Niehaus Workshop Examines the Role of Diplomats and Bureaucrats in International Relations

June 9, 2023

Much of the work of interstate relations is ultimately carried out by bureaucrats. Individual officers within diplomatic, military, and intelligence bureaucracies, trade and investment agencies, and international organizations play vital roles in global commerce, cooperation, and governance. Yet, despite their ubiquity in the conduct of international politics, foreign policy bureaucrats have only recently become a major focus of international relations scholarship.  A recent two-day workshop organized by Niehaus Fellows Matt Malis and Calvin Thrall hosted scholars for a two-day conference on using innovative methods and new data to study diplomats and other foreign policy bureaucrats, facilitate discussion and collaboration, catalyze the coherence of an emerging field of study and discuss new research questions: for example, how and when are foreign policy bureaucrats able to exert independent influence over political outcomes? What pathologies—perhaps generated by the incentive for career advancement—exist within these bureaucracies, and what are their consequences? How does the institutional design of foreign policy bureaucracies influence a state’s foreign relations?

The papers presented focused on individual agents operating at different levels of the foreign policy process: from top-level advisors (Chen; Schub et al.; Spokojny) and heads of international organizations (Steinberg & McDowell), to ambassadors (Arias; Goldfien; Jost & Min; Slaski; Suong) and other mid-level officials (Canfil; Carcelli; Gibson; Gray; Thrall & Malis), to street-level bureaucrats (Lindsey; Thorvaldsdottir). 

Common themes across the papers included: conceptualizing and quantifying individual influence in the foreign policy process (Schub et al.; Spokojny; Suong); investigating the mechanisms of diplomatic communication (Ahmed; Arias; Gibson); studying the implications of representation and diversity in the foreign policy bureaucracy (Steinberg & McDowell; Suong); and understanding how organizational interests shape individual preferences (Canfil; Carcelli; Jost & Min; Lindsey; Thrall & Malis). 

Many papers presented analyses of novel data from archival and firsthand sources: transcripts from presidential advisory meetings (Chen; Schub et al.); diplomatic cable traffic (Jost & Min; Spokojny; Suong); State Department press guidances (Gibson); records of diplomatic gifts (Ahmed); personnel directories of foreign missions (Thrall & Malis); newly-collected biographical data on ambassadors (Goldfien; Suong); and data on visa issuance (Lindsey).

The workshop concluded with an expert roundtable featuring three distinguished scholars of diplomacy and bureaucracy in IR: Julia Gray (Associate Professor of Political Science, Penn), Brian Rathbun (Professor of IR, USC), and Elizabeth Saunders (Associate Professor, Georgetown School of Foreign Service). Panelists spoke about their experiences as pioneers of the research agenda and offered prescriptions (and proscriptions) for the future, encouraging attendees to be open to a wide variety of research methods and to acquire a deep understanding of the processes that generate the memos and cables that we use as data. Panelists also fielded questions from the audience regarding (among other things) the concept of political agency and how we might bridge the gap between academia and the policy world. 


  • Lula Chen, Decision-making in U.S. National Security Councils: Evidence from the Ford and Nixon Administrations
  • Rob Schub, Advisory Influence in Foreign Policy Decision-Making (co-authored with Tyler Jost, Josh Kertzer, and Eric Min)
  • Justin Canfil, When Are Emerging Technologies "Compliant"? Soliciting Legal Advice in an Experimental Setting
  • Shannon Carcelli, Interpreting Dual-Use: Bureaucratic Politics in the Deployment of Nuclear Assistance
  • David Lindsey, Who Decides Who Gets In? Diplomats, Bureaucrats, and Visa Issuance
  • Sabrina Arias, COVID-19, Digital Diplomacy, and Consensus-Building in International Organizations
  • David Steinberg, Race, Representation, and the Legitimacy of International Organizations (co-authored with Daniel McDowell)
  • Mike Goldfien, Just Patronage? Familiarity and the Diplomatic Value of Non-Career Ambassadors
  • Xander Slaski, Securing trade: US commercial diplomacy with non-allies
  • Clara Suong, The Cost of Not Being Pale, Male, and Yale: Ambassadorial Attributes and Influence
  • Julia Gray, How International Organizations Survive: Bureaucratic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship
  • Svanhildur Thorvaldsdottir, State Influence on UN Multilateral Aid through Bureaucratic Ties
  • Jenna Gibson, Gobbledygook or Genuine? Diplomatic Rhetoric, Bureaucracy, and Credible Signaling in International Relations
  • Faisal Ahmed, Trump for sale: Evidence from diplomatic gifts
  • Calvin Thrall, The Bureaucratic Origins of International Law (co-authored with Matt Malis)
  • Dan Spokojny, Foreign Policy Expertise
  • Tyler Jost, Bureaucratic Protection and Foreign Policy Information Provision in China (co-authored with Eric Min)