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.

From the Comments: who is the conservative or libertarian equivalent of Nancy MacLean?

Rick posed a great question about Nancy MacLean awhile back. I haven’t been neglecting it. I’ve been thinking about it. Here it is:

Question for those more abreast than me: do conservatives or libertarians have an equivalent of Nancy MacLean? All sides have irresponsible pseudo-scholars, but how often do the various camps launch one of them to undue prominence instead of just ignoring them?

Michelangelo suggests Murray Rothbard as one example, and I had that thought as well, but that’s almost too obvious, and he’s been dead for a long time now.

Libertarians today are pretty firmly divided by the cosmos and paleos, so undue prominence is hard to get. When was the last time you saw Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan praising the work of Justin Raimondo or Lew Rockwell?

With that being said, I think libertarians nowadays tend to launch intellectual fads into undue prominence, rather than scholars. Stuff like Open Borders or signaling or my personal favorite, non-intervention in foreign policy, tend to hold a prominence in libertarian circles that I find ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, find your nearest Cato Institute scholar on Twitter and ask him (yes, him) if his pet policy project has any potential flaws in it…


  1. How does emigration impact institutions? Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
  2. How Can Crypto-currencies Democratize Society? Chhay Lin Lim, NOL
  3. The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so. Federico Sosa Valle, NOL
  4. A few further remarks on foreign policy and libertarianism Edwin van de Haar, NOL

RCH: The United States and the Middle East

My latest for RealClearHistory is all about ‘Murica and the Mideast. An excerpt:

2. The Iranian Regime. During the Cold War, the U.S. government supported a number of regimes that were illiberal in the name of fighting communism. The necessity of such tactics are beyond the scope of this article, but the Pahlavi “dynasty” of Persia was one such illiberal regime. The Pahlavis were anti-Communist and pro-Western, which meant that women could dress how they pleased and go to university, and that religion was pushed to the sidelines of political life. This made the Pahlavi’s enemies of not only the socialist reformers of Persia, but also the majority of the conservative religious clergy. One Pahlavi was ousted by a joint British-Soviet invasion in 1925, and his son was deposed in the 1979 revolution that turned Persia into Iran. After the British-Soviet invasion, the United States became heavily involved in Persia and supported the secular autocrat almost blindly, which is why the anti-Shah revolution of 1979 was also anti-American.

Please, read the rest.


  1. Things I hate about the US constitution Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. At the Khmer Rogue tribunal MG Zimeta, London Review of Books
  3. Reductionism and anti-reductionism about painting Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. A foreign policy for the Left Samuel Moyn, Modern Age

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.

On immigration, trade, and inequality: why nobody should care (that much)

Recently, I read snippets from George Borjas’s book, We Wanted Workers (I got distracted and reverted to reading Leah Platt Boustan’s Competition in the Promised Land).On its heels came this article by Dani Rodrik in Foreign Policy. Both work make the same case, that free movement of goods and people may imply some negative effects on inequality. Borjas argues that immigration increases inequality while Rodrik argues that low-skilled workers are displaced.

Both arguments are not convincing.

First of all, immigration will always increase inequality in one area. This is by definition. Unless the migrants follow the same distributional pattern as the host population, inequality will increase. If somebody from Cuba enters the United States at the tenth percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of low earners. If somebody from China enters the United States at the 90th percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of the high earners. However, from a global perspective (world population), inequality has actually dropped since the migrant has a greater income than in the past. After all, bringing a Haitian to the US may increase US inequality measures but the ten-fold increase in his income (this number comes from my colleague Ben Powell) means that worldwide inequality drops.

To be honest, I know that Borjas is probably aware of this point, but many of those who spin his work don’t get it. Borjas’s argument is little more sophisticated. His claim is that low-skilled workers (high school dropouts) see their wages go down while everybody else (high school graduates and university graduates) gains from immigration. This increases inequality because they are left behind economically. But this is where his argument is alike that of Rodrik and where it misses the target dramatically.

While I could be lazy and simply say that many other scholars place Borjas at the extreme of the spectrum of academics with regards to the effects of immigration on labor markets. Indeed, there are more scholars who find that low-skilled workers also gain from immigration all things being equal. But, I won’t be lazy. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the empirical result is valid. If unskilled workers are displaced, why can’t they find new employment elsewhere. If the effects of immigration are so positive for everybody else, it means that everybody else is substantially richer and they can demand more goods. Are there barriers preventing the unskilled from acquiring jobs? The answer is emphatically yes.

The ability to find a new form of employment following changes in the labor market depends on the frictions that exist on the labor market. Some of them are natural. We have to assume search costs (time, energy, some money) to look for a job and get the training for that job. But there are also barriers that create unnecessary frictions. The rise of occupational licencing is one of those (growing) frictions (see here, here and here). We could also point out that product regulations tend to affect the prices of goods that weigh more heavily in the consumption baskets of lower-income workers (here and here) thus pulling the poorest down. We could also point to the fact that states with right to work laws seem to have enjoyed more limited increases in inequality than the states without such laws (here). We could also underline the fact that housing regulations are making it harder for unskilled workers to move to dynamic areas, thus locking them in low-productivity areas (here). And the list could go on for a few more pages, but I think the point is made: there are tons of factors that make displacement a problem. However, those who worry about it when it comes from changes resulting from trade or immigration are concerned with a minor (and positive in the long-run) variable. In a way, Borjas and Rodrik are (rightfully) concerned about the poorest but they fail to identify the problem like if a doctor was concerned with his patient’s loss of sight rather than concentrating on the brain tumor that caused the loss.

Free trade and open borders generate massive benefits. But there are short-term costs as production methods and resources are being reallocated. Many government policies amplify exponentially these costs and delay reallocation. This creates the inequality they bemoan.