International Relations

Going Native: an examination in diplomacy

Emily LAWRENCE (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 


Diplomacy is the art of dealing with the ‘other’. Diplomats must go into one territory as a representative of another polity, yet with prolonged interaction with a new culture the concept of otherness is sure to blur. This issue of diplomats succumbing to ‘localitis’ will be the focus of this paper. To determine this phenomenon’s impact on modern diplomacy, one must first seek to understand the history and theory behind it. Only then can we begin to have a clearer picture of what ‘going native’ means and how it has affected current diplomatic practices.

To begin, let us investigate the concept of ‘other’. Paul Sharp poses a worthy question in his book Diplomatic Theory of International Relations: “Why…don’t people recognize each other as simply more of us?” (Sharp 18). Answers may include ideas of culture, language, belief systems, values, political structures and so on. One factor seems to have more impact on diplomatic ideas of otherness and for that reason it will be the main topic of conversation here. That component is sovereignty. Diplomats, by definition, are representatives of the sovereign they serve. Their concept of the other is determined by recognized state boundaries and citizenship. Or so one would assume.

In reality, diplomats are constantly torn between a raison d’état and raison de système (Watson 1992). In this way, they are “conscious of world interests superior to immediate national interests” (qtd. in Jonsson and Hall 116). For that reason, diplomats may be susceptible to leaving behind their national causes, as nationality becomes a less important feature of their personal identity. Maintaining a distance is “bound up with their professional identity. They are, as it were, professional strangers and need to remain so to do their job” (Sharp 100). Sharp describes the effect this has on the diplomatic corps in general. He notes “Diplomats, therefore, as a consequence of their occupying spaces between communities, societies and organizations, see the world differently and with different priorities from those they represent” (104). Furthermore, he argues:“At a minimum, this difference involves a far stronger sense of both the identities and interests of those who receive their representations. At a maximum, it can reduce those they represent to just one complex of identities and interests among several or many in the diplomats’ busy world”(102). He continues that this makes them likely to bond with other diplomats over the shared experience of belonging neither here nor there. As he puts it, they are “present as rivals, but united by a common estrangement from their hosts” (104).

Has this always been the case for diplomats? One is inclined to question whether such a thing was possible in different forms of diplomacy less related to the modern form. For example, consider the case of early Chinese diplomacy under the tribute system. In this system, China was the regional hegemon and enjoyed its status at the top of a hierarchical system in which states would bring tribute to China to ensure peaceful relations. In this way, China circumvented the need to send envoys to other lands, preferring to wait until the tributary envoys came to them (Ford 2010). In this sense, ancient China had far less of a chance of its diplomats “going native” since they were generally not sent abroad. To put it more simply, the cultural filter only went one way in Chinese diplomacy.

Let us consider another form of early non-Western diplomacy. Ancient Indian diplomatic tradition was systematized in the Artha-Shastra written by a statesman named Kautilya (Freeman 2014). This guide offers a paradox since it is filled with overtones of distrust, cynicism, and the corruptibility of people. The advice for rulers is to manipulate these factors to their advantage. However, the idea that one’s own ministers could be subject to the same suspicion is conspicuously absent (Freeman 2014). In fact, this disconnect in ideas was dramatized as early as the 5th century in a work known in English as “Minister Rakshasa and His Signet Ring” in which a diplomat from a former regime who has duplicitous loyalties is tricked into revealing his nature (Freeman 2014). Practically, ancient Indian diplomacy seems to be little concerned with the idea of diplomats turning against their native culture. Even in the dramatized example, problems of disintegration of identity, exposure to other locales, and loss of connection with one’s home nation remain untouched as possible problematiques for Indian diplomats of the time.

Moving towards the main issue of localitis, it is clear that it seems to stem from the notion of permanent envoys abroad. Without this factor, diplomats lack the prolonged exposure to a different culture that is necessary to degrade their sense of their original nationality. It is true that other incentives (money, power, glory etc.) could corrupt diplomats in other ways. But this is not the subject of this discourse. The primary focus is when diplomats change their colors as it were, by associating themselves more with a foreign state than with their original state. Gucciardini, in one of his ricordos, noted this specific problem in the early 1500s. A Florentine ambassador to Spain beginning in 1512, Gucciardini was one of the first to mention the concept of ‘going native’ (Berridge, Keens- Soper, and Otte 2001). Among his advice to princes, he notes that ambassadors cannot be fully trusted. They may have been wooed by the charms of the court they are in or they may be leaning towards another prince for rewards. More likely, Gucciardini says, is that “the ambassador has the affairs of that prince constantly before his eyes, and since he sees no others in as much detail, they assume greater importance than they really have” (qtd. in Berridge, Keens-Soper, and Otte 37). It makes sense that the first mention of localitis would be found in Italy where permanent envoys first developed as the norm. In the late 15th century to the early 16th century, while permanent envoys were increasingly prominent, communications were slow. This leads us to the second key part of the idea of going native: the principal-agent theory of diplomacy.

There are two conceptions of principal-agent theory as it relates to diplomatic practice. These are the imperative mandate and the free mandate. Essentially, the free mandate implies that a diplomat is free to assume most of the power in making decisions while abroad. Their proximity to the matters at hand, as well as the time associated with communications back to their home state make it preferable to allow diplomats to make key policy decisions while negotiating. In this way, the agent (diplomat) is given more power than the principal (sovereign). The imperative mandate by contrast assigns primary power to the principal by assuming that the diplomat is a mere implementer of a policy that is determined by someone else (Jonsson and Hall 2005).

The relation these theories have to the problem of localitis is in who has the power to make decisions. If it is mainly the sovereign and the diplomat has no say in decisions, then the impact of a diplomat that has gone native can to some extent be minimized along with the diplomats impact on policy. However, the problem of localitis becomes a much larger one if the diplomat is operating under a free mandate.

The relation of principals to agents has been impacted by changes in technology over time. While in earlier times, it may have been preferable for the principal to sacrifice more decision-making power to the diplomat to ensure quicker policy negotiation and implementation, in modern times there is no need to do so. Communication can be instantaneous; meaning the advantage of actually physically being in another locale has become obsolete. As Zara Steiner puts it, “By 1900 for the most part, however, diplomats were being tamed as the flow of telegrams and despatches left less room for independent action” (354). This may minimize what Jonsson and Hall term as the risk of ‘shirking’. They state, “because of conflicting preferences and information asymmetry, agents may pursue other interests than those of the principal” (99). With technological improvements, the principal would theoretically have more ability to recognize and eliminate shirking if and when it occurred. The conflicting interest is still problematic, but could potentially be contained by technological innovation.

This leads us into other potential ways to solve the issue of localitis. Modern diplomatic workers are indeed aware of the problem and modifying their infrastructure accordingly. Historically, the problem of localitis has caused problems for the principal that was less in control of an agent that was far removed and potentially free to act of his own volition. The agent had more control of information. Now the issue is spreading. Principals are becoming as likely as agents to keep information secret in an attempt to prevent their envoys from interfering with their preferred policy (Berridge, Keens-Soper, and Otte 2001). Berridge, Keens-Soper and Otte state, “it seems probable that ambassadors as a class are actually kept in the dark by their governments more today than in the time of Gucciardini” (38). If that is indeed the case, then it seems the problem of localitis has spread to both parties, but remains an issue. At least one example of this is the case of Anthony Eden deceiving his Foreign Office in 1956. He felt that his ministers had become too pro-Arab and so he kept them in the dark about his intentions in Egypt (Berridge, Keens-Soper, and Otte 2001). Fear of localitis becoming a factor in negotiations has caused information problems for agents now, as well as principals.

Principals prevent shirking by agents in another way. It is common today for foreign ministries to avoid the danger of going native by “regularly circulating their diplomatic personnel, letting them serve limited terms in foreign countries” (Jonsson and Hall 112). Here we run into one of the key problems facing modern diplomacy: how to “balance the need for linguistic and regional expertise against the dangers of ‘localitis’ and excessive isolation” (Steiner, 371). Foreign ministries have to be aware of the need for area specialization while at the same time trying to avert over-attachment of personnel to one area.]

To see this from the agents’ perspective, let us look at the work of Anthony Lake, a former American diplomat. He argues that in Congress, charges of localitis are rampant and indeed that they are hindering the work of the State Department. The diplomat’s objectivity can be misconstrued as sympathy. Ironically, sometimes the temptation to gloss over a foreign states imperfections comes from the diplomats’ own government. Lake states, “an unfavorable report about such a leader suggests worse than undiplomatic behavior: it can be seen by Washington as a sign of disenchantment with the policy itself” (109). The modern diplomat is greatly constrained by the concept of localitis. On one side, their home governments are judging them based on how well they understand and are able to relate to and influence another culture. On the other, they are being pushed away by those at home who doubt their patriotism when they seem to sympathize with the plight of the other more than domestic concerns. Diplomats cannot win: too close to foreigners and their patriotism is questioned; too distant from foreigners and their effectiveness is challenged.

The diplomat has always functioned in these gray areas. Sharp sums up this point adroitly by saying: “one set of priorities [fades] as others gain ground. The difference with diplomatic relations, however, and hence diplomats, is that this point between becomes a resting place rather than a place to pass through” (102). The problem of this lack of belonging, this localitis, has probably always had some small role in the minds of diplomats throughout history. The mere act of trying to understand a foreign perspective moves one closer to the other and further from comfort. The recognition of the phenomenon came along, unsurprisingly, with the concept of the permanent envoy in Italy sometime around the early 1500s. From that time on, foreign ministries have attempted to cope with the problem by limiting time spent abroad, hiding certain information from ministers and checking diplomats’ prerogatives for independent action. These measures come at their own cost to foreign offices however, and one cannot say whether the crises they avert are worse than the crises they cause. The unique nature of agents that operate as ‘permanent strangers’ will ensure that diplomats see things in a different light than their home governments. That will always be the beauty of the diplomatic institution and the burden of the diplomats that operate within it.


Berridge, Geoff, H. M. A. Keens-Soper, and Thomas G. Otte. Diplomatic Theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Ford, Christopher A. The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations. Lexington, Ky: U of Kentucky, 2010. Print.

Freeman, Chas W., Jr. “Diplomacy.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. N.p., Nov. 2014. Web. 1 Nov 2015.

Jönsson, Christer, and Martin Hall. Essence of Diplomacy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Lake, Anthony. Somoza Falling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print.

Sharp, Paul. Diplomatic Theory of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.Print.

Steiner, Zara. “Foreign Ministries Old and New.” International Journal 37.3 (1982): 349-77. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

Watson, Adam. The Evolution of International Society: A Comparative Historical Analysis. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

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