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Political affairs: the issues

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Political sections in diplomatic missions (embassies and consulates) work on a large number of international issues. Typical portfolios political officers work on are internal political affairs, human rights, nonproliferation (of nuclear weapons), counter narcotics, and counterterrorism.

These issues are relevant in almost every country, but that doesn’t mean the work is always the same. Nonproliferation work is a much more controversial and complicated issue in Pakistan than it is in, let’s say, France.

Counter narcotics work is a high priority in many in countries in Latin America and West Africa, where the work can get pretty hands-on as diplomats are involved in the extermination of drugs and blocking traffic routes. In a country like the Netherlands, where local law enforcement has better capabilities to address the problem, counter narcotics work is more about sharing intelligence and discussing different viewpoints on drug-related policies, like how much to tolerate it; when and how to punish users; and how to deal with addiction.

Counterterrorism also looks different depending on the country. In poor and underdeveloped countries, the work can be part of basic development work: empowering young people to gain access to information, education, and jobs—in other words: addressing the “root causes” of terrorism. In more developed countries, like in Europe, it’s more focused on working together to find terrorist activity, monitor recruitment through social media, and figuring out who is behind it, and why.

So foreign policy priorities, or at least the implementation of them, are somewhat different in each country. Besides these main themes, there are countries that face more unique challenges like rebuilding after violent conflicts wars (like Afghanistan and Iraq) or natural disasters (like Haiti and Nepal). At various times, countries also go through political turmoil and change, face uprisings from minority groups, have massive refugee flows coming in, or are on the brink of economic collapse.

Political officers are trained to quickly become subject-matter experts in whatever topic they’re working in the country they’re posted. Unfortunately, their work is sometimes misunderstood. Diplomats’ immersion in other countries’ cultures and policy environment often makes them understanding of why these countries behave a certain way, even if that behavior runs counter to their own policy aims and national interests. It’s their job to understand, but some people back home—often skeptics of international cooperation—mistake it for sympathizing.

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