Understanding substance and process in diplomacy

By Qamarina Razali

It is said that foreign policy is about what to do while diplomacy is about how to do it. Previous statements then birth the argument that emphasising on how to do it may influence greatly on deciding what to do. One could even say that diplomacy comes before foreign policy.

In a world where countries are interdependent, no doubt, international relations is important. However, boundaries between nations should still be laid down, which, of course, can be done through foreign policy. In order to come into an agreement of which boundaries and lines are to be established, two or more parties must be negotiating the terms so that all sides at the end of the day will see a “win-win” situation. And that is what we call the process of diplomacy.

Although the essence of diplomacy is “negotiation”, the process of diplomacy itself, nonetheless, runs deeper than just exchanging terms to reach an agreement. There are various factors that can affect the conduct of diplomacy. For starters, what you want to negotiate must be aligned with the interests of your country. This means parties involved in the business of conducting relations should do extensive research before proceeding with taking other steps.

Even then, one could argue that it is not enough to just monitor what is happening globally. With that in mind, it is important to have a thorough research aside from only acquiring general knowledge and knowing history. This means a comprehensive research should be carried out where a holistic view of the main issue should be included. In a sense, this is where various aspects must be considered starting from the grassroots level.

This is because, over time, there is a surfacing need for the government to engage more with the public rather than only involving government-to-government relations. Therefore, there should also be an emphasis on knowledge of cultural differences when going into negotiation with other countries. This is especially important because understanding of cultures may give one party an upper hand to negotiate effectively.

Despite being underestimated every so often, being respectful to other cultures goes a long way in building good bilateral or multilateral relationships. As a result, there should be the possibility of fair distributive and integrative bargaining that can cater to solving the bilateral or multilateral issues. When these factors mentioned have been taken into consideration, a more definitive discussions and decision regarding the formulation of foreign policies should naturally come after.

Additionally, the concept of “substance” and “process” is equally important to highlight when it comes to understanding diplomacy. It has been said that the way nations interact is governed not solely by the substance of international affairs but also by the nature of international society, referred to as a process.

The substance here means the content or the essence of the issue. For example, if there is a rising issue of palm oil export to foreign countries, the substance here should include the overall background and reassessment of the export issue itself. To put it simply, any variables affecting diplomatic relations surrounding the issue are referred to as the ‘substance’ that needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, the process is more about figuring out how to go about the issue. It is more of an understanding of the way nations behave and the way they organise their dealings with one another. In a way, we can argue that without knowing the process and substance, one may have difficulties in determining the right way of conducting diplomatic relations. This is the reason one could say that substance and process are inextricably linked. It is impossible to separate the two because they will definitely affect one another.

As a diplomat, there are skills required to be possessed to produce quality policy advice and in carrying out the functions effectively. Therefore, the job of a diplomat calls for one to have the capability as a practitioner of international affairs and diplomacy. However, it is important to note that capability here does not only mean a person’s skills, but it also includes the ability to utilise, evaluate or assess the information to serve national interest.

Hence, the capability of policy formulation is related to the executive and advisory role of a diplomat. Executive as in the capacity for decision-making and implementing, while advisory means the capacity to provide consultation or advice to the policy makers. Like substance and process, executive and advisory functions of the policy capability framework are also considered to be inextricably linked.

In the context of foreign policy capability framework, there is a relation to how nations interact – the substance and process can influence the executive and advisory functions of a diplomat. Anyone involved in international relations must place great emphasis on possessing the mastery of process and substance so that one can perform the executive and advisory roles well as a diplomat.

Having knowledge of the way different nations interact is important to know what is the next step or course of action in foreign policy making. This applies particularly since policy capability should demonstrate the continuity of international affairs and the wide variety of ongoing diplomatic activities. In order to reflect that continuity, there are several activities or projects one may consider executing.

First and foremost, there should be a cultivation of good political relations. This can be done through diplomatic activities undertaken by diplomats and ministers in charged. These activities involve state visits such as formal visits by the head of state or four-eye meetings between two government leaders to discuss bilateral issues.

Prime Minister, Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri with Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Fumio Kishida, at their first meeting recently to discuss Malaysia-Japan relations (Photo by BERNAMA)

Next, there is a need for projection abroad of national viewpoints and of national values. As an official representing the nation, one cannot simply express personal or private view on certain issues that hinge on national interest. This is due to the fact that such expression may adversely portray one’s nation or put the nation in negative light that may jeopardise its stance on the issue and run the risk of affecting diplomatic relations with other countries.

Other than that, a diplomat should give importance to the strengthening of economic ties with other countries. This means that there should be negotiations and discussions on policies with other states to achieve the state’s national interests. This is important considering the country needs foreign investments, trade and technology transfer, at the same time protecting the country’s own local industry. For example, one needs to understand the issues of tariff and non-tariff barriers in international trade when dealing with other nations.

Furthermore, there should be activities on the development of cultural links. This can be carried out not only through government-to-government relations but also involving people to people through public diplomacy. This is because by conducting cultural programmes like cultural or technological exchanges, a country can establish cultural ties which in turn necessitate more beneficial relations between the countries in education, science and technology.

Finally, there should be a need to promote the interests of the country’s nationals abroad known as the diaspora. These are the country’s nationals who reside, work or study abroad. Protecting their interests by extending them support and assistance on consular matters is especially important. Apart from that, the diaspora may serve as the contact point which would be to the interest of the sending country. Not to mention, they could even be a source of vital information needed by the diplomats on development of situations in the foreign country. Therefore, it can be seen how crucial it is for diplomats to always keep in close contact with the diaspora abroad.

In conclusion, it can be articulated how the executive and advisory roles of diplomats are closely related to the substance and process that governed the way nations behave and deal with one another. With that in mind, building policy capability in diplomacy work should now be more emphasised than ever. More so in the current digital era where the dynamic global environment has forced diplomats to be more resilient and adaptable to various challenges.***

(Qamarina Razali is a third year Communication student specialising in Strategic Communication. This article is written as part of the assignment series for Diplomatic Communication course.)

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