Training for multilateral diplomacy

Only a relatively few officers get to serve in multilateral Missions, the most important among which are those accredited to organizations of the United Nations system, including the United Nations, its funds and programmes and the Specialised Agencies. Consequently, such work is often not understood or appreciated; multilateral diplomacy often tends to get dismissed as being either too esoteric or inconsequential.

The lack of understanding or appreciation about the nature and content of multilateral diplomacy leads many to assume that there is nothing that sets apart multilateral diplomacy from the rest of diplomacy. That multilateral diplomacy requires a different set of skills and values than those needed for bilateral diplomacy is often overlooked. Many decision-makers develop the notion that anyone can be assigned to do multilateral work and that there is nothing to learn or train about it. Sadly, this also leads at times to a feeling of contempt for multilateral work among many decision-makers, as being of little or no consequence in the nation-building efforts. Nothing could be farther from the current reality of international relations.

Multilateralism is as important an instrument as the rest of the diplomatic toolkit; it is as much a tool for promoting the country’s national interest, howsoever defined, as ‘rules of the road’ are drawn up in multilateral forums. If multilateral work were inconsequential, world’s major powers would not expend considerable resources for maintaining sizeable Missions to multilateral organizations. Even when some of them withdraw from an international organization for political reasons, as happens occasionally, they closely follow its activities and secure their interests by using proxies and allies. Similarly, those that have not signed important treaties for some reason manage to influence decisions of the conferences of States Parties through proxies and allies.

Not only are skill sets required for multilateral work, but they can be acquired or imparted; training for multilateral diplomacy is imperative. In multilateral diplomacy, there is no alternative to working with one’s peers – whether allies or adversaries. Depending on the issue being discussed and its importance to the home government, one will have to work with different groups of countries and coalitions, especially in today’s multipolar world where old bloc politics are much weaker.  Coalitions will thus necessarily be issue-based, and can often cut across the traditional lines of political divide. Also, as multilateral work involves discussions and negotiations among sovereign equals, it takes much longer to achieve results, which may appear often as being sub-optimal.

That some of the finest multilateral diplomats did, or do, exceedingly well without any training only reinforces the need for institutionalised training, so that the system does not have to depend on individual brilliance, but can provide everyone with a basic minimum set of tools and ensure a degree of consistent quality among those engaged in multilateral work.

There are time-tested ways of training individuals for multilateral diplomacy through developing dedicated modules. Such training can provide a grounding in the legal and institutional framework underpinning various organizations, starting with the United Nations system. It can expose them to International Law and the Law of Treaties. It can instill in them the requirement of a sound knowledge of the rules of procedure followed by inter-governmental organizations and the associated values, liturgy and rituals, practices and traditions, that have evolved in each body.

The importance of mastering foundational documents – the legal instrument (e.g. the Charter) establishing the organization, landmark resolutions and decisions on its substantive mandate and core activities, any legal texts approved subsequently, related judgments of the International Court of Justice or any other judicial body (Tribunals, etc.) – cannot be over-emphasised. Also, major reviews such as audit reports, assessments and evaluations, need be studied closely. 

Specific training modules on the most important contemporary core interests and concerns, such as securing access to resources of multilateral development financial institutions, international trade, disarmament, human rights, intellectual property and global Internet governance, can prove beneficial when the recipient gets assigned to dealing with one or more of these areas.

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