Kishan S. Rana, The Twenty-First Century Ambassador: Plenipotentiary to Chief Executive (Malta and Geneva: DiploFoundation, 2004), pp. xiii + 258. ISBN 99909-55-18-2 (Paperback).

Kishan S. Rana, Asian Diplomacy: The Foreign Ministries of China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand (Malta and Geneva: DiploFoundation, 2007) pp. xiii + 246. ISBN 978-99932-53-17-4 (Paperback).

[buy these books]
Guest Review by John W. Young

These latest books by Kishan Rana from the DiploFoundation have all the author’s usual trademarks. As a former member of the Indian Foreign service, with a number of ambassadorships under his belt, he is able to speak with a deep first-hand knowledge of the subjects he addresses. But he also has an academic’s grasp of the relevant primary sources and secondary literature, both historical and theoretical, as well as the ability to carry out his own research in the field when necessary. For Asian Diplomacy this has meant conducting over 160 interviews with diplomats and others involved in the region’s diplomacy. His style is clear and his structure generally logical, with a liberal use of sub-headings and substantial footnotes that make the subjects easy to grasp for the unfamiliar reader. Indeed, both books will be attractive to novices in the field, though there is plenty that will interest the expert too. His insights are particularly valuable where they concern diplomacy in the less-developed world. Thus, in order to illustrate the growing emphasis on business management in professional diplomacy, he kicks off The Twenty-First Century Ambassador with a reference to Thailand’s 2003 decision to make its ambassadors ‘Chief Executive Officers’ in the countries to which they were assigned, taking pride of place among other agencies in projecting Thailand’s political, economic and cultural interests abroad. For its part, Asian Diplomacy is to be welcomed above all as a comparative study of foreign ministries in a region beyond Europe.

Of the two books, The Twenty-First Century Ambassador is likely to have the broadest appeal, given that it ranges more widely in its examples. Rana begins by drawing out some of the key changes in the world of diplomacy over recent decades: the challenges to the so-called ‘gatekeeper role’ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the growing importance of non-state actors; the multiplication of items on the international agenda; the increasing number of summits; the information revolution; ideas of ‘delivering value to citizens’ (p. 15); the application of new technologies to diplomatic work; the growing size of embassies, with many staff drawn from beyond the Foreign Ministry; and the wider social and educational background of diplomats. After that there are chapters dedicated to: ‘ritual and form’ (protocol, ceremonial, immunities and the like); ‘partners and techniques’ (very much a chapter of two halves: official and non-state interlocutors are dealt with in the first half, while principal functions – negotiation, promotion and outreach – feedback to the sending state, the ambassador’s management role and the embassy’s service role – in consular and commercial work, and public diplomacy – are covered in the second); multilateral diplomacy; the domestic context (including dealings with the Foreign Ministry and political leaders); leadership within the embassy; and ‘human resources’ (ranging from training and language skills to ‘rogue ambassadors’, rewards and sanctions).

In the Conclusion, Rana looks into the future, but in a practical rather than a speculative way, touching on possible developments in the European Union as the concept of a joint foreign policy gathers pace, and the growing emphasis on entrepreneurship as an ambassadorial attribute. But he is confident that the institution of the ambassador is here to stay ‘as the prime, permanent channel of contact and relationship promotion with foreign countries.’ The book is not flawless. Chapter 1 reads more like an extension of the Introduction, providing essential background material (such as how the ‘ambassador’ should be defined) pointing up areas of debate that are not followed through until later on. But it should be recommended reading for those just entering the diplomatic profession, if only to show them that one of the few certainties is that of continuing change.

Building on some of the points made in the earlier book, Asian Diplomacy begins with an outline of the key challenges facing the foreign ministry in an age of globalisation, including the widening of international contacts, the plurality of subjects dealt with by foreign ministries, the impact of new technologies, the significance of public diplomacy and issues of accountability to parliaments and the public. The book then goes on to look at five Asian foreign ministries in turn – China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand – looking, in each case, at four common aspects: the historical context of each country’s diplomacy; the institutional structure of the diplomatic service and foreign ministry (including such issues as training and missions abroad); the contemporary priorities of their diplomacy; and the methods pursued in such areas as negotiation, inter-agency co-ordination and crisis management. There is an assessment of each country’s overall practice at the end of each of these chapters, but the real strength of Rana’s approach lies in his ability to draw comparisons between the five cases in his penultimate chapter, drawing out both common reactions to problems (regional diplomacy is a rapidly growing area; diplomacy has become much more professional over time; and, unsurprisingly, all five foreign ministries have found that ‘the best adaptation is continuous reform’, p. 182) and major differences between them (with Singapore emerging the strongest on innovation and risk management). There are plenty of comparisons too, drawn throughout the book, with Western examples.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is number 7, where Rana explores the notion of an Asian approach to diplomacy, boosted by the continent’s economic growth and in reaction to the West’s hegemony-seeking and emphasis on its own concepts of human rights and democracy. Rana concludes that ‘Asians tolerate diversity; intercultural communication comes rather easily to them. The world sorely needs such qualities… ’ (p. 179) There is room to quibble with his choice of foreign ministries. China, India and Japan are clearly important enough in global terms to justify their inclusion, and as a threesome they also exhibit radically different cultures and political systems. But it would have been interesting to see at least one Islamic country drawn into the frame. As it is, however, the two South-east Asian examples, Thailand and the city-state of Singapore, provide plenty of scope for contrasting practices that fit Rana’s purpose. He is well aware that others can go on to explore the numerous other foreign ministries of Asia. But he can be thanked for, as he puts it, ‘opening the door to further study’ (p. 15) and those future researchers would be well advised to take his book as a model for their own case studies.