Relicts of the past? The current challenges for diplomacy

The last few weeks were quite a blast for me: I’ve interned at the German embassy in Rome. A new job in a new city. I thought to process the experiences I made here in one (or a few?) articles.

It’s been quite a rough month for Germany’s Foreign Affairs department. First, Daniel Kriener, the German ambassador in Venezuela, was forced to leave the country after welcoming Interim President Guiadó at the airport of Caracas. Interestingly, although plenty of other diplomats joined him, he was the only one to be declared a “persona non grata” for interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. A few weeks later, a deputy speaker of the German Bundestag (who is also a member of the liberal party) demands to expel the US ambassador Grenell for the same offence. Prior, the US diplomat has criticized Germany’s plan to break their promise of contributing more to NATO’s defence budget. Albeit I politically agree with both actions of the diplomats in these cases, they delineate the ongoing structural changes in the diplomacy sector. To illustrate this, I will first provide a theoretical framework to analyze ongoing diplomatic challenges before trying to examine the role of diplomacy in the future.

Principal-Agent Theory and decreasing relevance

I conceive diplomacy as mostly a principal-agent based problem. I believe that many problems in diplomatic negotiations can be traced back to the classic effects of asymmetric information. Since two principals, in this case two states, cannot negotiate with each other directly in most cases, these arbitrations are carried out between various agents. Those agents are of course not always the ambassadors. In a broad meaning, one can apply the principal-agent paradigm to diplomacy by every negotiating process initiated by the state.

Through the lens of the principal-agent paradigm, I perceive the main task of diplomacy to achieve a good negotiating position, for example through an informational advantage. However, due to globalization, state-to-state diplomacy has been drastically weakened. The negotiating game is now mostly carried out within other institutions with lower transactions costs. Two countries want a new trade deal? Just orientate on WTO Rules. Sue another country? Call the International Criminal Court. A few voices made reasonable arguments even for abolishing unnecessary embassies and only keeping the crucial ones. The Trump administration, for example, seems not eagerly committed to fill the around 18 vacant ambassador positions hastily.

Certainly, the globalization combined with the expansion of robust institutions leaves little space for traditional diplomacy as a driving force in interstate relations. This is not necessarily a bad development: As Paul W. Meerts points out, this can be a huge chance for weaker states since negotiating in multilateral rather than bilateral constellations tends to weaken the position of stronger states. Thus, playing out the trump cards in negotiations will be harder for the hegemon. We can currently witness this in the Brexit debate: Even though the strong states, Germany and France, have a vast repertoire of power resources to use as leverage against GB in the negotiations, the can hardly deploy them through EU’s multipolar negotiating structure.

Contrary, there are also recent examples of deploying bilateral traditional diplomacy measures successfully. China’s initiation of Italy’s accession to the Belt Road Initiative (see Tridivesh Singh Maini’s great article here for a quick overview) is a prime example for this. But no other case shows the weaknesses of bilateral diplomacy in a more drastic way: China was able to transpose their tremendous power resources into a deal which heavily favours the Chinese economy. The very ambiguous agreement laid down a strategy of “closer economic collaboration.” The oppositional criticism of the deal coming from the very left and the right is based on economic nationalism and thus misses the important point. Chinese government exerts immense influence on key enterprises like  Tencent, Alibaba, and Badoo: Digital fundamental research topics such as AI were distributed to the firms not through competition but through the state ( I highly recommend Amy Webb’s EconTalk if you want to dig deeper into this.). Once they build sufficient digital infrastructure here in Europe, network effects and technological advantage will come into effect and engender high entry barriers and exit costs. This makes it easy for China to enforce its regulation rather than obeying European ones. Although it is hard to finally determine if multilateral negotiations would have secured a politically better deal, I favour higher short-term transaction cost of multilateral negotiations over the long-term threat showed above.

Embassies as service provider

Of course, taking care of a good interstate negotiation position is not the only task of an embassy. A popular counterargument is that the principal-agent perspective neglects the vital daily business of embassies to help their citizens abroad. Speaking of large and prestigious Embassies though, I estimate that their role as service provider for abroad living citizens will further decline. Most of their maintenance work for citizens living abroad will be redundant due to technological process and further institutionalization. Renewing a Passport, issuing visas and transporting back coffins (yep) are a frequent task, but easy to “source out” to private actors in the future.

But what is the role for ambassadors and embassies then?

This question is where it gets interesting in my opinion. Deeply rooted in international conventions and international customary law, discreet and silent work has been prerequisite for an ambassador. Carefully collecting small pieces of information and building bridges to local actors were the key for a good negotiating position. But as elaborated above, international institutions do the job more efficiently. A new role of ambassadors as advocates for concrete policy measures would be diametrically opposed to international conventions. Based upon the “legality creates legitimacy” premises, a further politicization of diplomacy seems not at present having a majority and thus is unlikely to be buttressed by legal means.

However, if we fall back into a narrative of nationalism, bilateral diplomacy will regain relevance. Otherwise, it will continue to slowly lose importance and eventually wane. Hence, the main challenge nowadays is to look for the right niche for traditional diplomacy – and it seems that it has not been found yet.

Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?

I recently saw a thoroughgoing Twitter conversation between a Caleb Brown, which most of you presumably know from the Cato Daily Podcast, and the Neoliberal Project, an American project founded to promote the ideas of neoliberalism, regarding the differences between libertarianism and neoliberalism. For those who follow the debate, it is nothing new that the core of this contention goes way beyond an etymological dimension – it is concerned with one of the most crucial topics in the liberal scholarship: the relationship between government and free markets.

Arbitrary categories?

I can understand the aim to further structure the liberal movement into subcategories which represent different types of liberalism. Furthermore, I often use these different subcategories myself to distance my political ideology from liberal schools I do not associate with, such as paleo-libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. However, I do not see such a distinct line between neoliberalism and libertarianism in practice.

As describes by Caleb Brown (and agreed on by the Neoliberal Project), neoliberalism wants to aim the wealth generated by markets at specific social goals using some government mechanism, whilst libertarianism focuses on letting the wealth created by free markets flow where it pleases, so to say. In my opinion, the “difference” between these schools is rather a spectrum of trust in government measures with libertarianism on one side and neoliberalism on the other.

I’ve often reached a certain point in the same discussion with fellow liberals:

Neoliberal: I agree that free markets are the most efficient tool to create wealth. They are just not very good at distributing it. By implementing policy X, we could help to correct market failure Y.

Libertarian: Yeah, I agree with you. Markets do not distribute wealth efficiently. However, the government has also done a poor job trying to alleviate the effects of market failures, especially when we look at case Z… (Of course, libertarians bring forth other arguments than public choice, but it is a suitable example.)

After reaching this point, advocating for governmental measures to fix market failures often becomes a moral and personal objective. My favourite example is emission trading. I am deeply intrigued by the theoretical foundation of the Coase-Theorem and how market participants still can find a Pareto-efficient equilibrium by just negotiating. Based on this theoretical framework, I would love to see a global market for carbon emission trading.

However, various mistakes were made during the implementation of emission allowances. First, there were way too many emission allowances on the market which engendered the price to drop dangerously low. Additionally, important markets such as air and ship transportation were initially left out. All in all, a policy buttressed by a solid theory had a more than rough start due to bad implementation.

At this point, neoliberals and libertarians diverge in their responses. A libertarian sees another failure of the government to implement a well-intended policy, whereas a neoliberal sees a generally good policy which just needs a bit further improvement. In such cases, the line between neoliberals and libertarians becomes very thin. And from my point of view, we make further decisions based on our trust in the government and on our subjective-moral relation to the topic as well.

I saw government too often fail (e.g. engaging in industry politics), which should be left nearly entirely to free markets. However, I also saw the same government struggling to find an adequate response to climate change. Contrary, I believe that officials should carry on with their endeavours to counteract climate change whereas they should stay out of industry politics.

Furthermore, in the recent past, there has been a tremendous amount of libertarian policy proposals put forth which remodeled the role of government in a free society: A libertarian case for mandatory vaccination? Alright. A libertarian case for UBI? Not bad. A libertarian case for a border wall? I am not so sure about that one.

Although these examples may define libertarianism in their own context, the general message remains clear to me: libertarians are prone to support governmental measures if they rank the value of a specific end higher than the risk of a failed policy. Since such an article is not the right framework to gather a robust amount of data to prove my point empirically, I rely on the conjecture, that the core question of where the government must interfere is heavily driven by subjective moral judgements.


Neoliberals and Libertarians diverge on the issue of government involvement in the economy. That’s fine.

Governmental policies often do not fully reach their intended goals. That’s also fine.

The distinction between neoliberals and libertarians is merely a threshold of how much trust one puts in the government’s ability to cope with problems. Both schools should not value this distinction too much since it is an incredibly subjective issue.

Government shutdown – private vs. public responses

The recent shutdown of the government in America has caused a midsize crisis for state employees leaving them unpaid for 35 days straight. Although the shutdown ended on the 25th of January, one can still draw a conclusion about the crisis handling from a public and a private perspective.

A failure of government

When you take a closer look at the history of governmental crisis management, you mostly look at a huge collection of mismanagement. In the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of intriguing works dealing with the failures of public crisis responses, especially the case of hurricane Katrina (Wikipedia here lists more than 100 references), which has been one the of most investigated disasters in recent history.

Crisis can provoke the good as well as the bad inside humans. One might think of the countless volunteers after nature catastrophes doing their very best to help. On the other hand, there have also been stories of grieving and plundering mobs on the streets, after hurricane Katrina for example. So, what we can say for sure is that crises push human behaviour to the extremes. Keeping this in mind it sounds reasonable to leave it to the government to set up an agenda of rules to coordinate humanitarian efforts. However, the government fails most of the time to deliver effective responses to crises, whether they are man-made or exogenous.

Not being able to find an agreement over the federal budget indicates that the government also has very limited options to offer to their employees. And indeed, Lara Trump gave some very handy advice to unpaid workers: “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain but it’s going to be for the future of our country. […] Their children and their grandchildren will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” Yes, please explain to your children how you nearly starved to death because of a dispute over a wall. Sounds reasonable.

Whereas Donald Trump’s kind of clumsy attempt to clarify Ross Wilbur’s statement that government workers should take out loans (Maybe a small loan of a million dollars, huh?) was not too stupid at all. He emphasizes that worker should “work along” with local grocery shop owners they know. He was very clear that employees could not expect help from the government, but instead, they should look out for support on a local level. I do not think that this is a good method of communicating this issue, but it is for sure a very honest one.

Mac & Cheese

A 35-day shutdown, so to speak nearly a missed monthly wage, might not sound unbearable for a central European. But keeping in mind the saving habits of many Americans, a huge amount of government workers are facing existential problems. A recent FED survey found out that about 40% of the American population is not able to cover a 400$ emergency expense without selling or borrowing something.

Witnessing the inability of the government to provide payments for their workers, private enterprises reacted in a remarkable way. The huge food company Kraft rented space for pop-up stores in Washington in which they gave away food entirely for free. One of the most demanded products was Mac & Cheese. The celebrity Chef José Andrés provided free groceries for affected government worker through his NGO “World Central Kitchen.” When the government stopped caring, people started to do so.


The overwhelming care for the unpaid government workers by the private sector further strengthened the role and importance of individual responsibility. In situations of crises, people tend to be less submissive to authority and focus on voluntary cooperation of human beings. I feel like it is important to mention here that I do not want to praise crises as a suitable method of bringing people together. But when we take a closer look at the history of humanity it becomes evident that instead of governmental decisions, voluntary human cooperation made our modern life possible. And in times of crises, people become clear about the relevance of these values and processes, which normally guide human progress subconsciously and unnoticed. Private responses to crises are a sign to me that humans are capable to display kindness, cooperation, and humanity beyond the borders of government.

Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.