Taiwanese diplomats undergo a flurry of examinations and training before beginning their work. According to the Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs’ missions and functions statement, new staff participate in an intense period of foreign language and Republic of China policy training to enhance their interpretation skills for negotiations.
While training these hard skills is necessary, it is not sufficient. The art of diplomacy is multifaceted, liquid and complex.
For this reason, Taiwan should include within its diplomatic training a focus on three key diplomatic soft skills: cross-cultural competence rooted in knowledge of local history and custom; respect for decorum under pressure; and adaptability through situational awareness.
Every diplomat must be a local historian. To walk into a diplomatic interaction with no knowledge of the historical context or current situation of the counterpart’s nation is to walk into a diplomatic minefield. It should go without saying that maintaining a constructive trajectory in negotiations can be done in large part by having the respect to know the background of your counterpart.
Decorum is the basis of diplomatic relations. Decorum provides a secure and predictable environment for potentially sensitive matters to be negotiated by actors from different cultural backgrounds.
While maintaining decorum might sometimes seem like mere pomp, it provides a necessary framework by creating a set of known boundaries, within which negotiations can take place. When decorum is broken, many other aspects of diplomacy often follow suit. The ability to maintain decorum under pressure is something that can be regularly drilled and refined both on and before employment.
Knowledge of local customs must be taught to new diplomats. Handshakes are with the right or the left? Should disagreement be aired publicly or privately? Are there different expectations for gender and age roles? There is no reason to expect that new recruits into diplomacy come preloaded with these rules for every region and culture with which they might interact, but they should be expected to adapt quickly through situational awareness, even if they are initially unfamiliar with these customs.
There should also be a clear procedure for passing on cultural knowledge from incoming and outgoing diplomats.
Situational and self-awareness are qualities that should be sought after in diplomats — a keen ability to adapt and pick up on social cues is one of the most important skills in diplomacy. A diplomat at any level must be the opposite of robotic and rote — as no diplomatic interaction is exactly the same as the last.
Finally, missed opportunities and misunderstandings are often not due to language barriers. There is no doubt that language skills play a key role in international diplomacy, and the lingua franca, English, is an important tool in a diplomat’s toolbox.
However, the elements of foreign relations that are all too often overlooked are knowledge of local history and custom, decorum, situational awareness and creativity on the job.
These skills and attributes can be taught. Commenting on Taiwan’s diplomatic human resources, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said that “examination, training, and employment are all connected, we need to find a balance between them.”
This is certainly true for all countries, and Taiwan, like many others, has room for improvement in this balancing act.
Taiwan Nextgen Foundation chief executive Chen Kuan-ting (陳冠廷) also made an important point when he said: “We need diplomats who are not focused on protocol and courtesy calls. While I find that extremely important, under Taiwan’s circumstances, we also need diplomats who can think outside the box, who are willing to be more innovative and challenge the status quo, rather than just set in using traditional diplomacy.”
The desire and creativity to think outside the box in diplomatic affairs requires a deep knowledge of both “the rules of the game” and beneficial ways in which those rules can be bent.
The diplomatic arm of the Taiwanese government is essential to this nation. Every diplomatic interaction matters greatly for Taiwan, so in some sense “the mic is always hot.”
Taiwan must rely on its diplomatic wit to pursue its interests in an environment that is at best uncertain and at worst hostile.
Well-rounded, well-educated and well-trained diplomats are not a resource that Taiwan can afford to pigeon-hole into a role that is defined by simply having great language skills and none of the other characteristics of top-notch diplomats.
Maxwell Wappel is a research associate at the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation, a Taipei and Chiayi-based policy think tank focusing on Taiwan’s soft power, the New Southbound Policy and the 2030 Bilingual Homeland.
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