International relations have long depended on diplomats and ambassadors who serve as the boots on the ground to strengthen ties between nations, gather intel, and execute policy initiatives. However, a new study from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a think tank based in Sydney, Australia, suggests that those positions are becoming less important, and that they need to adapt for 21st-century realities.
As CityLab reports, the Lowy institute focused its research on 42 countries that are part of the G-20 and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); 11 nations are members of both. The researchers, lead by Alex Oliver, analyzed the number of embassies, ambassadors, consulates, consulate generals, and permanent missions in each country. (Embassies that have closed, trade offices, and honorary consulates were not included.) The results are mapped in Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive infographic showing where the countries have physical diplomatic ties and ranks them. The United States was first with 270 total posts, followed by France, Russia, and China; Iceland brings up the rear.
The researchers found that the international relations strategy around the world as a whole isn’t relying on ambassadors and diplomats as much as it once did: “As government budgets shrink, embassies and diplomats seem more like expensive luxuries than political assets,” Oliver writes in Foreign Affairs. She argues that while embassies were once essential for governments to understand what was happening abroad, they’re now the slowest way to collect intelligence. International news and detailed country profiles from NGOs and risk consultancies have eclipsed their usefulness. Moreover, safety issues have made them liabilities in certain parts of the world. For example, the U.S. closed its embassy in Tehran after the 1979 hostage crisis and opened a virtual embassy in 2011 to try and re-establish its presence.
Moreover, governments are favoring economic diplomacy efforts to advance their interests, like trade offices and innovation hubs, rather than embassies. The United Kingdom, for example, ended 30 diplomatic missions between 2009 and 2015 while its science and innovation network expanded from 24 to 28 countries. A more diversified approach is happening in the U.S., too. At her 2009 confirmation hearing, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.”
However, the current climate doesn’t spell complete obsolescence for ambassadors and diplomats. They’re still important for maintaining relationships and working through challenging situations, like delivering humanitarian aid in war zones, Oliver points out. And one could argue that in the age of digital communications, a handshake and face-to-face meeting goes even further.