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The Similar but Distinct Professions of Politics and Diplomacy

Why a background in politics isn’t holistic preparation for the diplomatic service.

(Photo: Premier of Alberta,

Samuel Elsing

The dismissal of John McCallum from his role as Canada’s ambassador to China has been highlighted as a case where experience in politics has been inadequate as preparation for the diplomatic service. The professions of high-level politics and diplomacy are certainly both high-profile positions based around the idea of public service, so why is experience in politics seen as a hindrance here?

We need to understand why politics and diplomacy are so similar that a career politician might adequately serve as an ambassador for a time, and why they are so distinct that that same individual could then serve poorly afterwards, defying the notions that diplomacy is based on.

Firstly, to clarify the terms ‘politics’ and ‘diplomacy’ by their Merriam-Webster definitions:


The art or science of government;

Political affairs or business, especially: competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government).


The art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations;

Skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility.

Politics and diplomacy share many defining characteristics. They are skilful arts where conduct, communication and knowledge of the respective environments are paramount. They are both activities that deal with people in the pursuit of in-group interests. Both are conducted generally within the public eye, naturally, as the outcomes of each can exacerbate opportunities and challenges that impact a given community. Politics and diplomacy are similar in many respects, but are undoubtedly distinct in the outcomes that are being sought, in the methods undertaken, and especially in the reasons they are conducted at all.

Diplomacy requires of its practitioners excellence in conduct, communication, and knowledge. It also requires a honed ability to represent. The knowledge requirement means a diplomat must be able to understand their home nation, its history, culture, and interests and that of their diplomatic partner/s, as well as the general environment in which diplomacy is being undertaken. Within this context a diplomat must be able to conduct themselves well, adhere to protocol, follow processes, and ensure their actions cause no alarm or offense. Similarly, their communications must follow conventions, while also being persuasive, succinct, and informative.

Finally, but crucially, a diplomat has a duty to represent their home nation. It is not themselves they represent, but the character, history, and interests defined by their state. A diplomat derives their authority to represent from the state; this is a requirement for them to conduct meaningful relations with another country. However, a diplomat needs to act in ways that result in their state’s interests being represented in the host country. Authority to represent does not equate with meaningful representation. A diplomat that does not accurately represent their state’s interests is simply a lone actor, even if they are taking actions on behalf of their home nation. In these aspects, the profession of politics follows to some extent, but differs enough such that in times of high tensions and stress an ambassador who has been professionally trained only through politics can falter in their duty.

Politics requires good conduct, but only where it aligns with the strategic goals of the party and the individual. Civility is not always a requirement. Communication is important too, but only to the extent that policy and actions can be explained or justified to fellow members and constituents; discussion and compromise is less important than advocacy and sticking to their side of an argument. Knowledge is vital, but the priority is to focus on the areas most relevant for re-election, and to find areas of contention to differentiate oneself rather than to find areas of consensus to build relationships. Finally, though it may be considered a tenet to politics, representation is ultimately less important than gaining support. Support can be gained without perfect representation.

For politics: strategy, explanation, knowledge and support. For diplomacy: conduct, communication, knowledge and representation. These aspects feed into the method by which interests are pursued: in both cases, negotiation. The major difference between politics and diplomacy, however, is that of the general principles by which negotiation is conducted. Politics is primarily concerned with power and competition. In competitive negotiation, a distributive bargaining strategy is when one party gains something if the other party loses something. This is used particularly when limited resources are at stake: votes, for example. Distributive bargaining arises naturally in the context of politics. This has also historically been a common strategy seen in the international sphere as well. Typically, it results in tensions, conflicts, and war. The importance of diplomacy is to combat the typical results of distributive bargaining. Integrative bargaining, also known as interest-based bargaining or win-win bargaining, is a strategy where parties collaborate to seek out a win-win scenario. Integrative bargaining does not always arise during diplomatic efforts, but the strategy allows for relationship-building, long-term collaboration, and benefits for all parties involved. Diplomacy operates with those aims

How does the McCallum case relate to the question of the similar yet disparate natures of politics and diplomacy?

John McCallum: academic, economist, and former liberal member of the Canadian parliament. His resume doesn’t seem to lack for knowledge. His occupations speak of a great deal of study and understanding of Canada. McCallum himself pointed out his own strong personal connections to China when picked for the Beijing Ambassadorial posting (Tunney 2019).

In terms of conduct, it may have seemed to McCallum that by offering reassuring words, stating that Meng Wanzhou had a strong legal case against extradition, he was offering a warm and trustworthy Canadian voice in tense times for his Chinese counterparts. Offering this information publicly to Chinese media may have appeared to be a worthy effort at communication on his part. Indeed, it has been argued, in an opinion piece by The Globe and Mail, that the dismissal of McCallum was a mistake. Lynette Ong writes, “For diplomacy to work, our ambassador to China needs to be someone the government trusts; Mr. McCallum was that someone.”

However, the fact that McCallum had voiced opinions in direct contravention of Canada’s official position put him at odds with his duty to represent. McCallum’s subsequent suggestions that it would be good for the extradition request to be dropped despite being forced to rescind previous comments showed both a lack of good conduct and that he wasn’t representing the Canadian positions. When it comes to highly tense international situations such as the current state of Chinese-Canadian relations, in politics it may be rewarding and beneficial to speak as an individual to reassure constituents. However, this is diplomacy. Good representation is a vital pillar for good diplomacy. An ambassador directly contradicting official Canadian positions negatively affects the effective representation of those positions, as well as the legitimacy of the ambassador.

Close relationships are often considered nepotism in the West due to the high risk of undue influence. According to Abigail Grace, writer at Foreign Policy, “Chinese interference is played with the long game in mind. Their actions are highly targeted, diffuse, and scoped to sway individual Americans who the Chinese perceive have sufficient influence to shape U.S. policy.” The risk of influence applies to Canadian Ambassadors as well.

An experienced politician, John McCallum brought benefits to the ambassadorship: a close relationship with the Prime Minister, for example. Strong clout can go far in the Chinese political system, which is based so integrally on relationships, offering more expansive influence for McCallum as an individual. In this regard, McCallum had a solid background for a career in international politics. However, he may have forgotten that as a high ranking diplomat, and no longer a politician, he was not setting policy. He was meant to be representing it.

Samuel Elsing is a student of the Asia-Pacific, with strong interests in culture, politics, and diplomacy. He holds a Bachelor of Asian Studies and Commerce from the Australian National University.