Global Ethics Corner: Diplomats and Commercial Sales

January 7, 2011

Should diplomats also be sales agents?

When not denigrated by populists as elitist snobbery, diplomatic careers are often seen as elevated. Diplomats navigate the fragile boundaries separating the interests of states. They need to be sophisticated and subtle as negotiators, cultural interpreters, political pundits, or economic forecasters.

We think of diplomatic issues as nuclear weapons in Korea, tensions with European allies, or Chinese currency manipulation.

Yet the WikiLeaks cables indicate that "To a greater degree than previously known, diplomats are a big part of the sales force...." Specifically, the cables show American diplomats aggressively promoting the sale of Boeing aircraft against its rival Airbus. "The cables describe letters from presidents, state visits as bargaining chips...."

In fact, foreign diplomats, and to a lesser extent Americans, have long been active barkers of national products. Colonial empires were built around national trading companies. British and French leaders sell products from military jets to Olympic venues without shame.

Perhaps America's long isolation from European diplomacy by great oceans or its vast domestic market somewhat insulated America's diplomats from commercial huckstering. Nevertheless, seeing diplomats as sales agents may tarnish their role, abilities, and effectiveness. This used car impression clashes with images of war and peace negotiations.

What do you think? Is diplomacy diminished or conflicts harder to resolve if diplomats are aggressive commercial partisans? Or, are diplomats, acting as sales agents and promoting products, a crucial part of 21st century international affairs?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Eric Lipton, Nicola Clark, and Andrew W. Lehren, "Hidden Hand of Diplomats in Jet Deals," The New York Times, January 3, 2011.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

U.S. Department of State

U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Cherie Cullen/ U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Jumanji Solar
Dirk-Jan Kraan
Clyde Robinson
Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom
Tomasz Dunn
Garry Knight
Ionut Cojocaru
U.S. Department of State
Ken Harper


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