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

Why are some small states—like Ireland, Costa Rica, and Liechtenstein—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 international organization (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, which limit 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 argue that by focusing on the late stages of policymaking—particularly voting on final resolutions—previous studies have overestimated the influence of powerful states. However, in the early stages of policymaking, it is harder to leverage economic and military resources because in these less public contexts, target state compliance cannot be as readily monitored. 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.

To test these claims, I assemble a dataset of 1,476 proposed United Nations General Assembly agenda items, and 8,899 side meetings held between 2003-2017, and the tenure of all states’ ambassadors from 1946-2019. I also conduct interviews with diplomats from nearly 50 states. Consistent with my argument, I find that states with greater diplomatic capital—measured by ambassador experience—are more successful at agenda-setting and coalition-building, even after accounting for material power. These results hold even after random shocks to ambassadorial tenure: ambassador deaths. I also use text analysis to show that the issues raised in early- and late-stage activities are qualitatively different, and that issues raised through early-stage activities better reflect the expressed policy priorities of small states, as measured in their official speeches. Overall, I demonstrate that by focusing on late-stage policymaking, previous work has overlooked important channels by which small states accomplish their foreign policy goals in IOs.

My book manuscript will expand this project to also test the mechanisms of diplomatic capital and its generalizability in other institutional settings, for example, in the European Union.