Events & News


How Do Diplomats Know What They Know?

Professor Merje Kuus (University of British Columbia)

13 October 2014 (Monday)
Seminar Room 901, NTU@one-North, 11 Slim Barracks Rise, Singapore 138664



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The EU Centre organised a seminar by Professor Merje Kuus (Department of Geography, University of British Columbia) entitled “How Do Diplomats Know What They Know?” on 13 October 2014.

Professor Merje Kuus began her seminar with a series of pointed questions. For example, how is expert authority made in Brussels, how is knowledge produced within the EU, and how do certain approaches and practices gain their currency in certain institutions?

Prof Kuus first emphasised the transnational and quasi-diplomatic character of the relatively new European External Action Service (EEAS), the tensions between traditional and transnational diplomacy.  She peppered her seminar with quotes and anecdotes from seasoned diplomats and ambassadors to illustrate her point about the highly complex nature of decision-making and negotiations on a European level. These insights gleaned from more than 80 professionals she interviewed over a period of 8 years are chronicled in her book Geopolitics and Expertise: Knowledge and Authority in European Diplomacy (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Transnational diplomacy was defined by Prof Kuus as a diplomatic practice that not simply mediated but also transcended nation-states, making it a contradiction in terms. The difficulty lies especially in the make-up of the EEAS, with a third of its staff seconded from national diplomatic services and the rest requiring some form of national support. This interweaving of the nation with international practice creates friction in policy-making and begs the question of whether the EEAS should pronounce statements on behalf of the EU or both the EU and its constituent Member States.

Prof Kuus elaborated on the social and symbolic resources required in the production of diplomatic expertise within the halls of Brussels. Diplomats have to instinctively understand and capably negotiate their way through the complex power dynamics of countless expert committees chaired by EU Commission officials; they need to be able to conceptualise and frame policy issues at the EU level rather than through an inter-governmental lens; and the best diplomats, Prof Kuus argues, know how to frame the debate even before it has begun by figuring out the right questions in each particular context. A tacit social disposition in dress codes and demeanour, including elements of presence, charm, discernment, ease and composure, go a long way in effectively manoeuvring the power structures of Brussels.

Prof Kuus concluded her seminar with three ideas. Firstly, that informal and social dynamics are as important as technical skill sets. Secondly, the binary debate over who wields the power between Brussels and Member States obscures rather than reveals the real power structures in diplomacy, and an ‘Option C’ should be considered in framing analyses of EU diplomacy. Finally, embedded in the actions of any one actor are its relations with other actors, underscoring the importance of individual agency within EU institutions and systems.

In response to several questions and comments during the Q&A, Prof Kuus stressed the importance of asking open-ended questions instead of closed questions with binary juxtapositions of perspectives to have a better understanding of the EU decision-making process.