Who Sets the Agenda? Diplomatic Capital and Small State Influence in the United Nations

How do states seek to influence IOs’ agendas, and which states succeed in these efforts? I challenge many prevailing theories about who influences IOs’ agendas—for example, the assumption that powerful states exert agenda control, or that individuals are unimportant relative to structural, state-level features. In my dissertation, I examine why some small states—like Ireland, Costa Rica, and Liechtenstein—are effective at shaping the United Nations (UN) agenda, even in the face of powerful states’ opposition.

I argue that while material power is important in explaining some of IO politics, individual diplomats play a crucial role as well. States can influence the early stages of policymaking—when agendas are set and coalitions are built—with diplomatic capital, a form of social power developed through skilled representation. Diplomatic capital can be actively pursued, or can be an unintended consequence of resource constraints on diplomatic rotation. Just as individual effectiveness matters in domestic legislatures, diplomat effectiveness matters in IOs. By cultivating diplomatic capital, small states can be more influential than their size would suggest. I proposed three mechanisms by which diplomatic experience translates to capital: developing social networks, gaining substantive expertise over issues, and attaining mastery over institutional rules.

I contend that by focusing on the late stages of policymaking—particularly voting on final resolutions—previous studies have overestimated the influence of powerful states. Because it is easier to monitor state behavior in the later stages of the policymaking process, larger states can more readily use their economic or military power to influence these activities. However, in the early stages of policymaking where visibility tends to be lower, it is harder to leverage economic and military resources. These insights about the role of diplomacy, power, and agenda control challenge our understanding of the relative importance of power and diplomacy in IOs, and the extent to which small states influence international politics. Per my theory, I expect that small states should have greater opportunity to influence the UN agenda in the early stages of policymaking because these contexts are lower-visibility, and thus it is more difficult for large states to deploy leverage economic and military resources to obtain their preferred outcomes.

To test these expectations, employ a multi-method approach. Drawing on insights from interviews with diplomats from nearly 50 different states’ missions to the UN, I illustrate these different mechanisms by which diplomatic capital results in influence, and suggest that social networks are the principle means by which experience at the UN translates into a diplomat’s ability to be influential. I create an original set of diplomatic tenure for all UN member states from 1946-2018, constructing a database of 21,159 ambassador and deputy entries and show that small states have longer average tenures than large states. I assemble an original dataset of 1,476 proposed General Assembly agenda items from 1946-2018 and 8,899 side meetings held between 2003-2017 and illustrate that experienced diplomats are more effective at engaging in early-stage legislative activities. Consistent with my argument, I find that states with greater diplomatic capital—as measured by ambassador experience—are more engaged in proposing agenda items and hosting side meetings. When experienced ambassadors are replaced with novices, states become less engaged in agenda-setting. These findings hold even after random shocks to ambassadorial tenure: ambassador deaths. I also use text analysis to compare the issues raised in these early-stage activities to those raised in late-stage activities, and compare the issues addressed in legislative activities to the foreign policy priorities that states raise in their speeches made at the UN General Assembly. I show that the topics addressed via these activities are substantively different and late-stage activities are substantively different, and that issues raised through early-stage activities better reflect the expressed policy priorities of small states.

I demonstrate that early-stage legislative activities are an important channel for small-state policy influence in IOs, and that diplomatic capital allows small states to achieve influence in the early stages of IO policymaking. These insights shed light into the under-appreciated influence of small states in international politics, with implications for international policymaking as well as institutional legitimacy.