diplomats
I have the impression that, to the extent that diplomats have ever been members of trades unions or – as white-collar unions have traditionally and rather sniffily preferred to call themselves – ‘professional associations’, it has usually been as part of broader civil service organizations. However, under the twin pressures of foreign ministry budget cuts and increasing reliance on political appointees and paradiplomats, the unionization of diplomats is becoming a more important question: the form it is taking, the extent of its spread, and its consequences. Let us recall that French diplomats were summoned to a one-day strike in December 2003, and that a similar and more serious development occurred in Israel only last month (March 2015). To arms, researchers!

In the 4th edition of my textbook, I headed the section on this subject ‘Video-conferencing stalls’. That was written in 2009 (published 2010). Is that still true? Perhaps ‘Video-conferencing stutters’ would now be more accurate. The technology has advanced (eye contact, I gather, is now obtainable), it has become cheaper, and there is much more familiarity with it in the business world and inside large organizations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that foreign ministries and international organizations have not given up on it, although my recent sweep of the internet on the subject produced little evidence of its constructive use in serious international negotiations. Nevertheless, the OSCE, for one, keeps trying; for example, in Ukraine prenegotiations in the second half of 2014 – perhaps out of desperation. This subject badly needs researching, and the OSCE might not be the worst place to start. Google ‘OSCE video conference’. [29 January 2015]

Diplomatic training
In the course of conversations yesterday at the Foreign Office in London (in a preparatory session for the launch of its new ‘Diplomatic Academy’) and in the evening with a former student now working in the consular section of the Belgian Embassy, I learned that there were wider variations in the training arrangements made by foreign ministries for their novice diplomats  than I had suspected. This applies particularly to the length and content of the initial period of training spent at home prior to posting abroad. It occurs to me, therefore, that this is a good subject for comparative analysis. Alternatively, anyone interested only in the British tradition could do worse (he said modestly!) than make a start by looking at the essay on ‘Diplomatic Education and Training: The British tradition’ in my Counter-Revolution in Diplomacy and other essays. Among primary sources important to look at are: the Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas. 1962-63 (‘The Plowden Report’), Feb. 1964, Cmnd. 2276 (ch. 5 ‘Training’); and the seven files on the FCO’s ‘Training Department’ now held at The National Archives at Kew, ref. FCO97. (This incorrectly gives the date of establishment of this department as 1974; it appears in the Diplomatic Service List 1970.) [13 May 2014]

Ambassador Biographies
There is no general shortage here, it is true, but some ambassadors deserving of attention and who have also left behind a wealth of archival material have been badly neglected. A case in point recently drawn to my attention by Professor Young at Nottingham is Sir Andrew Buchanan (1807-82). I am assured that any student wishing to write on his career (or part of it) would find a warm welcome at the Manuscripts and Special Collections division of the University of Nottingham Library. Here is a list of the Buchanan Papers held by them and here is the list they provide of Buchanan papers held elsewhere. [14 Dec. 2013]

Consuls – The Other Missing Dimension
Consuls have been neglected by scholars in the same way that spies were neglected until Christopher Andrew and David Dilks published The Missing Dimension back in 1984. Someone should contrive a similar kick-start to consular research with a monograph or collection of essays called The Other Missing Dimension.
There is huge scope for research here, e.g. different kinds of consular officer, incl. honorary consuls, and (more historical) dragomans; biographies of notable consular officers (e.g. Harry Boyle, Adam Block and Andrew Ryan in the British Levant Service); and studies of the more elite, specialized consular services such as the Levant Service just mentioned. Plenty of consular officers have left papers or (now) oral histories. Ryan’s papers, which contain his own detailed views on the problems of the Levant Service, can be consulted at St Antony’s College Oxford. And important early memoirs are now freely available in the amazing Internet Archive, notably Satow’s A Diplomat in Japan (in the 1860s he was actually still in the consular service as a student interpreter). A good place to start among secondary sources is Platt’s Cinderella Service. [29 January 2015]

Locally engaged staff
There has been a pronounced trend in recent years for foreign ministries to increase the proportion of their overseas staff recruited locally. It would be extremely useful to know (a) what the facts are about this and (b) what is the explanation. I have discovered some useful figures on the State Department and FCO websites but a serious study will have to go back some years and go well beyond the resources available on the web. [29 January 2015]

The International Sections of Government Departments
The growth, value, and control (or lack of it) exercised over the international sections of ‘OGD’s (Other Government Departments) by foreign ministries. I am grateful to Mark McDowell, a Canadian FSO, for this valuable suggestion. A thesis on this subject might focus on one state, or it might compare the international sections of equivalent ministries in a number of different states, e.g. the international sections of transport ministries. [29 January 2015]

Consensus decision-making
This is now the most important form of decision-making in multilateral bodies but, as far as I am aware, not a great deal of research has been done on the various procedural devices that are its hallmarks – straw votes, silence procedure, and so on, which I have discussed briefly on the Online Updating page for Chapter 9 of my textbook. An MA dissertation might look at the style and effectiveness of consensus decision-making in one body (e.g. ‘Silence Procedure in NATO’), while a PhD thesis might engage in a comparative study of several multilateral bodies.

Telephone diplomacy
There is hardly anything on this at all, although it is clearly of great importance. The internet is a valuable source here, not least because transcripts of some of Kissinger’s calls can be found on it. It would be very interesting to discover, for example, what kind of training – if any – is given on the use of the telephone in different MFAs. Try asking them. There is also an increasing amount of relevant material in more recently released confidential government papers. As long ago as 2007 I searched ‘telephone’ and ‘Foreign Office’ in the online catalogue of the British National Archives, and brought up 359 files! Obviously most were not relevant but some looked very interesting indeed, and their number must have multiplied since. [29 January 2015]

Legal advisers
Role and influence of in MFAs. The last book on this appears to have been written in 1962. Hans Corell, formerly the UN’s own legal adviser – there’s another topic – has a good reading list on this subject (tho’ not updated since his retirement in 2004), so there’s a start. [29 January 2015]

Planning departments in MFAs
Opinion on the value of these has always been divided, not least because – as far as I am aware – there is no systematic published research on them. A recent Dutch report has emphasised their importance. [29 January 2015]

Comparative study of Commercial Diplomacy
Should embassies be used to promote trade and inward investment or should it be left to the private sector? This is a public policy question of considerable importance, and leads to many others. Some diplomatic services give more weight to this than others. Which are they? Does it work?

Interests Sections.
An old favourite of mine. John W. Young at Nottingham has recently done some work on this but he would be the first to admit that there is plenty more to be done: features, extent of use, advantages and disadvantages, and their origins – much earlier than I once thought. Their use in the First World War would be a good topic. American embassies seem to have housed quite a few (certainly the US Emb. in Turkey did), and FRUS would be a good place to start. Key words: ‘protecting powers’ as well as ‘interests sections’.

In view of the importance of this subject it is amazing that it has been so overlooked. As far as I am aware, there is not a full-length monograph on it. A useful approach for a thesis would be to compare the pre-negotiations in a number of negotiations of different kinds, e.g. between friendly and hostile states; on low and high stakes issues; bilateral and multilateral; and so on. An MA dissertation might focus on just one pair.

More detailed case studies are always needed. Plenty of scope for comparative studies here as well. Recent ‘funeral summits’ well worth a close look are those of Nelson Mandela and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (the last also attended by the Iranian foreign minister).[29 January 2015]

Vienna Conference [not Convention] on Diplomatic Relations, 2 March-14 April 1961
We await a history of the conference that produced this enormously important convention, the legal bedrock of the world diplomatic system. Many official documents on this have been available for years. Lorna Loyd’s Diplomacy with a Difference, has something on this and would be a good place to start, both for its insights and its references. [29 January 2015]

Switzerland and the world diplomatic system
General theme: if Switerland did not exist would it have to be invented? Particular themes worth exploring: Switzerland’s role as a protecting power; Geneva as a diplomatic centre; Switzerland as provider of good offices rather than mediation; International Committee of the Red Cross (though quite a bit on this already, notably Caroline Moorhead’s Dunant’s Dream (1998); and bearing on all of this of permanent neutrality; etc.

Vatican diplomacy
The account of this subject needs carrying forward from the end of the 1950s, when Robert Graham published his Vatican Diplomacy. More on the role of the Vatican in international mediation would be particularly helpful. I tried teaching this on my Mediation module but had to abandon it after a few years for want of decent books and articles to which to refer my students. There are a couple of articles on the Vatican role in the mediation of the Beagle Channel dispute between Argentina and Chile, but that appeared to be it. However, the subject has recently been revived by news that the Vatican played a key role in setting up the probable restoration of diplomatic relations between the United State and Cuba; see Guardian, 17 December 2014. [29 January 2015]