Navigating Discretion: A Diplomatic Practice in Moments of Socio-political Rupture

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
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  • 1 Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EN, United Kingdom


In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni diplomats faced unprecedented questions regarding their professional conduct. The foreign policy institutions of all three countries witnessed new forms of political agency, with diplomats beginning to question, debate and (re)define routine practices and norms. Combining diplomatic theory with the multidisciplinary literature on state bureaucracies, this article analyses the various strategies that diplomats developed during a time marked by radical politicisation, strong emotion and new opportunities. On a conceptual level, it emphasises the concept of ‘diplomatic discretion’, which remains under-theorised in diplomacy research today, but is crucial to the study of diplomatic practice. Empirically, this article draws on ethnographic data regarding diplomats’ lived experiences, treating their narratives surrounding the 2011 events as a starting point of analysis.


In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni diplomats faced unprecedented questions regarding their professional conduct. The foreign policy institutions of all three countries witnessed new forms of political agency, with diplomats beginning to question, debate and (re)define routine practices and norms. Combining diplomatic theory with the multidisciplinary literature on state bureaucracies, this article analyses the various strategies that diplomats developed during a time marked by radical politicisation, strong emotion and new opportunities. On a conceptual level, it emphasises the concept of ‘diplomatic discretion’, which remains under-theorised in diplomacy research today, but is crucial to the study of diplomatic practice. Empirically, this article draws on ethnographic data regarding diplomats’ lived experiences, treating their narratives surrounding the 2011 events as a starting point of analysis.

There are only a few times in organization life when he [the ‘organization man’] can wrench his destiny into his own hands — and if he does not fight then, he will make a surrender that will later mock him. But when is that time? […] By what standards is he to judge? He does feel an obligation to the group; he does sense moral constraints on his free will. If he goes against the group, is he being courageous — or just stubborn? Helpful — or selfish?1


In the wake of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, diplomats of all three countries faced unprecedented questions regarding their professional conduct. Public protests and subsequent political changes triggered a variety of individual reactions and led to the widespread questioning of existing professional norms. Much like Whyte’s ‘organization man’, many diplomats were unsure how to behave, seemingly torn between notions of silent obedience and the enactment of heightened emotions and strong personal beliefs. Profound socio-political rupture led to new expressions of diplomatic agency, with diplomats beginning to question, (re)define and deviate from standard professional practice. Rather than being shielded from the uprisings by institutional boundaries, diplomatic services in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia emerged as microcosms of broader socio-political developments and power struggles.

Combining diplomatic theory with the multidisciplinary literature on state bureaucracies, this article analyses the various strategies that diplomats developed during a time marked by radical politicisation, strong emotion and new opportunities. On a conceptual level, it emphasises the notion of ‘diplomatic discretion’, which is under-theorised in diplomacy research but crucial to the study of diplomatic practice. Empirically, this article draws on ethnographic data regarding diplomats’ lived experiences, treating their narratives surrounding the 2011 events as a starting point of analysis.

Structured as two substantive sections, the article begins with a review of the literature on state bureaucracies and diplomatic theory, introducing two alternative framings of diplomats: 1) diplomats as obedient civil servants; and 2) diplomats as emotional political agents. Rather than emphasising one over the other, this article theorises ‘diplomatic discretion’ as a conceptual realm of professional practice that accounts for diplomats’ free navigation of contrasting normative expectations. Although much has been written about state bureaucracies and diplomatic services, these two strands of research have not yet been combined, which is surprising given their complementariness. This article’s literature review offers a first indication of where these two bodies of theory overlap and may usefully be merged into the study of diplomats and diplomatic behaviour.

The second part of the article discusses diplomats’ behavioural choices in the wake of the 2011 uprisings, using ethnographic data that were gathered during nine months of empirical research. With the help of Albert Hirschman’s conceptual trio of ‘voice’, ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’, this part examines how opposition has been formed and expressed within the Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian foreign service and which behavioural strategies were perceived to fall neatly within the realm of acceptable diplomatic discretion.2

This article makes a number of important contributions. First, its focus on diplomatic agency and reference to the concept of diplomatic discretion adds to a new strand of ethnographic research within the interdisciplinary realm of state theory, specifically to writings on state bureaucracies. Given that much of the existing research focuses on ‘street-level bureaucrats’ who operate on the periphery of political power centres,3 the study of diplomats constitutes an important analytic shift towards high-ranking state representatives (abroad).

Further, this research offers a challenge to the Western-centric bias in the current study of diplomacy and diplomatic practice. Although much has been written about diplomacy in the Middle East, and some scholars have assigned a distinctive diplomatic culture to it,4 no research on the region has focused on diplomats themselves. To date, ethnographic studies on diplomats have mostly looked at diplomats in Brussels,5 European foreign ministries6 and international organisations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)7 and the United Nations (UN).8

Framing the Diplomat: Loyalty, Emotions and Agency

Framing diplomats as ‘civil servants of a special kind’, this section draws on both bureaucratic and diplomatic theory in outlining prevalent professional norms and broader academic debates pertaining to diplomatic conduct. In the process, two main approaches are outlined, portraying the diplomat as an obedient civil servant and political moral agent respectively. As shown in the empirical part of this article, Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats oscillated between these two approaches in developing different behavioural strategies. One high-ranking Yemeni diplomat summed up the dilemma he faced in the wake of the 2011 uprisings by asking:

Should you as a Yemeni diplomat do something against Ali Abdullah Saleh [the former Yemeni president]? […] Or do you have to be a professional and not do anything and stay with the government? It was a very big question I faced […]. I wanted to side with the people, but I am an official, so what is the right thing to do?9

The Diplomat as an Obedient Civil Servant

The ‘obedient civil servant’ approach to diplomatic practice emphasises the norms of ‘political neutrality’ and ‘emotional detachment’. Both notions have a long history in the broader literature on state bureaucracies. Paul du Gay traces the first academic conceptualisations of the obedient, rule-oriented and impersonal bureaucrat to the intellectual current of ‘civil prudential thought’ that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.10 Perceiving the state as a structure of offices, so-called ‘civil prudentialists’ argued that its various office holders had to distinguish ‘questions facing them in an official capacity from other commitments they might have, whether in relation to clan, kith or religious belief’.11 Civil prudentialists maintained that ‘one’s own beliefs about the good are never good reasons for action’.12 To this day, academics and bureaucratic practitioners expect state officials to serve consecutive governments, no matter their party politics.13 Linking political neutrality to emotional detachment, writings within the civil prudential tradition frequently reference Max Weber, who famously argued that bureaucracy ‘develops the more perfectly, the more it is “dehumanized”, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation’.14 Understanding the bureaucrat as an unemotional, rule-bound, objective and obedient ‘implementer’, means viewing bureaucracies as neutral conduits that serve the technocratic execution of value-based decisions made by politicians. Thus, a clear division of labour divides political work from administrative bureaucrats.15

A similar line of reasoning can be found in diplomatic theory and its writings on ‘ideal’ diplomatic behaviour. Given that the diplomatic service has long constituted a specialised branch within the broader state apparatus, such overlaps are not surprising. Moreover, the production of influential diplomatic writings emerged in the early eighteenth century, concurring with the development of civil prudential thought. François de Callières’ renowned The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes,16 for instance, was published in 1716, influencing later ‘classics’ written by Sir Ernest Satow17 and Sir Harold Nicolson,18 who both emphasise notions of ‘political neutrality’ and ‘emotional detachment’.

Traditionally, the study of diplomatic practice has been carried out by practitioners rather than academics. Besides de Callières, Satow and Nicolson, important diplomatic authors include Ronald Barston19 and Henry Kissinger,20 to name just a few examples.21 Given their first-hand experience, the writing of these diplomats often resembles handbooks, or practical guides to action, concerned with the purposes, tactics and ideal functions of diplomacy.22 Well into the 1990s, ‘manuals of diplomatic procedure’ constituted a considerable part of diplomatic theory.23 Notwithstanding the rising influence of academic ‘outsiders’ and an increasingly diverse and multi-disciplinary field, practitioners have continued publishing insights into diplomacy (for example, Carne Ross24). Rather than producing practical handbooks, however, their analyses have begun to address a broader (academic) audience.

In theorising diplomats’ political neutrality, practitioners have long distinguished between the development of foreign policy and its implementation, arguing that diplomats’ role shall be limited to the technical sphere of executing policy directives. As former British diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson put it, ‘diplomacy is not an end but a means; not a purpose but a method’.25 The diplomat, in turn, is seen as ‘the agent and not the architect of policy’,26 expected to implement obediently the directives formulated by the president and/or minister(s). While diplomats may share their expertise with superiors, and even raise objections, they must never turn into proactive policy-makers. Instead, they are to remain mindful of the fact that ‘the civil service, of which the diplomatic service is a branch, is supposed to possess no politics’.27 A look at historical diplomatic documents points to the practical application of these ‘obedient servant’ views. In the early 1920s, for instance, the British High Commissioner to Egypt signed off letters with the words, ‘I have the honour to be, With the highest respect, My Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient, humble servant’.28

In addition to being obedient and ‘apolitical’, the ideal diplomat has also been expected to be in total control of, or detached from, his or her emotions. In her 2004 review of classical diplomacy research, Wynne Elizabeth Russell identified a strong tendency of advocating for diplomats’ ability to ‘repress their emotions’.29 Indeed, eighteenth-century de Callières argued that a good diplomat should ‘divest himself, in some measure, of all his own sentiments’.30 Fellow diplomatist Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand agreed, advising his younger colleagues: ‘Et surtout pas trop de zèle’ (‘and above all, don’t get too excited’).31 These notions were revived by Nicolson in the twentieth century, who found that the ideal diplomat ‘must eschew all personal animosities, all personal predilections, all enthusiasms […] and moral indignations’.32 Well into the 1970s, the ‘ideal ambassador’ continued to be described by academics ‘as a person governed by his reason rather than by his passions’.33

The Diplomat as an Emotional Political Agent

In spite of its intellectual tradition and ongoing influence, the ‘obedient servant’ approach has been criticised for its empirical inaccuracy and dubious normativity.34 Critics maintain that diplomats are involved in doing politics and that diplomatic behaviour is necessarily emotional. Taken together, these two arguments portray diplomats as more than mere implementers of foreign policy; they are emotional political agents who play an important role in shaping international relations.

Diplomats Do Politics

Practitioners and academics have long recognised diplomats’ need to go beyond the letter of the script, emphasising the necessity of making split-second decisions, displaying originality, applying tact and offering (critical) advice to superiors.35 In the words of de Callières, the diplomat has to use ‘his zeal and his knowledge’ in identifying ‘favourable conjunctures’: ‘It is not enough for him to execute literally what is contained in his instructions’.36 Centuries later, British diplomat Geoffrey McDermott agreed that ‘some originality in these matters, some going beyond the official brief, is to be encouraged’.37 Similarly, political scientist Jérémie Cornut emphasised the need for diplomatic improvisation by pointing out that there ‘is no rule, however precise and explicit […] that can provide for all the possible conditions of its execution and which does not, therefore, inevitably leave some degree of play or scope for interpretation’.38 Given the nature of their work, diplomats are arguably required to make judgement calls and rely on their own interpretations and situational instinct. In doing so, they might well stir policy guidelines in one rather than another direction. This suggests that policy-making continues within state institutions even after a directive has passed.39 As Michael Lipsky found in his research on street-level bureaucrats, ‘the decisions [they make], the routines they establish, and the devices they invent to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out’.40

In addition to these functional calls for independent diplomatic action, a more normative argument has been made. In the aftermath of the Second World War, scholars decried the horrors of ‘Nazi bureaucracies’, criticising bureaucrats’ propensity to ignore their own selves in following top — down instructions.41 By calling for greater agency and, if necessary, civil disobedience, the scope of bureaucratic responsibility was subsequently broadened to include wider notions of individual morality.42 Bureaucrats were encouraged to measure their conduct ‘not so much against the demands of their office, but against a wider conception of moral principle and socially beneficial outcomes’.43

In diplomatic theory, ‘moral integrity’44 and ‘good moral character’45 have traditionally been described as essential qualities. Yet it appears that the content and nature of such morality claims have not been examined in great depth. Paul Seabury’s study of German diplomats during the Nazi regime offers rare insight into the ambiguity of their ‘moral problems’46 and ‘moral choices’.47 However, rather than exploring the characteristics and discretionary boundaries of diplomats’ morality, Seabury merely described their ‘moral relativism’ as an ‘inevitable occupational hazard’.48 Among other things, he found that German diplomats drew a distinction between service of the German nation and of the Hitler regime after the Second World War, urging that ‘their profession bore no integral connection with National Socialism’.49 As will be shown in the empirical part of this article, similar arguments have been made by Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. Many claimed to have acted in the interest of the people, rather than a specific political regime.

Emotions and Diplomatic Practice

A second and related criticism of the classical ‘obedient servant’ approach emphasises the role of individual personality and emotions, brushing Max Weber’s portrayal of bureaucrats aside as a bizarre sketch of an ideal type that is rarely, if ever, found in social life and cannot be empirically proven.50

Within the field of diplomatic theory, early calls for emotional detachment have been placed alongside demands for ‘professional intimacy’. While arguing that the diplomat should divest himself from all sentiments, de Callières also requested the display of ‘an easy and engaging carriage, which contributes much to gain the affections [of others]’.51 Practitioners and academics alike argued that diplomats, more than other state officials, have to mix the formal with the personal at work. After all, diplomacy is ‘a system of communication between strangers’52 and as such is ‘rooted in relationships, not transactions’.53 Being modest, kind, trustworthy and approachable, for instance, may be essential for building and maintaining good relationships, which in turn might benefit a diplomat’s work, for example in the conduct of negotiations. Nicolson thus argued that the ideal diplomat ‘is required to cultivate the intimacy of persons of eminence or influence in the country in which he resides’.54 Likewise, McDermott concludes that ‘in everyday dealings’, the diplomat ‘should treat his foreign contacts as, in varying degrees, personal friends’.55 A review of German and British diplomatic cables, written in the second half of the twentieth century, corroborates these arguments, demonstrating that the profiles of new ambassadors were never limited to their curricula vitae but included discussion of their political leanings and personal characteristics, such as their intelligence,56 trustworthiness,57 opportunism,58 calmness,59 friendliness60 and shyness.61

Acknowledging the role of emotions and subjectivity in the conduct of diplomacy, recent literature has shifted analytical focus towards an individual socio-cognitive level.62 In this study as well, emotions played a central role in the development of varying behavioural strategies, with diplomats describing their experience of the 2011 uprising using words such as ‘anger’, ‘shock’, ‘relief’, ‘worry’, ‘surprise’, ‘bitterness’ and ‘care’.63

Diplomatic Discretion: Navigating Diverging Professional Norms

Striking the right balance between emotional — political agency and neutral obedience requires diplomatic discretion, which here is understood as ‘the power of free decision or latitude of choice within certain legal bounds’.64 While discretion has been treated as an explicit object of analysis in bureaucratic theory,65 its appearance in diplomacy research has been of a more implicit nature.66 As indicated above, the necessity of diplomatic discretion, including situational judgement calls, the reliance on tact and independent analyses have long been acknowledged in diplomatic theory. Recent studies by Merje Kuus67 and Jérémie Cornut68 examined the navigation of diplomatic norms, analysing not only ‘the rules of the game but more specifically the ways in which departures from these rules are also a part of the game’.69 While not mentioning ‘discretion’ as such, both authors viewed the deviation from (in)formal rules as a common practice. However, the obvious tension between discretionary requirements and diplomats’ portrayal (and expected behaviour) as obedient civil servants has, as of yet, not been theorised. As a consequence, the features and boundaries of diplomatic discretion remain ill-understood.

By studying Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats, this article sheds light on discretion as a necessary realm of diplomatic practice. This involves distinguishing between acceptable and inacceptable discretionary strategies. As Bernardo Zacka argued with reference to street-level bureaucrats, ‘there are good and bad uses of discretion, and when the standard of reasonableness is not met, we speak of an “abuse of discretion”’.70 The following analysis also responds to Cornut and Kuus, who link the use of discretion to a diplomat’s level of experience and skill, arguing that deviation required a ‘true insider’.71 While not denying that experience plays a role in diplomats’ deployment of discretionary practices, the empirical analysis below suggests that socio-political context and related questions of oversight, emotions and politicisation impact diplomats’ reliance on discretionary spaces as well.

To understand better what practices are contained within the realm of diplomatic discretion, how they are justified and what their limitations are deemed to be, this article relies on empirical data, which are analysed using Hirschman’s conceptual framework of ‘exit’, ‘voice’ and ‘loyalty’.72 Exit and voice in particular have been associated with intra-institutional opposition. Their analysis indicates what types of oppositional practices fall within the realm of diplomatic discretion and are deemed acceptable. In fact, this article’s focus on internal opposition in a moment of crisis offers unique insight into diplomats’ understanding and expression of discretionary boundaries, which have been contested, pushed and negotiated in the wake of the 2011 uprising.

Exit is commonly equated with the act of physical withdrawal, for instance when positions are no longer regarded as being fulfilling, or because bureaucrats ‘are unwilling to compromise their sense of moral integrity’.73 While exit may occur quietly through resignation or transfer,74 it can also be exercised in tandem with, and as a form of, ‘voice’, for example through the publication of resignation letters.75

Contrary to bureaucratic exits, the option of ‘voice’ has been described as messier as ‘it can be graduated, all the way from faint grumbling to violent protest’.76 At its broadest, voice implies the articulation of critical opinions. Following Hirschman, voice is here defined as:

[…] any attempt at all to change, rather than to escape from, an objectionable state of affairs, whether through individual or collective petition to the management directly in charge, through appeal to a higher authority with the intention of forcing a change in management, or through various types of actions and protests, including those that are meant to mobilise public opinion.77

Choices regarding ‘voice’ and exit are often impacted by loyalty, which is described by Hirschman as the ‘special attachment to an organization’.78

For greater conceptual clarity, the following analysis distinguishes between individual and collective forms of ‘voice’, as well as internal and public expressions thereof. Accordingly, diplomatic protest activities in 2011 are categorised into ‘internal collective voice’, ‘public voice’ and ‘exit’. Many of these behavioural strategies support conceptions of the diplomat as ‘emotional political agent’. Yet interviews with Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian respondents suggest that ‘obedient servant’ norms and related notions of loyalty remained an unspoken baseline and normative professional threshold against which behavioural strategies were developed and judged. Even those who engaged in political opposition in 2011 were ambivalent about reflecting on their behaviour. As one Yemeni diplomat confessed: ‘This is something I think is not right, when you let your emotions and your political beliefs affect your diplomatic job, [… but] I would do the same thing [again] because I believe my country is more important than my career’.79

Navigating Diplomatic Discretion in Moments of Socio-Political Rupture

In 2011, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia experienced large-scale public uprisings that forced autocratic rulers, some of whom had held political power for up to 33 years, to step down. Resignations were followed by a unique moment of socio-political change, marked by radical politicisation, strong emotion and new opportunities. As shown below, these societal and political developments impacted diplomatic institutions, disrupting normalised professional routines and diplomatic self-understandings. While regulatory constraints might not have been tight prior to 2011, leaving room for diplomats to develop their own styles and making their own decisions, norms and regulations loosened further in the aftermath of 2011, thus expanding the realm of diplomatic discretion. Diplomats began to question, debate and (re)define professional norms, developing new behavioural strategies that can be summarised as ‘internal collective voice’, ‘public voice’ and ‘exit’. As will emerge from the following analysis, ‘exit’ and ‘internal collective voice’ constituted behavioural strategies that stayed well within the tolerable realm of diplomats’ ‘technical discretion’.80 In contrast, cases of ‘public voice’ were more contested, frequently challenging diplomats’ professional self-understanding and practice.

The following analysis is grounded in ethnographic data that were gathered during nine months of multi-site fieldwork. Semi-structured in-depth conversations with over 50 diplomats revolved, among other things, around the events of 2011, offering insight into the meaning(s) that respondents assigned to their socio-political and professional reality at the time. Diplomats of all age groups and ranks remembered and narrated the feelings, opinions and challenges that they experienced in 2011. Given significant country-specific differences, the three case studies in the following analysis must not be lumped into one ‘regional example’ and no region-wide conclusions can be drawn. Instead, this article emphasises the heterogeneity that marks global state diplomacy by shedding light on diverse responses to similar moments of rupture. More importantly, its analysis offers insight into the formation and contestation of resistance within foreign services. It thereby challenges depictions of the diplomatic corps as a conservative — even counter-revolutionary — force,81 suggesting that opposition and contestation are as common within as they are outside state institutions.

Internal Collective Voice: The Establishment of Diplomatic Syndicates

According to Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats, individual cases of ‘internal voice’ — mainly the advice and criticism of superiors — were fairly common prior to the 2011 uprisings. However, the collective expression of ‘internal voice’ seems to have been new. While multiple cases of ‘internal collective voice’ arose in the context of 2011, this article focuses on the example of diplomatic syndicates. With the outbreak of protests and emerging openings in the political system, Tunisian and Yemeni diplomats pushed for the establishment of diplomatic syndicates within their respective foreign ministry. As one Yemeni diplomat recalled, ‘we were picking our battles inside the ministry. […] There was an institutional revolution inside Yemen’.82

By establishing a representative professional body, Yemeni and Tunisian diplomats aimed to improve their work conditions and, in some cases, fight against ministerial practices that they deemed to be unfair. These contained nepotism and corruption, as well as appointment and promotion procedures, especially non-merit appointments to the foreign service. With a sense of pride, one Yemeni diplomat involved in setting up the syndicate remembered, ‘there was no such thing as a syndicate to fight for diplomats […]. But it didn’t matter to us, we liked the idea. So, we were fighting. We established it’.83 The creation of the Yemeni Syndicate for Foreign Ministry Employees in 2011, was preceded by its Tunisian equivalent, Syndicat de Fonctionnaires du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, which allegedly formed part of Tunisia’s general labour union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).

Over time, diplomats in both Yemen and Tunisia decided to specialise further their union representation by distinguishing between foreign ministry employees who worked on administrative and financial affairs and those diplomats who worked abroad. One Tunisian diplomat explained that he had different responsibilities and operated under very different professional circumstances than home-based ministry employees: ‘So we thought it was not a very good idea to have one body for all’, he explained.84 Tunisian diplomats created a second representative union in February 2015, the Syndicat du Corps Diplomatique, which dealt with specific questions regarding diplomats’ postings, their payment and issues related to their living conditions abroad, such as health insurance. Similar tasks were assigned to the Syndicate for Yemeni Diplomats, which was established in 2014. ‘It is like our spokesperson’, one Tunisian diplomat described the Syndicat du Corps Diplomatique, adding in a regretful tone that it was not as efficient as it could be. In his opinion, diplomats’ geographical distance and global movement posed a challenge to the syndicate’s organisation and impact.85

While no syndicates were founded in Egypt, Egyptian diplomats also called for greater meritocracy and better work conditions within the foreign service. More specific complaints concerned, among other things, the education of diplomats’ children, health insurance, opportunities for young diplomats and internal appointment procedures. ‘A lot of people began to challenge existing practices […]. Why do you get posted to the United States and I get posted to Denmark? Based on what?’ recalled one Egyptian diplomat.86 In the past, diplomats just ‘sucked it up’, he continued; yet in 2011, they ‘began to organize protests’.

Political and historical sociologists have long suggested that political action is facilitated by arising ‘political opportunities’,87 which may lead to individual cases of ‘cognitive liberation’, the vague feeling ‘that the current political system lacks legitimacy and [… that] participation could make meaningful change happen’.88 As indicated above, the 2011 uprising inspired many diplomats to launch what one Yemeni respondent called an ‘institutional revolution’. ‘There was this push for reform of the ministry’, remembered an Egyptian diplomat, ‘because the idea was that there are demands for change all over Egypt, so why not also the foreign ministry?’89 It appears that the removal of autocratic regimes and the accompanying push towards a more democratic system had a liberating effect on Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni diplomats, who engaged in collective expressions of internal voice. The events of 2011 made internal ministerial reform seem feasible and acted as a catalyst for long-repressed resentments within all three foreign ministries. ‘It became a mess and a little bitter as well. There was a lot of bitterness’, commented a former Egyptian diplomat.90

Interestingly, the establishment of ministerial syndicates was rarely criticised by diplomats. This might have to do with the inclusive nature of diplomats’ demands, which presumably benefited most ministry employees. It might also be related to the rather ‘technical’ nature of diplomats’ claims, many of which concerned ‘choices of means’ regarding diplomatic appointments, spending decisions and other administrative procedures. Pushing the limits of ‘technical discretion’ through ‘collective internal voice’ seemed much more acceptable than other, more public and outwardly-oriented forms of opposition.91

Public Voice: ‘A Collective Action Moment’

In the context of the 2011 uprisings, diplomats began engaging in a broad range of ‘public voice’, including protests, public letters of complaint and the signing of petitions. These developments were closely related to changes in diplomats’ socio-political environment, notably their improved freedom of expression and politicisation. One Egyptian diplomat described the uprising as ‘a hurricane that took the ministry’ and as a hugely ‘politicizing moment’.92 With regime change and subsequent political openness, many diplomats felt that they could voice their opinions more unreservedly. Following the collapse of ‘old controls’, one Egyptian diplomat explained, ‘everybody felt free, literally everybody felt free to express her or himself the way they wanted to’.93 His Tunisian colleague put forth a similar narrative, saying ‘during the Ben Ali era, we were not allowed to express our views’; diplomats strictly followed their professional ‘obligation de réserve’. In 2011, he remembered and laughed, there was ‘aucune obligation’, ‘no obligation at all’.94 Motivated by political ideals, opportunism and emotions ranging from hope to fear, many diplomats began engaging in outright political action, pushing the limits of ‘diplomatic discretion’ to an extent with which not everyone seemed comfortable. The following section discusses two examples of ‘public voice’: participation in protests; and the public criticism of governments through letters and petitions.

As one Egyptian diplomat recalled and chuckled, ‘there is no statistic available, but a lot of diplomats were in the square [Tahrir Square in Cairo]. I was there every day, and I met a lot of colleagues’. He continued by explaining: ‘The people in the ministry are no different from the rest of society. If anything, they are more in the middle and upper — middle-class segments, which were disproportionately represented in the protests’.95

A younger Egyptian diplomat pointed to the idealism that he shared with his colleagues in explaining their participation in protests. Many newcomers to the Egyptian diplomatic service, he explained, had studied political sciences and were interested — and to some degree engaged in — politics. Upon entering the diplomatic service, they wanted to improve things ‘from within, by joining the system’. Pausing for a moment, the diplomat sighed and added, ‘it is frustrating, because it is very hard’. For Egyptian diplomats who wished to advance the political status quo, ‘2011 posed a dilemma’. Many had to choose between their long-standing striving for reform on the one hand and their job security on the other.96 According to the interviewee, several of his younger colleagues decided to take a step towards change by joining demonstrations.

As this example suggests, diplomats’ own political conviction might motivate their engagement in discretionary practices. As one respondent put it, ‘being Egyptian citizens and having our own preferences regarding the transition’ complicated diplomats’ neutral representation of the government.97 The example above also indicates that diplomats were well aware of the risks that lie in navigating the realm of diplomatic discretion. Following ‘obedient servant’ norms might thus be linked to opportunism and self-preservation. One Yemeni ambassador who worked abroad during the 2011 uprising confessed ‘I knew that Saleh would go […] How, when, I could not have predicted it at that time. But who will take over, that was my worry; and this is why I kept quiet’.98 At a time of uncertainty, political neutrality and the image of professional loyalty appear to have constituted a safe option. ‘It’s not really “I am a diplomat; I should not be involved with the issues in this country”. It is [rather] some way of escaping a critical situation’, one Yemeni diplomat suggested.99

Next to voicing their political opinion through public protests, diplomats engaged in organised collective forms of ‘public voice’ that were more purposefully directed against the government. In Yemen, nine acting ambassadors drafted a letter to the incumbent president Ali Abdullah Saleh on 20 March 2011, criticising him and his government for the killing of demonstrators that had taken place two days earlier, on 18 March 2011.100 Deploying highly moralistic language, the letter described the death of protesters as a ‘massacre’ and ‘a horrific crime’ that ‘has weighed upon our conscience and led us to direct this letter to your Excellency’.101 Resembling the normative bureaucratic ideals described by du Gay, ambassadors presented themselves as moral agents and as ‘representatives[s] of the people’.102 The letter, which was covered by the Yemeni media and criticised as ‘unprofessional’ by several Yemeni diplomats, seemed to lack political impact and remained without major internal consequences.

As this example indicates, conflicting political and professional allegiances within the field of diplomacy are closely tied to different interpretations of diplomats’ representative function. With the outbreak of protests and (the potential of) regime change, some diplomats began to shift their claims of representation away from the government and towards ‘the people’ or ‘the country’. As one former Egyptian ambassador put it, ‘I represent a country, not the President. My loyalty is with whatever the people of Egypt will decide’.103 Likewise, a Yemeni ambassador, who himself stayed silent throughout 2011, proclaimed that all ‘ambassadors are supposed to represent the interest of the country; nothing but the interest of the country’.104 When asked who defined those interests, he laughed out loud, his deep bass voice echoing through his office: ‘that is a very difficult question,’ he said, pausing, and adding, ‘it should be the president, elected by the people’. Lowering his voice, he later explained, ‘some diplomats thought it was difficult to represent the president [in 2011]’. Indeed, several of his colleagues put forth alternative views, claiming to represent the country, or the Yemeni people, rather than the head of state. It appears that redirection of one’s representative duty could facilitate the maintenance of diplomats’ moral integrity and justify expressions of voice.

A further example of collective public voice took place in Egypt in 2012, when a group of diplomats publicly boycotted the Morsi government’s constitutional referendum. Since coverage of the referendum was highly politicised and biased, its context is briefly outlined here. Prior to Mohamed Morsi’s election as president in June 2012, the legislature had appointed an assembly tasked with rewriting the Egyptian constitution. After having been dissolved by an administrative court in April 2012, a new assembly was quickly established. Weakened by considerable internal challenges, the assembly faced the threat of another shutdown by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ‘Mr Mubarak had tried to stack with loyalists’.105 In the midst — and possibly because — of this polarised political context, Morsi issued a decree in November 2012 that stripped the judiciary of any power to challenge his decisions. He also rushed through a draft constitution that he hastily opened up to a public referendum.106 The draft constitution and Morsi’s decree prompted widespread protest in Egypt. While Morsi’s advisors portrayed the decree as ‘an attempt to cut through the deadlock that has stalled Egypt’s convoluted political transition’, many Egyptians viewed it as a first step towards ‘an absolute presidential tyranny’.107

At the time, a number of diplomats seemed to share such concerns, openly boycotting the referendum’s implementation. ‘More than 200 diplomats signed a statement […] that was made public, refusing to participate in organizing the referendum abroad’, remembered one respondent.108 I signed it — and I never sign petitions! It’s the only time in my life that I did it. A lot of us felt that even if we were putting our career in danger, […] this was the right thing to do.’ The referendum went ahead, but those diplomats who had signed the petition allegedly refused to organize it in embassies abroad. ‘This was our biggest collective action moment, I would say’, commented one Egyptian diplomat.109 His colleague described the event as a symbolically strong step, which challenged the widespread assumption that diplomats would not express their political opinion.110

Indeed, the expression of ‘public voice’ put a range of existing professional norms to a test. Contrary to ‘internal collective voice’, with which few diplomats took issue, cases of ‘public voice’ triggered considerable debate within the profession. Those who condemned diplomats’ political activism and free speech frequently referred to the normative notion of diplomatic loyalty and related ideas of political neutrality and emotional detachment. When joining the foreign service, one Egyptian diplomat maintained, ‘you literally agreed that you would defend the government’s position for the next 35 years, and you don’t know what the government is going to be’.111 His colleague confirmed: ‘once you decided to enter the service you are no longer free to express yourself. […] We don’t send you abroad to express yourself, but to express a government, to take a position according to what the government says, not according to what you believe’.112

Similar arguments were made by Yemeni and Tunisian diplomats. Their position echoes the ‘obedient servant’ approach outlined above, specifically its claim that ‘one’s own beliefs about the good are never good reasons for action’.113 In the words of one former Yemeni ambassador, ‘either you stay and shut up, or you protest and leave’.114 Working as a diplomat and publicly criticising one’s own government were seen as inherently incompatible.

The 2011 events emphasised conceptual distinctions between ‘internal’ and ‘public voice’. While internal criticism was often deemed as acceptable, most public expressions thereof were not. The practical enactment of this differentiation is nicely illustrated by the following anecdote, which was shared by a former Yemeni diplomat. Having worked abroad as an ambassador in 2011, he remembered being asked by the Yemeni foreign ministry to report on the political views and loyalties of his employees. In practising what he deemed to be his responsibility towards his subordinates, he ignored said request, instead recommending that his staff refrain from publicly voicing their opposition to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government:

I said ‘look, you don’t have to do anything public. Keep your views to yourself. We can exchange them between us, but don’t make them public because you will be punished’. They liked the idea; we used to go and sit together and criticize Saleh together.115

As well as illustrating the practice of public — private distinctions in diplomatic space, this example sheds light on the multi-layered and complex nature of ‘diplomatic loyalty’. As Nicolson wrote many years ago, ‘the professional diplomatist is governed by several different, and at times conflicting, loyalties’.116 The latter include ‘loyalty to his own sovereign, government, minister and foreign office’, but also ‘loyalty to his own staff’.

Exit: The Resignation of Ambassadors

Given the above-mentioned difficulty of ongoing loyalty and representation, some ambassadors chose to leave the diplomatic service altogether. While no resignations were found in the Egyptian case study, at least four Yemeni and one Tunisian ambassador resigned soon after the outbreak of protests in 2011. In the Yemeni case, Abdullah Saidi, Yemen’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, was the first to resign in March 2011, following the above-mentioned death of protestors in Yemen. At least three other Yemeni ambassadors promptly followed suit. One of them declared that he felt relieved after having submitted his resignation: ‘Because I did not sleep for the last two days, because of the shock over what I saw live on TV: people being killed in cold blood’. He added:

I come from a family that has been fighting for the freedom of Yemeni people. I respect my ethics and professionalism. I have worked hard to secure international support for the development of my poor people. I cannot tolerate working for a government that I am in utmost disagreement with.117

Looking back at the events of 2011, another resigning Yemeni ambassador claimed to regret his decision, portraying it as unprofessional and as a further contribution to the division of his country:

Honestly, now I regret. Not for me, but for the state, the country. We made the wrong decision […]. You are ambassador. You are not prime minister; you are not minister; you are not vice president; you are ambassador. We have to be practical […]. We couldn’t distinguish between power and the state, between Ali Abdullah Saleh — whether we like or dislike him — and the state.118

While the first quotation portrays the ambassador as a person of moral integrity, the second argument emphasises the ambassador’s role as ‘neutral implementer’, who ought to represent the state irrespective of who is heading its government.

It appears that in Tunisia, it was only Mezri Haddad who resigned from his position as ambassador to UNESCO at the time. On 14 January 2011, a few hours prior to Ben Ali’s leaving, Haddad submitted his resignation letter, which he had allegedly drafted the night before. In his letter, Haddad cited his past complaints to former President Ben Ali regarding the police crackdown on demonstrations as one of the reasons for his resignation.119

As in previous examples, exiting diplomats were using emotional language and explained their decision to leave in normative terms. Within the framework of this study, it was impossible to determine whether such moral reasoning was sincere or constituted a cover for political opportunism and self-interest. Opting for ‘exit’ in a situation marked by political power shifts certainly allowed some diplomats to re-enter the diplomatic corps later on, under the new regime. While it is thus possible that the deployment of moral discourse served long-term political strategising, such assumptions are difficult to prove.


As this article has demonstrated, the varying strategies adopted by Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian diplomats in the wake of the 2011 uprising can be meaningfully analysed by synthesising bureaucratic and diplomatic theory. Hirschman’s theoretical trio — ‘voice’, ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’ — emerged as a particularly valuable heuristic analytic, helping to group diplomatic behaviour into three conceptual categories: internal collective voice; public voice; and exit.

Diplomats’ exit and their expression of ‘internal collective voice’ triggered comparatively little opposition among their colleagues. This suggests that collective protest activities inside the foreign service, while being unusual, may have fallen within the realm of diplomats’ discretion. In contrast, cases of ‘public voice’ were highly contested. Diplomats’ overt criticism of their own government, public letters of complaint and the signing of petitions seemed to blur the definitional boundaries of ‘diplomatic discretion’ to an extent with which not everyone seemed comfortable. The seeming importance of internal — external distinctions indicates that delimitations of diplomats’ discretion are not only tied to shifts in their socio-political context, but also to (related) questions of oversight and publicity. At times, the internal — public distinction took on a spatial character, differentiating between activities inside and outside foreign policy buildings. In other instances, internal — external boundaries were of a social nature, distinguishing between members and outsiders of a specific diplomatic community. These social demarcations were complicated by the important role of social media, especially Facebook, in post-2011 diplomatic debates. Being neither prototypically ‘private’, nor obviously ‘public’, Facebook has been described as a liminal social space of ‘blurred edges’.120 While posted information is ‘generally intended for a small network of friends and family, [… it] is left available to the whole world to access’.121 Diplomats might have perceived Facebook as a ‘private’ or ‘professional’ platform, where critical voices were permissible and compatible with claims of ongoing loyalty.

By focusing on the realm of discretion, this article challenges the assumptions of singularity that underlie the emphasis of idealised diplomatic codes and norms in diplomatic theory. It also shows that diplomats, as emotion-capable actors who inhabit both professional and non-professional roles, may carry broader societal shifts in sentiment, aspiration and opinion into the foreign ministry. Subsequent changes in diplomatic practice may trigger the reform of existing institutional structures, as indicated by the establishment of diplomatic syndicates. This suggests that state institutions are more fluid and adaptive than often assumed, resembling ‘weakly coherent, fragile ensembles of compromises between constant sources of pressures, constraints and contestation’.122 Portraying foreign policy apparatuses as microcosms of broader political and social trends calls into question depictions of the diplomatic service as a conservative, even counter-revolutionary, force. Past scholarship has described diplomats as the extended arm of established power centres, whose practice was deemed ‘impervious to revolutionary passion’.123 Complicating such arguments, this analysis illuminates how opposition is formed, expressed and contested within foreign services, while also pointing to the possible impact and limitations of ‘diplomatic resistance’.

While the unique historical context of 2011 gave rise to new oppositional forms of diplomatic behaviour, it also reinforced existing professional norms of silent obedience. Diplomats who criticised the ‘public voice’ of their colleagues frequently used arguments that closely resembled the ‘obedient servant’ approach put forth in bureaucratic and diplomatic theory. In many cases, differences in diplomats’ conceptions of professional tasks and responsibilities seemed rooted in diverging political loyalties and claims of representation. While some diplomats shifted their representative loyalty to ‘the people’ or ‘the country’, a move that helped legitimise their expression of ‘public voice’, others stressed the importance of political neutrality and ongoing loyalty to the government.

Judit Kuschnitzki

is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores change and continuity in the Yemeni diplomatic service after the 2011 uprising. She is particularly interested in questions of diplomatic agency and the material embeddedness of diplomatic practice. Judit Kuschnitzki has a BA in International Relations from University College Maastricht and an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. From 2013-2015 she was a Research Assistant at the Institute of Islamic Theology at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, and from 2014-2015 she was the Managing Editor of the Yemen Times Newspaper.


William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 14.


Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States (London: Harvard University Press, 1970).


Michael Lipsky, Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services (New York, NY: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2010); Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017); and Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (eds), The Anthropology of the State (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006).


L. Carl Brown (2003), Diplomacy in the Middle East: The International Relations of Regional and Outside Powers (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003).


Alun Jones and Julian Clark, ‘Mundane Diplomacies for the Practice of European Geopolitics’, Geoforum, vol. 62 (2015), pp. 1-12; and Merje Kuus, Geopolitics and Expertise: Knowledge and Authority in European Diplomacy (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).


Iver B. Neumann, ‘To Be a Diplomat’, International Studies Perspectives, vol. 6 (2015), pp. 72-93; and Iver B. Neumann, ‘A Speech that the Entire Ministry May Stand For, or Why Diplomats Never Produce Anything New’, International Political Sociology, vol. 1 (2007), pp. 183-200.


Vincent Pouliot, International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO Russia Diplomacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Jason Dittmer, Diplomatic Material: Affect, Assemblage and Foreign Policy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).


Alun Jones and Julian Clark, ‘Performance, Emotions and Diplomacy in the United Nations Assemblage in New York’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, vol. 109, no. 4 (2019), pp. 1262-1278.


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (13 August 2017).


Paul du Gay, Organizing Identity: Persons and Organizations ‘After Theory’ (London: SAGE, 2007).


Du Gay, Organizing Identity, pp. 127-128.


Arthur Isak Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 124.


Du Gay, Organizing Identity, p. 115.


Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978 [1922]), p. 975. To this day, bureaucrats are expected to ignore personal moral preference or sentiments (see du Gay, Organizing Identity, p. 117), instead working sine ira et studio, ‘without anger and passion’; see Martin Albrow, Do Organizations Have Feelings? (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997), p. 93.


Zacka, When the State Meets the Street.


François de Callières, The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes (London: Printed for George Strahan, at the Golden Ball against the Royal Exchange: Bern. Lintott at the Cross-Keys in Fleetstreet, and F. Graves in St. James’s Street, 1716).


Sir Ernest Satow, Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice (London: Longman, 1917).


Harold Nicolson, Diplomacy (London: Oxford University Press, 1939).


Ronald P. Barston, Modern Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 1998).


Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994).


Stuart Murray, ‘Diplomatic Theory and the Evolving Canon of Diplomatic Studies’, International Studies Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (2011), pp. 709-728, special issue; Stuart Murray, Paul Sharp, Geoffrey Wiseman, David Criekemans and Jan Melissen (eds), ‘The Present and Future of Diplomacy and Diplomatic Studies’; and Vincent Pouliot and Jérémie Cornut, ‘Practice Theory and the Study of Diplomacy: A Research Agenda’, Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 50, no. 3 (2015), pp. 297-315, at p. 298.


Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann (eds), Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 2-3.


Murray, ‘Diplomatic Theory and the Evolving Canon of Diplomatic Studies’, p. 720.


Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).


Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna (London: Constable, 1946), p. 164.


Maurice Keens-Soper and Karl W. Schweizer, ‘Diplomatic Theory in the Ancien Régime’, in Maurice Keens-Soper and Karl W. Schweizer (eds), Francois de Callières: The Art of Diplomacy (New York, NY: Holmes & Meier and Leicester University Press, 1983), pp. 19-53, at p. 33.


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 81.


UK National Archives (NA), FO/371/8962.


Wynne Elizabeth Russell, “Control Yourself, Sir!’: A Call for Research into Emotion Cultures in Diplomacy’, in Hannah Slavik (ed.), Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy (Geneva: DiploFoundation, 2004, pp. 391-402, at p. 394.


De Callières, The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes, p. 139.


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 116; and Kishan S. Rana, The 21st Century Ambassador: Plenipotentiary to Chief Executive (Geneva: DiploFoundation, 2004), p. 169.


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 116.


Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 169. A survey conducted within the US State Department in the 1960s indicates that 70 to 80 per cent of employees endorsed the idea of ‘acting rationally and avoiding emotional display’; see John E. Harr, The Professional Diplomat (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 218.


Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries.


As Jules Cambon put it, the ambassador ‘informs, enlightens, warns, and occasionally exercises a restraining influence upon his Government, while carrying out its instructions’; see Jules Cambon, The Diplomatist (London: P. Allen, 1931), p. 7. Again, the call for such ‘discretionary tasks’ is followed by a note of caution. Cambon is quick to remind the reader that ‘outspokenness of this kind must naturally stop short of insubordination’ (p. 7). Likewise, Geoffrey McDermott finds that diplomats’ obedience ought to outrank their obligation to maintain a critical mindset and the exercise of their expert advice; see Geoffrey McDermott, The New Diplomacy and its Apparatus (London: Plume Press, in association with Ward Lock Ltd., 1973), p. 44.


De Callières, The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes, p. 88.


McDermott, The New Diplomacy and its Apparatus, p. 44.


Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), cited in Cornut, ‘Diplomacy, Agency, and the Logic of Improvisation and Virtuosity in Practice’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 24, no. 3 (2018), pp. 712-736, at p. 717.


Zacka, When the State Meets the Street.


Lipsky, Street Level Bureaucracy, p. xiii.


Du Gay, Organizing Identity.


Du Gay, Organizing Identity.


Du Gay, Organizing Identity, p. 112.


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 109.


Harr, The Professional Diplomat, p. 216.


Paul Seabury, The Wilhelmstrasse: A Study of German Diplomats under the Nazi Regime (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1954), p. xiii.


Seabury, The Wilhelmstrasse, p. 170.


Seabury, The Wilhelmstrasse, p. 160.


Seabury, The Wilhelmstrasse, p. 78.


Harro M. Höpfl, ‘Post-Bureaucracy and Weber’s “Modern” Bureaucrat’, Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 19, no. 1 (2006), pp. 8-21; and Charles T. Goodsell, The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004).


De Callières, The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes, p. 75.


James Der Derian, On Diplomacy: A Genealogy of Western Estrangement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 224.


Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘The Intimate Dance of Diplomacy: In Praise of Practice’, International Affairs, vol. 89, no. 6 (2013), pp. 1459-1467, at p. 1465.


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 198.


McDermott, The New Diplomacy and its Apparatus, p. 44.


NA, FCO/8/282.


Archive of the German Foreign Ministry, translated from Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (PAAA), B12 1066 (30 November 1962).


NA, FCO/8/1705.


PAAA, B12 1059a (25 November 1959).


PAAA, B12 1058a (4 April 1955).


NA, FCO/8/1705.


Costas M. Constantinou, ‘On Homo-Diplomacy’, Space and Culture, vol. 9, no. 4 (2006), pp. 351-364; Costas M. Constantinou and James Der Derian (eds), Sustainable Diplomacies (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Brian C. Rathbun, Diplomacy’s Value: Creating Security in 1920s Europe and the Contemporary Middle East (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Marcus Holmes, ‘The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy’, International Organization, vol. 67 (2013), pp. 829-861; Cornut, ‘Diplomacy, Agency and the Logic of Improvisation and Virtuosity in Practice’; and Jones and Clark, ‘Performance, Emotions and Diplomacy in the United Nations Assemblage in New York’.


Interviews with Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats conducted in 2017.


The Meriam-Webster Dictionary, online at (accessed 23 January 2018).


Zacka, When the State Meets the Street.


‘The structure of rules and regulations with which bureaucrats must comply is not as tight as it may appear to outsiders, and it leaves significant room for discretion. This discretion, in turn, allows bureaucrats to develop different styles of work and to give expression to them’; see Zacka, When the State Meets the Street, p. 5.


Kuus, Geopolitics and Expertise.


Cornut, ‘Diplomacy, Agency and the Logic of Improvisation’.


Kuus, Geopolitics and Expertise, p. 166.


Zacka, When the State Meets the Street, p. 34.


Kuus, Geopolitics and Expertise, p. 166; and Cornut, ‘Diplomacy, Agency and the Logic of Improvisation’, p. 725.


Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty.


Zacka, When the State Meets the Street, p. 233.


Michael Quinlan, ‘Ethics in the Public Service’, Governance, vol. 6 (1993), pp. 538-544.


Meira Levinson, ‘Moral Injury and the Ethics of Educational Injustice’, Harvard Educational Review, vol. 85, no 2 (2015), pp. 203-228, at p. 224.


Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, p. 16.


Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, p. 30.


Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, p. 77. For a more in-depth discussion of ‘diplomatic loyalty’, read Judit Kuschnitzki, ‘Diplomatic Agency and Contested Loyalties: The Yemeni Foreign Service after 2011’, doctoral dissertation (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2019).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (13 August 2017).


Office-holders may make ‘choices of means’, but are to refrain from making ‘choices of ends’. Such ‘technical discretion’ limits the extent and nature of bureaucrats’ individual decision-making to minor practical matters; see Zacka, When the State Meets the Street.


Paul Sharp, Diplomatic Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ross, Independent Diplomat; and Linda S. Frey and Marsha Frey, ‘“Courtesans of the King”: Diplomats and the French Revolution’, Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, vol. 65, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 706-744.


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (12 September 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (14 September 2017).


Interview with Tunisian diplomat (16 November 2017).


Interview with Tunisian diplomat (16 November 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Neal Caren, ‘Political Process Theory’, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (London: John Wiley, 2007).


Caren, ‘Political Process Theory’, p. 2.


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (10 October 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Of course, as has been pointed out by Zacka, the language of ‘technical discretion’ can be misleading, as answers to supposedly ‘technical’ issues can be a political in their own right; see Zacka, When the State Meets the Street, p. 44.


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Interview with Tunisian diplomat (5 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (26 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (7 February 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (13 February 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (12 September 2017).


In a tragic turn of events, ‘dozens of men wearing civilian clothes and armed with military assault rifles’ shot at least 45 protestors and wounded 200, ‘while state security forces made no serious effort to stop the carnage’; see Human Rights Watch, Unpunished Massacre: Yemen’s Failed Response to the ‘Friday of Dignity’ Killings (12 February 2013), available at


For more information, read ‘Nine Yemeni Ambassadors Send Letter of Protest to President Saleh over Change Square Massacre and Say Official Explanation of What Happened is Morally Unacceptable’ [in Arabic], Al-Masdar Online (20 March 2011), available at


Du Gay, Organizing Identity, p. 112.


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (25 September 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (14 July 2017).


David K. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, ‘Citing Deadlock, Egypt’s Leader Seizes New Power and Plans Mubarak Retrial’, The New York Times (22 November 2012), available online at.


For more information, read ‘Egypt Judges Refuse to Oversee Morsi Referendum’, BBC (3 December 2012), available online at


Kirkpatrick and El Sheikh, ‘Citing Deadlock, Egypt’s Leader Seizes New Power and Plans Mubarak Retrial’.


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (29 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (7 February 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (24 September 2017).


Interview with Egyptian diplomat (10 October 2017).


Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries, p. 214.


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (13 February 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (13 February 2017).


Nicolson, Diplomacy, p. 123.


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (16 September 2017).


Interview with Yemeni diplomat (4 September 2017).


AFP, ‘Tunisian Ambassador to UNESCO Resigns’, AhramOnline (14 January 2011), available at


Lauren Gelman, ‘Privacy, Free Speech and “Blurry-Edged” Social Networks’, Boston College Law Review, vol. 50, no. 5 (2009), pp. 1315-1344; and Jacquelyn Burkell, Alexandre Fortier, Lorraine Yeung Cheryl Wong and Jennifer Lynn Simpson, ‘Facebook: Public Space, or Private Space?’, Information, Communication & Society, vol. 17, no 8 (2014), pp. 974-985.


Gelman, ‘Privacy, Free Speech, and “Blurry-Edged” Social Networks’, p. 1315.


Alexander Styhre, The Innovative Bureaucracy: Bureaucracy in an Age of Fluidity (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007).


Ross, Independent Diplomat, p. 7. Likewise, in Paul Sharp’s Diplomatic Theory of International Relations, diplomats are referred to as ‘enemies’ of revolution’; see Sharp, Diplomatic Theory of International Relations, p. 20.