According to the dictionary's definition, a diplomat is a person appointed by a national government to conduct official negotiations and maintain political, economic and social relations with other countries. The main job functions include

  • promotion of information about one's own country
  • promotion of friendly relations between one's own country and the host country
  • finding information about the host country
  • representation of one's own country in negotiations and diplomatic functions or events
  • protection of the interests of one's own country and fellow citizens

Diplomats can be described as part of the foreign policy institution of the government, which would include the foreign ministry itself back home and other supporting organisations (i.e. trade ministry, defence ministry, intelligence agencies, thinktanks, media organisations, etc)

UN Security Council

Contrary to the "wine-and-dine" glamourous image that many have about diplomats, the actual work done by diplomats can sometimes be routine and mundane. The following are some key aspects of a diplomat's work.

(1) Reading 

It is important for a diplomat to keep up to date on the latest developments in the world, his own country and the host country. One of the first things that a diplomat does when he first arrives at the office is to check his official emails, especially those that might contain instructions from headquarters (HQ) back home. There could be urgent requests for information or instructions to be conveyed to the host government. It is also useful for the diplomat to remain abreast of what has been happening at home, especially information that might not be available from public sources, such as internal policy changes.

Reading the local media, such as newspapers, magazines, online sources is a good starting point to better understand the situation in the country that you have been posted to. Not only do you get a sense of the overall big picture there, you also pick up the commonly-used terms or "the flavour of the month" which will be useful when interacting with local officials.

A diplomat often spends a large part of his time reading materials, whether they are from public or confidential sources. This is to beef up his own understanding of a wide range of issues, whether they are related to the host country or his own country.


(2) Meeting people

In order to better assess the situation in the host country, it is necessary to meet a variety of people from whom you can gather more information. They can be government officials, academics, journalists, as well as people from all walks of life. Whatever information (which might seem inconsequential at the time) gathered from such conversations will eventually form a piece of the puzzle that might be very useful later on. Establishing contacts with them also make it easier for you to operate in the host country, since they might be willing to extend help in times of need. Of course, it is a two-way process, so you should also be willing to share some information (non-confidential, of course) with them, who are usually interested to learn about your own country too.

By meeting a wide spectrum of people, you can also cross-reference the accuracy and validity of the information given by them. After some time, you will also be able to narrow down the more reliable and helpful ones.

Meeting people

3. Writing

After gathering the information from a variety of sources (i.e. reading, meeting people, etc), the diplomat will sit down and think through the issue thoroughly. Before he writes a report to inform his HQ, he will discuss with his Ambassador on the angle of the report. Is it just an informative piece or an advocacy one? Will the Embassy propose a course of action regarding the issue? Most importantly, whatever is sent back to HQ has to be endorsed by the Ambassador, who is responsible for the Embassy's positions on issues. There is no free-lancing by diplomats as the reports are often carefully vetted and nuanced to avoid any misunderstanding by HQ. This is why diplomats are often required to have good writing ability in order to produce concise and informative reports.

Another form of writing will be to provide information about the host country in order to craft speeches for your own leaders, either at home or when they are visiting. Besides providing statistical information, the diplomat also has to vet the draft speech to avoid any errors or sensitive issues, given the public nature of such speeches.

Writing reports

4. Negotiation

Diplomats do not free-lance. Whatever position they take when negotiating with foreign counterparts has to be pre-approved by the HQ. While in some situations, the diplomats might be allowed some leeway to discuss with their counterparts, the key issues have to be reported back and approved by the HQ. Diplomats have to be aware that their roles are not in their personal capacity but rather as representatives of a country. Hence, it is important that they do not let personal emotions or interests interfere with their work. In diplomatic work, the national interest is paramount above all. 

When the public sees two leaders signing treaties, that is often the outcome of many rounds of negotiations at lower level, which have previously been conducted by the Foreign Ministers, senior officials and both senior and junior diplomats. Only after all these levels have carefully vetted the document and come to a mutual consensus would it be signed by the leaders.

Signing treaty

5. Representation

As noted in the dictionary definition of a diplomat, the diplomat is to represent his country in the host country. This would include attending official functions and meetings. It could be a briefing by a government official, a National Day celebration, a cocktail event or an informal social gathering for government officials and foreign diplomats. Regardless of the nature of the event, such activities are opportunities for diplomats to meet new people, as well as exchange information with one another.

Diplomatic function

6. Managing visits 

It is a common joke among diplomats that they can consider running travel agencies after retirement, as they would have gathered immense experience in managing visits by leaders and officials to the host country. Somewhat like a tour guide with an elevated title, diplomats often have to take care of the logistical details behind a visit, which include arranging hotel accommodation, transport, meals and a detailed trip itinerary. These often require several negotiating sessions with local officials and hotel staff, as well as your home government officials, who have their own expectations of how the visit should be run. Moreover, if the leaders also have a long list of personal likes and dislikes, this will further complicate the trip preparations.

Obama's visit to India