Diplomatic staffing in advancement of Kenya’s national interest

Written By: Mbugua Muchoki


Writing for Politico, ‘Russian diplomats are eating American lunch’ in April 2014, James Bruno examined the diplomatic power relationship between the United States and Russia.

Like many journalists and diplomatic scholars in western capitals, Bruno interrogated dwindling American influence on global issues, and their probable causes. Diplomatic practice is as old as mankind.

While contemporary diplomatic practice has evolved, the canons have not changed.

I raise this issue and use Bruno’s example to highlight the importance of (competent) diplomacy in advancing a country’s interests. And no better time to encourage this discourse than now – when, as alleged, there is disquiet in the Foreign Affairs over stagnation of career diplomats overlooked in political appointments. P. B. Rathod, in Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, opines that functional diplomacy – what he calls as quality diplomacy – can only happen where there is ‘good combination of competent diplomacy and wise foreign policy’.

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Competent diplomacy is the function of good training, experience, and in the words of Henry Kissinger ‘wit and clear (knowledge of) history’.

In Kenya, according to media reports, only five career diplomats had been deployed since 2013. But this dismal record is not without comparison.

In 2014, of 28 NATO states, the US had only 12 career diplomats while the rest were political appointees. On the other hand, Russia had 26 career diplomats out of the 28.

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Cumulatively, Russia had 960 years of diplomatic experience against US’ 331; this translated to an average of 34 years experience per diplomat for the former against 12 for the latter. But these are not just statistics; they are figures with a meaning.

It is in these figures, and mismatch, that the Russian influence – especially in Europe, in NATO and at UN as well as other important global affairs – can be explained.

Let us use this Russia/US approach to diplomacy – which has not changed as much today– to contextualize the Kenyan diplomatic debate.

While diplomacy has evolved, with rise of summit diplomacy involving highest levels of political leadership, the role and centrality of the local diplomat cannot be wished away.

The ability of the local diplomat to advance national interests of their sending country is the cardinal test of their competence. And, importantly, this competence is the sum total of all factors elucidated above, and of course coupled with personal attributes of officers.

The ability of a country to foreground her issues – negotiate, promote and propagate, safeguard and protect national interests – rests in the ability of her foreign service staff in the respective duty stations.

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While I do not wish to discuss the qualifications of recent diplomatic appointees, suffice to say most have no training or experience in diplomacy. Take for example and just as a sample and immediate significance the representatives in China and United Kingdom; the president is set to meet leaders of these two countries later in the month.

China’s representative to Kenya is a career diplomat with over 27 years in her country’s foreign service. She has served in the African section department of her country’s ministry of foreign affairs and also in ambassadorial positions in South Africa, the US and Ghana.

Her counterpart, on the other hand, has no prior diplomatic exposure. This is not to undermine her capacity, but to draw parallels, power balance, and interrogate our staffing criteria – especially in extremely strategic postings. Before the presidents meet, these two ladies will lead their teams in pre-negotiations, and, after the meeting, in implementation.

The historical ties between Kenya and the United Kingdom are as old as our civilization. They did not just colonise us, but the two countries continue to face emerging issues around land ownership, military training, changing dynamics around Brexit and many more.

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The UK is at a critical road and is intensely engaging in bilateral negotiations post Brexit, including with Kenya. Her Majesty’s representative has been with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1997 – 21 years of diplomatic service including postings in Kabul, US, Paris, Berlin and the European Union.

His counterpart is the former statehouse spokesman with a stint in the Commonwealth office before. Again, I use this example to contextualize the debate on diplomatic staffing and its impact on advancement of Kenya’s national interest.

  1. P. Karunakaran, in ‘India and World Affairs’, says diplomacy ‘is the brain of national power as the national morale is its soul’. There can be no shortcuts in (re)gaining our (inter)national power. National interests coded in our Foreign Policy – anchored on five key pillars – will only be achieved through competent diplomacy. For as long as politics supersedes competence, to borrow Bruno’s words, we will not only be checkmated by our well trained, experienced and witty counterparts, but our lunch – in investments, favorable tariffs, loan terms, access to markets, et al – will continue to be eaten as we cheer on.


Views expressed in this article do not represent the opinion of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.



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