Key skills for the five main diplomatic functions

Key skills for the five main diplomatic functions

Key skills for the five main diplomatic functions

Diplomats represent their governments in fulfilling a number of professional tasks that can be best performed if they possess or are trained to develop key sets of skills corresponding to the five recognised functions of diplomats:

By Mr Marc Finaud, Associate Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative and Former Head of Arms Control and Disarmement

Representation, protection of national interests, negotiation, reporting, and promotion of friendly relations. Such skills can also be of interest for non-diplomats engaged in professional activities involving contacts with foreign people or cultures.

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codifies centuries of practice and standards applied to relations between states. Once diplomatic relations are established between two nation-states, they can decide to exchange diplomatic missions or embassies led by a Head of Mission or an Ambassador; vis-à-vis each other, they become both a ‘sending State’ and a ‘receiving State’. One important article of the Convention describes the functions of diplomats to be exercised within the diplomatic mission. There are five recognized ones, which call for some specific skills required from the diplomats.

1)      Representing the sending State in the receiving State”: this task of official representation means that the Ambassador is the personal envoy of his/her Head of State to the Head of State of the host country. Similarly, diplomats working in the host country under the leadership of the Head of Mission are considered as representatives of their governments at all times. This means that they cannot interfere in the host country’s domestic affairs (for instance by making public political statements); they cannot carry out commercial activities; they have a duty of discretion. In order to be protected from local pressures, they enjoy inviolability (of the diplomat, his/her premises and vehicle), immunity of jurisdiction, and tax exemption. However this does not mean impunity in case they break the local law: they can be recalled by their governments and prosecuted in their home countries or they can be declared ‘personae non gratae’ and expelled. In sum, the skills required here are restraint, integrity, dignity, professionalism.

2)      Protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law”: this means that the main purpose of the diplomats’ activity is to promote national interests whether diplomatic, economic, commercial, cultural, etc. This includes catering to the needs of one’s nationals living or travelling in the host country, which is also the main activity of the Consulate or Consular section of the Embassy. Diplomats working to serve their countries should therefore display qualities of patriotismloyaltynational pride, and a good knowledge of their national policies.

3)      “Negotiating with the Government of the receiving State”: negotiation is an essential part of diplomatic activity. In a bilateral context, between two governments, irrespective of the scope of the negotiation (from a protocol arrangement for an official visit to a wide-ranging trade agreement), negotiation skills require: good knowledge of the topic (or reliance on experts); flexibility and readiness for compromise (at the proper moment and not without compensation); and a sense of win-win outcome. In a multilateral context, with potentially multiple partners and adversaries, negotiation is more complex but requires the same skills, and, in addition, a sense of initiative and coalition building. Let’s above all remember the wise words of Hans Blix, the former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): “It is underestimated how important dignity is between people and how important it is not to humiliate.”2


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4)      Ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State”: this is about the traditional and standard work of diplomats: observing (via lawful means, i.e. excluding espionage) and reporting. This calls for skills that can be acquired and developed on the job: prior knowledge of the situation and willingness to understand it better; good contacts and interaction with all sectors of society, from officials to civil society; agility in writing timely, clear, and concise reports to the right echelon, with the added value of analysis compared to information available from other sources (mainly media, including social media).

5)      Promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving Stateand developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations”: finally, the tasks of diplomats include the promotion of good relations between their countries in all spheres.  This requires active contacts with all sectors of the local population, not only the officials and the elites. Diplomats are expected to entertain guests on a regular basis, hence the need for them to have good knowledge of both universal and local protocol rules and a good practice of cross-cultural communication.


[1] Former French diplomat (1977-2016), Senior Advisor, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

[2] European Leadership Network, “Interview with Hans Blix: ‘The most important lesson in diplomacy is not to humiliate’”, 23 January 2019 (


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Marc Finaud is a former French diplomat who was seconded to the GCSP from 2004 to 2013 and is now a staff member. At the GCSP, Mr Finaud was leading activities related to Arms Proliferation.