Interview with Dr. Jeffrey Robertson

20150904104720724Jeffrey Robertson is an Assistant Professor at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at Australian National University. At GSIS, he teaches courses on resource diplomacy, middle powers, and global governance. We spoke with Dr. Robertson about his recently published book, Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy.


Laurens Bistervels: What is the topic of your new book?


Dr. Jeffrey Robertson: One of the things I wanted to highlight in my book is the difference between the practice and the academic study of international relations and foreign policy. They are hugely different. As a scholar, you have a lot of time to reflect and to think about all aspects of problems of international relations. While as a practitioner you have absolutely no time. Usually, you have people breathing down your neck to make very tight deadlines!

I know a recruiter who interviewed people for a position as an analyst of the Korean Peninsula for an intelligence agency and he asked the question, “what do you think would happen if a South Korean diplomat finds out that North Korea is about to collapse?” The answers one gets are very different between diplomats and academics. The first thing academics said was, “well there are UN regulations, a hierarchical structure within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and there are agreements between the United States and South Korea, etcetera.” Whereas, the diplomat said that the first thing that would happen is that the diplomat would call his wife, arrange his money to be transferred abroad, and make sure his children leave the country as well. So, this is a very human, very personal decision. This is the difference between the practice and study of international relations. As a practitioner you do not think about the theory, you just have to think about what you have to do as a person, and most of the time these decisions are based on emotions.


LB: You worked for the Australian government before becoming an academic. What do you miss from those days?


JR: I miss being on the edge of things. Before, I was the one who made things happen and I would know three days in advance that it would hit the headlines. Now I have to read things in the papers. I sometimes miss the urgency of it all.


LB: Do you think you have a different style from other academics due to your experience as a practitioner?


JR: Yes, definitely. There is a bit of a divide between practitioners and academics. Somebody who has been an academic all their life, does not have the practical sense a former practitioner has. That means that their solutions to a problem might be very innovative, very original, and great as ideas, but sometimes it is just unwieldy, you just know it is not going to work in practice.


LB: The main topic of your book is diplomatic style. Does this style differ among nations or is diplomacy a profession with strict universal customs?


JR: It is my strong belief that every country has their own national style informed by their history, culture, geography, formative experiences they have had as a nation, and also the bureaucratic structure of their government. All of this results in very individual diplomatic styles. However, this is not normally the way academics see it.

Traditionally scholars have seen diplomacy as a universal institution and within that institution there is a diplomatic style that all diplomats have. So, there is an argument that if two diplomats meet randomly, they would have more in common with each other than with anyone else because they have functioned in this diplomatic environment all their lives.

Diplomats partly learn to overcome it, but my belief is that national diplomatic style is still very strong. Especially nowadays, there are more and more representatives of governments who are not necessarily trained as diplomats. They may come from a military agency, educational ministry, or agricultural ministry and then serve at an embassy, and therefore effectively act as a diplomat. Because they have not had this training, their national style will shine through even more.


LB: What is your assessment of secrecy in diplomacy?


JR: Open diplomacy is not practical. This argument for the need for more open diplomacy came up after the end of the First World War. It was widely thought that more open diplomacy would lead to more acceptable international relations, but it never worked. It is very difficult to do in practice, and that is still true today.

Nowadays, the big difference is that a lot of information is coming out which people did not expect to come out. There was a large release of documents from the Kenyan Foreign Ministry recently, for example. So anyone who has interacted with the Kenyan Foreign Ministry is anxious to know if things they have said are included in these releases. The same goes for Snowden’s releases. Nowadays as a diplomat, you cannot be certain that what you say will not come out in the future. So people definitely have to be more careful. The written word can be reinterpreted and it can ruin careers or even cause wars!


LB: This leads me to a question about research methodology. How can one research something that is so secretive?


JR: For the book, I did a lot of work using a technique that is known as narrative phenomenology, so basically it is encouraging people to tell stories. If people get comfortable enough, they have a natural tendency to want to tell stories. Especially if you meet people at a certain stage of their career, they are really keen to tell you what they have done and what they have achieved. So for example, I met many people in senior positions or retired diplomats. They knew they would not make it to the top but had still done a lot so they wanted to tell people what they had achieved. They told me great stories, that way you can get enough material.


LB: If your data comes from retired diplomats, does that not lead to dated findings? How do you make sure your research is relevant to today’s world?


JR: Diplomatic style is a long-term thing and does not change very much over time. However, it is very hard to study something contemporary like consular affairs. I once wrote a paper on Korea-US trade negotiations over their free trade agreement and that was very contemporary at the time. In order to get the information I needed, I had to be situated in the middle to get the research done. So, I was lucky to have contacts within the US embassy and the Korean government.

LB: Would you like to share any advice for young academics studying diplomacy or aspiring diplomats?


JR: First of all, undergraduates should take the course Diplomatic Studies, which I teach at UIC, and graduate students should take my course Diplomatic Practice, which I will teach at GSIS in the future! Seriously, language skills will always be important. Another key skill that I recommend is the ability to present yourself as a listener and to make people feel comfortable. Diplomats appear extroverted but they do not necessarily begin like that; after years of working as a diplomat, it becomes natural to them. Diplomats are recruited for a wide range of skills, specializations in a trade or economic matters, or corporate management skills.

By Laurens Bistervels