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.

Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.

Foreign Policy Survey

A project I’ve been playing around with for a while has been better understanding the policy views of libertarians. In a few policy areas one should expect near-unanimous agreement on what constitutes the libertarian position. I would, for example, find it hard to believe someone was a libertarian if they supported minimum wage laws. In other areas though it isn’t clear what the libertarian position is.

Foreign policy is one such area. As has been discussed on NoL, it isn’t clear that a singular libertarian foreign policy can exist. Contemporary libertarianism is heavily tied to the US, which further complicates matters. A US based libertarian might oppose NATO on grounds that it over extends the power of the government. A libertarian based in Poland on the other hand might support NATO as a necessary countermeasure to the threat of attack from Russia.

To answer these questions I’m playing around with a pilot study.  The survey can be accessed here. It should take 10-15 minutes and I would appreciate if you could all take it. The survey is aimed for US libertarians, but feel free to take if you’re elsewhere.

Emphasis on the ‘pilot’. I am still playing around with wording and such. I am debating which demographic questions can be removed to reduce possibility of identification – I know many libertarians are skeptical about taking these surveys out of privacy concerns. If you have any comments/suggestions feel free to do so in the comments.

Has Foreign Affairs Been Reading NOL?

Hello all, I signed up for a pretty challenging final quarter here at school, so my postings will probably be scarce for the next two or three months. It seems Foreign Affairs, one of the more sober foreign policy journals out there, is finally starting to read us here at the consortium. I’ll get to that in a minute but first: editorial duties call!

  1. Be sure to read Dr. Delacroix’s Bush-worshiping piece for an example of how obstinate ignorance works. The very man who mocks smart, well-educated people for their acceptance of scientific consensus on global warming as ‘cultists‘ seems to believe that “there were very good reasons for any reasonable person to be misled about the existence of  [WMDs] in Iraq.” You have to admit, the man has a lot of brass!
  2. I still have to get to co-blogger Andrew Roth’s recent comment chastising conservatives and libertarians for failing to recognize the many nuances associated with Bismark’s statecraft and Roosevelt’s New Deal.
  3. We’ve got a couple new writers who will be blogging here at the consortium. One is an economics major at UC Merced and the other is a Guatemalan national doing graduate studies in Denmark, so stay tuned!

Political scientists Roland Benedikter and Lucas Kaelin have a fascinating piece in Foreign Affairs focusing on the one bright spot in Europe these days: Switzerland. Libertarians who have read the political and legal works of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and James Buchanan will recognize the gist of the arguments right away. To summarize: small, democratic states are the best form of government available to man, given our vast shortcomings, and these small states are, in turn, much better off operating within vast free trade zones that do not hinder the small-scale democracy at work in these states. From the piece: Continue reading

Around the Web

Lots of great stuff I’ve been meaning to link to lately.

A historian from Hillsdale College, Paul Moreno, has a piece in the WSJ about Congress’s power to tax.

Some sexy chick (also from the WSJ) writes about Obama’s Imperial Presidency. Again, this is in the Wall Street Journal.

A quick heads up on pieces in the Wall Street Journal. Usually, when you click on the link it says access is restricted, but if you copy and paste the title of the piece into a Google search bar then you will be able to access the entire article. Cool, huh?

Obama’s Scramble for Africa. From

An economist at Cal State Northridge has a great piece on damn lies and statistics. It’s also about the Obama administration. (h/t Steve Horwitz).

Bernard K. Gordon writes in Foreign Affairs about the necessity of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And in a prophetic piece (ie it was written in 1991-92) by former Secretary of State James Baker, this very good lawyer sizes up the situation in Asia. Also from Foreign Affairs.


This is a story about Mexicans but before I get to the topic, I need to make small political commentaries.

Most of the time, I abstain from describing myself as a libertarian for several reasons. One is the current and recent libertarian leadership that I can’t stomach. Another, possibly more durable set of reasons for my reluctance is that I am keenly aware of the contradictions between some of my positions and because some of my positions are incompatible with fundamental libertarianism. Incidentally, I am not the only libertarian (small “l”) with such contradictions in his heart; I just have the great merit of being aware of the fact. (If I say so myself.)

One of my un-libertarian positions consists in repeating without hesitation that every national society has a moral right to control its borders. We can’t just have different kinds of people bringing unchecked into this society their habitual laziness, for example, or their propensity to disorder, and worse, their concept of order, or again, their ethical idea of the proper relationship between religion and government. (Feel free to put national names and other stickers on each of these four categories.) The fact that I am an immigrant does not make me more mindlessly “tolerant” on such issues. On the contrary, I believe I am better able than most native-born Americans (or than all of them) to judge that those who live in this society, such as it is, are exceptionally lucky. Not that it’s that hard to figure out, at any rate. Poor people from everywhere want to move here but also many prosperous people from prosperous countries. Millions have voted with their feet. Even more millions are trying to, many at great cost to their safety.

Among the latter, of course, are many Mexican nationals. I have argued elsewhere (pdf), in the Independent Review, that the Mexicans should be given special treatment by American immigration laws. With my co-author, fellow immigrant Sergey Nikiforov, I have argued that the key to an overall solution to the problem posed by Mexican illegal immigration specifically lies in the separation of freedom of movement from citizenship. This, for both Mexicans and Americans. I also argued, in that article, that Mexicans, our next door neighbors, should receive special treatment, privileged treatment, treatment over and better than that we extend to other foreigners. And no, it is not the case that “foreign” is a dirty word. And, as some wit remarked years ago, about the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and I wish it had been me: “If they want to have affairs, they can damn well have them at home!”

Not much more than a couple of years after our article was researched and prepared, we learn that net illegal Mexican immigration into this country probably approximates zero. (That’s illegal Mexicans coming in minus illegal Mexicans leaving the US.) The current worldwide and American economic crisis is of course a sufficient explanation for both changes, for the decrease in comings and for the increase in goings of Mexican illegals. Incidentally, the fact that illegals are leaving in large numbers pretty much gives the lie to the idea, lamentably common in conservative circles, that they cross the border mostly to take advantage of our social services. In this country recently, jobs have dried up while social services have expanded but Mexican illegals are still leaving. Ergo, they were not here for social services but for jobs. As Nikiforov and I argued all along, they come to work. Since they are mostly young, while they are in the US, many also commit crimes, as the young tend to do everywhere, and many mate and have children, as young adults do everywhere. All this criminal activity and all this productive mating places a burden on social services of course. It’s a normal burden, not the parasitic blood-sucking in some conservatives’ nightmares. If all works well, some of those Mexican illegals, or many, stay here, they pay taxes here for a long time and they support my adult children later with their Social Security contributions.

Notwithstanding the sufficiency of the economic crisis explanation, there is an alternative explanation to the quick reduction in the in- flows of Mexican nationals across our southern border. Or rather, there are two explanations that combine to produce this decrease, aside from, independent of, the American economic crisis. First, Mexican fertility rates have declined precipitously to the point that they now approximate American rates. On the average, Mexicans have only slightly more children than do Americans and the trend is downward. Secondly, after many years of severe economic trouble, Mexico is finally achieving the kind of economic growth that is considered normal at its moderate level of development. The latter is of course systematically higher than American economic growth. After a severe contraction in 2009, Mexico achieved a mean GDP growth of 4.2 for the past three years, 2012 included, against 2.2 for the US.

Now, I want to evoke a subjective side of Mexican immigration. Namely, I want to assert that Mexicans make very good immigrants to this country (This, even if like most immigrants in the past, they tend to vote Democratic at first.) And then, I make the specific claim that Mexicans, illegals as well as legal immigrants, contribute a high degree of graciousness to American culture, a culture produced largely by the grandchildren of the English, Germans, Irish, Poles, and Slovaks. (See what I mean?)

Here are some reminders about Mexicans in the US:

Mexicans work hard. Everyone agrees on this even those who suffer most from their presence as job competitors. Unlike some European immigrants for example, they don’t ask for directions to the welfare office a couple of days after they arrive. They come from a work-oriented culture, like American culture used to be many years ago.

Very poor Mexicans are more socially acceptable, less socially disruptive than equally poor native-born Americans. There are Mexican “homeless” encampments on my river. You never hear about them. You would have to know they are there. You can’t say the same of Anglo homeless squatters in Santa Cruz. (Some kill people, not many, just some.)

Mexican immigrants arrive here well informed about American institutions, about American culture, about American habits.

Mexicans immigrants come from a country rent and terrorized by the blowback of our war on drugs. Yet, they have the good grace never to mention here that we are nearly entirely responsible for the horrors their country has to suffer on account of our stupid policies. I mean, of course, that if the US announced the legalization of all drugs, the massacres, the beheadings, the cutting off of hands and feet would stop in Mexico within weeks or days. I am simply assuming that making the supply of a product in high demand illegal is certain to make the product prodigiously profitable. Hence the bloody turf wars among Mexican suppliers. Legalize or ignore drugs; let the price of marijuana drop to where it belongs, somewhere between the prices of tobacco and of carrots. The massacre in Mexico will stop.

Mexicans are also courteous and endlessly gracious, in my considerable and lengthy experience. Below are three illustrations.

There is an old-style diner I frequent about once a week for breakfast. (I have immortalized it in a story: “Radio Free Santa Cruz” published in le libertarian periodical Liberty.) I go there often, usually thrown out of bed by the insomnia that plagues the aged who feel guilty for old but good reasons they may not want to go into publicly lest they be charged with bragging. The same crew of two Mexicans is always in the kitchen. It’s an open kitchen. You can see them and you can hear everything they say. No matter how early I get there, I find these two guys guffawing and joking loudly. That’s often in the middle of breakfast rush-hour. This is worth commenting on because, the world over, cooks are given a pass for being assholes at the height of their rush-hour. The rule does not apply to Mexican cooks. If you don’t believe me lend an ear next time you are in a cheap restaurant. In California, that’s an easy study because all cooks in such restaurants are Mexicans, have been for ten years or more. (Some are legal immigrants!)

One slow day, my wife and I enter a small Mexican-owned shop on the edge of town. My wife is from India. She is looking for tropical fruit that are still uncommon in mainstream grocery stores, in the years right after the signing of NAFTA. Her attention gets drawn to a cinenovela being played on a TV set hanging from the shop ceiling. Observing that she is craning her neck, the young man behind the counter brings a box for her to stand on. His buddy who has been hanging out in the shop with him approaches and offers my wife his hand to help her climb on the box. The guy has dark skin and very short hair. He appears to be somewhat over twenty-five. Intricate tattoos sally forth from the neck opening of his shirt and climb all over his neck in thick masses and then curl into the external faces of both his ears. There is only one place in the world where you can afford the time and the expense of such dense tattoo-art: prison. The thought imposes itself on me inexorably: This young Mexican jailbird is much better bred than all the white middle-class young of the same age we know. Of course, I will be accused by the pedantly naïve of “generalizing.” Not so; as soon as you open your eyes a little, you will observe that, in California, people with Spanish last names and skin a shade darker than average are systematically more polite than the rest of the population. As I write this, I am trying to gather some recollection of one rude Mexican or child of Mexicans I have met. I come up empty.

Now, in connection with the next story I have to say something quick and historical about myself: I was born in Paris, France. When I was two, the soldiers who marched down the Champs-Elysees were not French. How do I know? The French are incapable of orderly goose-stepping.

There is a woman in her late twenties who works as a cashier in a pan dulce bakery I patronize every so often. She has grown on me. The reason is that early in our fleeting relationship, she discovered that I was a special kind of Anglo, one who actually understands Spanish and who actually speaks reasonably well. This is a digression: California is full of people who have taken multiple vacations in Mexico and who brought back fluency in how to say, “Two more beers, please,” and, “Where is the restroom?” They are gringos who embarrass the local Mexicans who don’t know how to let them know politely that their’s, the Mexicans’ English, is much more serviceable than their’s, the gringos’ Spanish, and that therefore they, the Anglos, should keep their primitive Spanish where it belongs, in their back-pockets, for a dire emergency.

So, anyway, soon after discovering my comparative fluency (comparative!) the young cashier began addressing me casually as “.” This flatters me, of course, because California Mexicans, as is the wont of immigrants in many places, mark their belongingness with each other through the use of a familiar form of address. Mexicans who would go on calling each other, “Seňor” and “Seňora” in Vera Cruz or in Guadalajara all their lives, instantly begin using the “” when they live in a sea of gringos. The young woman does me honor whenever she returns change addressing me the same way, as if I were one of her affectionate uncles, for instance. And yes, I understand that she may be simply engaging in a commercially valid practice. All the same, she does not call “” others who look like me.

And, it’s time to say that my grand-daughter often accompanies me to the pan dulce shop. It’s true that her looks may have facilitated this process of instant assimilation. I don’t want to tell here this long and interesting sub-story but the child, three at the time, is no more related to me by blood than say, a gopher. Instead, she is very pretty (I may brag since we are not genetic kin) in a bronzed sort of way that might well look Mexican to a Mexican eye. At any rate, I often enter the pan dulce shop with the child in tow. She is smart, talkative and loud, like Grandpa, and she wins hearts everywhere she goes (also like…). So, anyway, one day, I show up at the shop without that beautiful child.

“And where is the little one?” asks the young cashier.

“Oh,” I say, “she is with her Mom.”

“I see,” retorts the cashier, “she is with her mother one week and with you the other week.”

“No, no,” I exclaim, “she is not my daughter, she is my grand-daughter!”

The young woman raises her head, looks at me intently. I swear, disappointment in me is written all over her face.

What’s not to like?

* brothers