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Diplomacy, Ethics and the National Interest: What Are Diplomats For?

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Drawing on the writer’s experience as a former British diplomat who served in Cold War Poland and elsewhere, this article explores rival concepts of the diplomat’s functions: the traditional UK Foreign Office emphasis on competitively and exclusively promoting the national interest; versus alternatively concentrating on the internationalist, ethical obligations that should govern diplomatic (and other) behaviour. Interference in the host country’s internal affairs is formally prohibited, but the question of whether diplomats’ contacts with, and implied moral support for, democratic dissident movements that are opposed to their undemocratic governments amount to unacceptable intervention raises difficult practical, political and ethical questions. An example of differing possible responses to a development aid proposal illustrates the dilemma. Differing views of diplomatic priorities and objectives, embedded in contrasting cultures at the UK Foreign Office and Department for International Development respectively, need to be sensitively resolved, mainly in the latter’s favour.

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