Economists and Diplomacy: Professions and the Practice of Economic Policy

By Seabrooke, Leonard | International Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Economists and Diplomacy: Professions and the Practice of Economic Policy


Seabrooke, Leonard, International Journal


Ministries of foreign affairs, of trade, and of finance are the traditional locations for economic diplomacy between states. This continues to be the case for most states, but it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the organs of economic diplomacy are restricted to the state. This thought piece discusses how the relationship between economists and diplomacy is best understood by examining the professions behind policymaking, their work content, and the mediation of public interstate and private collective interests. Professions matter because they provide a common language to those generating economic policy knowledge and they also stretch and test allegiances to national interests when these conflict with the profession's ideologies and beliefs. Work content matters because the practice of economic diplomacy is often delegated to parties who are not located in ministries. We then have to distinguish between who has authority and who does the work, and to determine to what extent the authority is professionally equipped to judge the quality of the work. The mediation of public interstate interests and private collective interests also matters because, once foreign economic policy has been delegated, it is important to understand the interests of those doing the work. I suggest that professions, work content, and mediation are the crucial elements in the relationship between economists and diplomacy. I examine these elements by exploring the demand for transparency from states, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and firms, in contrast to the diplomat's need for discretion. In economic policymaking, the zest for transparency also places more stress on professional abstract knowledge. Transparency and abstract knowledge conflict with the traditional role of the diplomat, who is responsible for guarding secrets and using tacit knowledge.1

Understanding the generation of foreign economic policy through the lens of professional conflicts provides an interesting point of departure to discuss economists and diplomacy. This lens immediately changes the key questions. Locating and associating economists with diplomacy raises a set of questions about state power, public and private authority, and who is controlling the information. These questions are of the who-has-morepower type and call for measurement of the rule-of- thumb variety, assigning distributions of power and resources to a range of entities we understand as important to world politics: states, bureaucracies, firms, transnational advocacy networks, and the like. Pie charts can be created and guesstimated values assigned. This type of logic also informs much of the classic work on diplomacy as foreign economic policy. Iver Neumann has described the common roles in diplomacy as a mix of "bureaucrats," "heroes," and "mediators," and these same characters are commonly thought of as the workhorses in the development of foreign economic policy.2 Most of the work in comparative and international political economy does not adopt these frameworks but removes the personalities and the practices they use.3 Work in these areas concentrates on how foreign economic policy is generated by bargains between the state and domestic coalitions (big business, trade unions, and others) in the face of external opportunities and constraints.4 Whüe context is crucially important, we need not endlessly reassess how the identity of big business, trade unions, or the state is changing, because their interests can be more or less assumed. Rather, through coalition politics and game and bargaining theories, this literature provides a range of shortcuts to permit the assessment of case variations so as to distil general lessons about the distribution of power and resources in the international political economy.

The conventional questions asked in comparative and international political economy are important because they demand that we consider the emergence of new practices that lead to changes in the distribution of power and resources. …

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