Postgraduate research required on contemporary diplomacy

The following list of topics includes old subjects crying out for new interpretations as well as seriously under-researched subjects of more recent vintage.

Secret hostages in Thai-PRC diplomacy, 1956-
In 1956, Sang Phathanothai, a senior Thai official and close confidante of his prime minister, secretly sent two of his children, a daughter of eight and a son of twelve, to live as privileged guests of the leadership of Communist China. Secrecy was essential because Thailand was publicly closely aligned with the United States in the Cold War and host to a massive American embassy and CIA contingent. The son, Wai, was deported during the notorious Cultural Revolution a decade later but the daughter, Sirin, remained in China until 1970. Albeit on Thai rather than Chinese initiative, this was an extraordinary resurrection of a key device of the tributary system of the old ‘middle kingdom’, which was designed to signify recognition by a lesser power of the status of the greater regional power and, in this instance, provide a personal guarantee of good conduct – or as good as was possible in the circumstances. The Thai hostages case was drawn to my attention by my Diplo colleague, Kishan Rana, who tells me that the same practice was employed on the subcontinent in relations between the Rajput maharajas and the Mughal court.

There were evidently other contacts between the PRC and Thailand, which had a very large Chinese community, so this would make an absorbing case study in diplomacy without diplomatic relations. Did the CIA know about Sirin and Wai? What role did they actually play in Chinese-Thai relations relative to other channels? Because it is the key primary source on Sirin and Wai, and also because it is readily accessible, the place to begin is Sirin’s fluent and absorbing memoir of the episode, The Dragon’s Pearl: Growing up among China’s elite (Simon & Schuster, 1994), written with the assistance of American historian James Peck.  What secondary sources there are on the subject I have no idea but online American primary sources which provide good contextual material and at the least clues to the questions I have posed, are abundant. See, for example:

ADST’s Thailand Country Reader. Among the few of the many interview transcripts here that I have read, I found the lengthy interview with Economic Officer Kempton B. Jenkins, Bangkok 1954-6, particularly useful. NB these oral history transcripts follow the long list of names of interviewees, which isn’t immediately obvious. They are also easily searchable using your own computer’s ‘Find on page’ function since the ‘reader’ is one huge page.

CIA docs on Thailand.


Foreign Service List 1956. Shows great size of US Embassy Bangkok, and the names give clues to further research. Many lists for later years can also be found online.

Contact groups
At the end of May 2020 seven former British foreign secretaries suggested a contact group as the way forward in the crisis provoked by China’s threatening attitude to Hong Kong; see The Guardian 1 June 2020. However, in the 5th edition of my textbook, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, I argued (pp. 262-3) that this diplomatic device had a fatal disadvantage. Was I wrong? [May 2020]

Health attachés
Among other questions: Why they are important, especially in a pandemic, and – despite this – why few embassies have them. This is a topical and seriously under-researched subject. See my blog of 20 May 2020 on this subject (‘Where have all the health attachés gone?’), which has links that should get you started. Hard work on online diplomatic lists will also pay dividends, as will the open files of some governments’ foreign and health ministries. [May 2020]

Diplomatic security: Security at British diplomatic posts
Diplomatic security is the term now usually preferred to ‘diplomatic protection’ for the steps taken by states to safeguard the fabric of their diplomatic and consular missions, the lives of their diplomatic and consular officers, and the integrity of their communications. It is an important subject but was largely neglected until this year, when Diplomatic Security: A Comparative Analysis, edited by Eugenio Cusumano and Christopher Kinsey, was published by Stanford University Press. However, while a useful first step, this volume of essays has marked limitations, as I argue in a review for H-Net. The upside of this is that it offers multiple launching points for further research. A case in point is British practice in providing mission security because the chapter on this by Kinsey is heavier on general reflexes, bureaucratic support at home, and the types of security personnel involved than on exactly how it is delivered in practice. It is true, as he says, that – for good reasons – all governments are tight-lipped on current security measures but some documents are availabIe at the National Archives in London up to the late 1980s which are sure to give some insight into the British tradition – and thus to likely echoes in current practice. With the exception of three documents, Kinsey has not done this research, as far as I can tell from his endnotes, so I opened the ‘Discovery’ page filtered for 1950+ and keyed the following terms into the Search box:

‘embassy defence’, ‘embassy compounds’, ‘diplomatic security’, and ‘diplomatic protection’. Excluding those on communications, which I ignored, the following are the likely looking files these searches turned up:

• FCO 58/4941: ‘Security and protection of diplomatic missions and representation’ (1988)

• FCO 58/3704: United Nations: protection of diplomats (1984)

• FCO 58/698: United Nations discussions on protection of diplomats (1972)

• FCO 98/682: European cooperation on protection of diplomats (1979)

• FCO 33/3848: ‘Security of UK diplomatic missions following assassination of Sir Richard Sykes, HM Ambassador, The Hague, March 1979 (1979)

• FO 1043/91: Potential break of diplomatic relations: defence of British Embassy (Addis Ababa) (1966)

• FCO 31/3527: New building: British Embassy compound, Addis Ababa (1982)

• FCO 7/3783: Embassy security in Bogota (1980)

• FO 371/180599: HM Embassy security (Vietnam) (1965)

• WORK/10/270: Embassy Security Measures (Baghdad) (1942-52)

• FO 366/3439: New embassy compound projected for Jedda (1965)

• FCO 8/3521: British Embassy in Abu Dhabi: development of compound (1980)

• FCO 17/1435: Safety of foreign embassies in Amman: grenade explosion in chancery compound of British Embassy, 18 June (1971)

• FCO 7/6520: Diplomatic representation of the UK in Argentina: security of British Interests Section, Buenos Aires (BISBA) (1986)

• FCO 79/546: Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) review of overseas representation: paper on security constraints (1976-7)

• FCO 8/1358: Reports on security inspections of political residences and agencies in Persian Gulf (1970)

• FCO 79/125: Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation under the Chairmanship of Sir Val Duncan, ‘Duncan Report’: Interdepartmental Steering Committee; Sub-Committee on security problems (1969)

• FCO 37/3323: Protection of diplomatic staff and property in Nepal (1983)

• FCO 58/2005: Terrorism, diplomatic hostage-taking and Nordic item on the protection of diplomats (1980)

• FCO 41/869: Consultations in WEU on protection of diplomats from kidnapping and terrorism (1971)

• FO 371/100324: Protection of non-diplomatic British staff at Iron Curtain posts; comment and suggestions on position of non-diplomatic staff at Moscow; US State Department attitude to the problem (1952)

If you are interested and are able to visit the archive, you could do worse than to check them out, bearing in mind that some will prove to be useless.

The following files were helpfully located and used by Kinsey, although the numbers are, of course, National Archives’ catalogue numbers used for ordering, not FCO file numbers, as suggested at his endnote 20:

• FCO 93/2447: British Embassy in Lebanon, including security of HM Ambassador (1980)

• FCO 31/2942: Inspection of British High Commission, Kampala, Uganda (1980)

• FCO 7/2760: Bomb explosion outside the British Ambassador’s house, Buenos Aires, 25 April 1975 (1975)

NB. When citing a document from one of these files, it should be preceded by ‘TNA’, the preferred acronym for The National Archives at Kew in London. For fuller, authoritative guidance on citing sources from this archives, see here.

Another freely available online resource on this subject, which Kinsey rightly uses, is this:
House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2003– 2004,  Eighth Report of Session 2003–04, Report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, HC 745,  23 September 2004, pp. 29-33, Ev 78-80, and search ‘security’ in this document:

Representative offices: de facto embassies, quasi-embassies, or lobby groups?
I have posted here a lengthy Research Note (Project 2) under this heading which I hope will give ideas for both MA and PhD theses. I have placed it on my ‘Current Research’ page because it was the quickest way to get it up but I do not propose to do any further research in the area myself. A thesis could concentrate on just one representative office, a class of offices (e.g. those with no diplomatic status at all), a receiving state’s policy towards representative offices, the invention of the ‘mission’, and so on. There’s plenty of scope here, and it’s important because the separatist tendencies that produce representative offices show no signs of weakening. Even in the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ they are being stimulated dangerously by the lunatic fringe behind the Conservative Party government. Scotland voted strongly to remain in the EU but is being dragged out by the English-dominated Parliament. [10 February 2019]

The problem of  ‘sham diplomats’
‘Sham diplomats’ are individuals  (usually wealthy or influential in their own countries) 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
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!

Video-conferencing: Zoom in
In the 5th edition of my textbook, published in 2015, I headed the section on this subject ‘Video-conferencing stutters’. Is that still true? The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has certainly given it a strong boost, as I noted in a blog on 14 March. Perhaps ‘Video-conferencing flexes its muscles’ 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; not only in businesses and large organizations but also in families during Covid-19 lockdowns. A sweep of the internet on the subject I made in January 2015 produced little evidence of its constructive use in serious international negotiations, except in Ukraine prenegotiations stimulated by the OSCE in the second half of 2014. But in 2020 it became a key feature of UK-EU Brexit negotiations, and no doubt of others. [June 2020]

Diplomatic training
In the course of conversations in 2014 at the Foreign Office in London and in the evening with a former student then 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]