Niche Diplomacy and military envoys

May 29, 2012

by Louis Clerc

Some pictures tell a lot. This one, for example:








(picture AFP)


This pale, uniformed man in the middle is Norwegian general Robert Mood, head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The pic was taken in Douma, Syria, shortly after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded a few meters from Mood’s convoy. Aesthetics aside, and beyond the powerful visual narrative that the picture is evidently meant to convey, two things came to mind while looking at it.

First of all, Robert Mood was not sent to Syria to do a soldier’s job, but a diplomat’s one.  Military envoys and soldier-diplomats are not a new phenomenon, but as 20th century diplomacy became more technical and the demand for specialized knowledge increased, soldiers were brought in as military attachés, advisers, ad hoc envoys and the like. The UN peace-keeping missions brought a whole new dimension to this, putting the military at the heart of processes that are diplomatic in nature. Before 1945, various military missions, occupation or interposition forces also existed, their mandate bringing them far from what soldiers “traditionally” do – a good example would be the “pacifying” mission sent to Upper Silesia in 1920-1922 (Porte).  While studying diplomats, we should also remember the possible diplomatic role of soldiers, their networks and communities. In the case of the UN, peace-keeping missions have brought up a different type of military personnel, with specific contacts, networks, and perceptions of their profession.

Second, Mood’s nationality is not irrelevant to this process. Norway has a record of participation in peacekeeping, mediation efforts, and other multilateral endeavors to promote peace and stability. This “niche diplomacy” (Henrikson), based on specialization and reputation, has aimed to install Norway as a useful in-betweener, a positive neutral. From the Oslo process to the Nobel price, Norway and the Nordic Countries more generally have worked as “norm entrepreneurs” (Ingebritsen) in the international system. Through what Christopher Browning has described as a “branding process”, the Nordic Countries have emerged during the Cold War as the symbols of good, responsible international citizenship (Browning), and general Mood is the last symbol of this policy. The idea that participation in international operations is an asset for the reputation, standing, and thus international position of the country has also been on display in Finland, where Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja was quick to offer the services of Finnish blue berets for the Syrian mission. This reflex has been criticized in Nordic societies, but multilateral interventionism and internationalism are still strong threads in the fabric of Nordic diplomacy. Small countries outside Northern Europe might be interested in trying the same kind of “niche diplomacy”: could Bangladesh, for example, be the next Norway?


Alan K. Henrikson, “Niche Diplomacy in the World Public Arena: the Global ‘Corners’ of Canada and Norway”, in Jan Melissen (ed.), The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Christine Ingebritsen, “Norm Entrepreneurs: Scandinavia’s Role in World Politics”, Cooperation and Conflict, March 2002, 37: 11-23.

Rémy Porte, Haute-Silésie 1920-1922. Laboratoire des lecons oubliées de l’armée francaise et perceptions nationales, Paris, Riveneuve editions, 2009.

Christopher Browning, “Branding Nordicity: Models, Identity and the Decline of Exceptionalism”, Cooperation and Conflict, March 2007, 42: 27-51.