How many diplomats does an emerging power need?



One important but usually neglected factor when analyzing foreign policy is the size of a country's foreign service. Smart strategies developed at the Foreign Ministry at home can fail to have the desired impact because there are not enough foreign service officers to implement the new policy. Complex bilateral negotiations can be negatively affected if one side's negotiators have not been briefed properly due to a lack of diplomatic staff and on-the-ground knowledge on the domestic constraints the other side is facing. Finally, maintaining an understaffed embassy can send a negative signal to the host country, in some cases causing more damage than opening no embassy at all.

As emerging powers seek to project more influence, their low number of diplomats pose severe limitations on their capacity to operationalize new policies. One comparison says it all: There are more U.S. diplomats posted in New Delhi than there are Indian diplomats in the entire world (outside of India). This means, in essence, that the United States has more human capital to develop its policy towards India than India has to design and implement its foreign policy towards the rest of the word.

In a recent op-ed in the Times of India, Kanti Bajpai, an Indian international relations professor, decried the situation and joked that with 600 diplomats, India had as many diplomats as "titans such as Belgium and the Netherlands". If the Indian foreign ministry continues to grow at the current pace, it will have 1200 dipomats by 2040 - yet by this time, China will have 10,000 diplomats to represent it around the world. The number of U.S. diplomats already far exceeds 10,000 today.

This extreme shortage is likely to negatively affect Indian foreign policy on many levels - ranging from public diplomacy to a difficulty to engage with local stakeholders in the host country. One of the most common phrases one hears from India scholars visiting Delhi is that they were unable to "meet anyone at the Indian Foreign Ministry."

Yet interestingly enough, Bajpai does not spell out how many diplomats India should aspire to have. What is the adequate number of diplomats for a rising power like India, which is slowly beginning to engage in regions it traditionally had little interest in?

While China's foreign service is too large to serve as a model, it is interesting to note that the number of Brazil's foreign service is twice as large as India's. Still, many Brazilian missions across the world are so small - particularly in Africa - that one wonders how they can function properly. There are fewer than 10 Brazilian diplomats in Delhi, and fewer than 20 in Beijing - hardly sufficient considering that China is Brazil's most important trading partner since 2009. The problem in Brazil, however, may not be the total number of diplomats, but rather the way they are distributed all over the world - for example, several European cities still have more diplomats than Asian capitals, indicating that Itamaraty has not yet fully adapted to the momentous shift of global power away from Europe and towards Asia.

Yet Bajpai writes that the lack of quantity is not the only problem in India. Quality is decreasing as well. Arguing that the diplomatic service was no longer an attractive option for those  who want to change India, he calls for innovative hiring methods: "We should also recruit horizontally from other bureaucracies including the armed services and from business, academia, think tanks and the media."

In this regard, Brazil offers an interesting contrast, as diplomat's social status still exceeds those of many other professions, and few worry about the quality of applicants - even though the formerly insular Foreign Ministry has lost some of its glamour and mystique as today diplomats increasingly need to work together with other ministries. While the private sector already frequently poaches promising Brazilian diplomats with international experience and language skills, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry has so far declined to reciprocate and adopt Bajpai's advice.

Read also:

The Case for IMF Quota Reform (Council on Foreign Relations)

Prof. Nuno Monteiro: “The U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff: Is there a way out?”

BRICS: Visionary policy makers, hesitant academics?

Photo credit: Xenia Antunes (Creative Commons)

Comments 010

  • Kai Michael Kenkel

    October 14, 2012 10:18 pm · Reply

    Excellent once again, Oliver! Your writing takes the place of 1000 diplomats for the emerging powers’ bloc, but it may take even more to convince Europe of a “momentous” shift in power towards Asia!

  • Martin Nagele

    October 30, 2012 7:58 am · Reply

    Very interesting article. Would be great to see more of the this on the C and R in brics, eg how many diplomats do China and Russia currently employ, how are they adapting to the North-South shift etc.

  • Rafael Prince

    October 30, 2012 4:54 pm · Reply

    According to Shashi Tharoor, India has almost 900 diplomats. Although 50% higher than your figure, it is indeed a very low number. Anyway, here is the link to his article on the same topic: link to

  • Jacob

    November 9, 2012 10:46 am · Reply

    Indeed interesting.. Where do you get your data from? It would be an interesting anylisis to make worldwide.. The number of diplomats versus the number of people in a country.

  • Martin Nagele

    January 25, 2013 11:32 am · Reply

    link to

  • Fabio

    May 2, 2013 7:57 pm · Reply

    The statement that Itamaraty has “twice as many in Rome as in Beijing” is highly misleading. It implies that the Brazilian Embassy to Italy has more diplomats than the Brazilian Embassy to China. It has not (13 x 18, actually). You must be adding the Embassy, the Consulate, the Embassy to the Vatican and the delegation to the Food and Agriculture Organization – that will total about 40 people. So yes, that’s more people “in” Rome then in Beijing, but not more people representing Brazil to Italy than to China.

    Besides, there is no way there are 600 US diplomats at the Embassy in Delhi. That must be the total staff, diplomats or other, so the direct comparison with India’s foreign service is not valid. Still an impressive number.

  • Oliver Stuenkel

    May 2, 2013 8:21 pm · Reply

    Fabio, thank you very much for your excellent comments.

    You are right in that today, the number of Brazilian diplomats at the embassy in Rome is no longer higher than at the embassy in Beijing. The total number of Brazilian diplomats there may be higher due to several UN offices there. I have altered the text accordingly.

    Regarding the number of US diplomats in the United States: What I meant to say is that there are more US diplomats in Delhi than Indian diplomats stationed outside of India – this is fewer than 600, since a lot of Indian diplomats are based in Delhi. The person who originally gave me this information was an Indian diplomat, but I will seek to verify this information and correct it if proven wrong. India has made some serious attempts to increase its diplomatic staff recently.

  • Kishan S Rana

    May 30, 2013 8:01 am · Reply

    Delighted that you address this issue, Prof. Stuenkel.

    As you know, the devil is always in the detail, and this makes direct comparison between MFAs a little complex.

    1. In India, the IFS A Branch (the executive level, appointed through the Union Public Services Commission) currently stands at 745; this is an improvement over around 630 which was our number when in 2007 we announced that the number is to be doubled. We have stepped up annual intake from around 20 to now around 35 per year. Alas, my former colleagues in the MEA do not have appetite for the Brazilian method of heroic action with massive step up in annual intake, say to 100 per year. In 5 years that would solve our problem, of course leaving a legacy of how to manage such a large bolus in the system.

    2. Those in Grade I of IFS B Branch hold ranks of first and second secretary, and currently number about 210. Thus the effective diplomat-level rank officials are about 950. Despite this, MEA is grossly understaffed. This problem is at the base of most of our current problems.

    3. Comparison with China needs slight adjustment, because Waijiaobu has the world’s only ‘classless’ service — everyone joins as a staff member, and moves to ‘attaché’ rank after 4 or 1 year (depending on whether the individual has bachelor or masters qualifications). Japan, in contrast has 3 classes, with an ‘expert’ level in between the executive and staff categories (details in my book ‘Asian Diplomacy’, 2007).

    4. China’s diplomatic service numbers around 7500 — the figure is not officially published; my information comes from informal discussion.

    5. Comparing MFAs on a diplomat-to-population comparison would show India in the weakest position — with well under 1 diplomat per one million people.

    6. This links with the issue of ‘diplomatic capacity’, which I address in a book on embassies that is close to completion, to be published by Palgrave-Macmillian.

  • Mateus

    February 1, 2014 5:44 pm · Reply

    “few worry about the quality of applicants”.

    Are you nuts? Itamaraty “concurso” is the most competitive in Brazil, and one of the most competitive in the world. What to worry after a competition like this? Can a mediocre person succeed in a “concurso” with 8.000 aplicants for 24 jobs?

    • Paulo

      February 2, 2014 12:54 pm · Reply

      When he said “few worry about the quality”, he is saying that the quality is high, therefore people are not worried.


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