Who Sets the Agenda? Diplomatic Capital, Small States, and Legislative Activities in the United Nations

Who decides what international organizations (IOs) work on, and how? I argue that by focusing on activities that take place in the later stages of the policymaking process outcomes, previous studies have overestimated the influence of powerful states on institutional agendas. While large states may be able to deploy material power to dominate in late-stage strategies where target states’ behaviors are relatively easy to monitor, small and medium states have an opportunity able to do better in early-stage strategies, when it is more difficult for powerful states to monitor their behavior. These early-stage legislative activities in fact make up the bulk of diplomatic work in IOs. In this early-stage space, small states can achieve success by investing in their diplomatic representation. Small states, which rely on international institutions as their principal means of accomplishing foreign policy goals, have a stronger incentive than large states to invest in this process. By developing what I call diplomatic capital, small states can therefore ‘punch above their weight’ in influencing the policies of IOs.

I argue and show that small states are indeed more engaged in early-stage legislative activities. I develop a new dataset of 1,476 proposed General Assembly agenda items from 1946-2018 and 8,899 side meetings held between 2003-2017 and find that small states are proportionally more active, and that the policies raised through these channels are more reflective of small state priorities, while the issues raised through late-stage activities are more likely to reflect the policy priorities of large states. I also show that diplomatic capital is acquired through experience, as ambassadors build social networks and learn the rules of the game. I demonstrate this by creating an original dataset on the tenure of their ambassadors and deputies from 1946-2019, gathering evidence from interviews with representatives of nearly 50 different states’ missions to the UN, and conducting a laboratory experiment simulating a diplomatic negotiation.