New leader, Diplomatic Studies Programme

Meet Dr Yolanda Kemp Spies, who joins the Department as the new leader of our Diplomatic Studies Programme (DSP).

You are the first non-British and the first of its alumni to take on the directorship of the Diplomatic Studies Programme, in the 52 years of its existence. How significant is this?

Very! The DSP has always drawn together diplomatic practitioners from around the world, and it befits this tradition that its directorship should have a global profile. I bring to the DSP my large international contact network and 35 years of experience in practicing, researching and teaching diplomacy in various geopolitical regions.

The fact that I am an alumna means that the Programme has ‘grown its own timber’, a useful background because of my institutional memory. And, of course, I am personally invested in the reputation of the DSP!

You were a South African diplomat for many years before you joined academia. How does your experience of the Global South shape your view of world diplomacy?

My own identity is layered and complex. As a South African diplomat, I had to represent a society with deep historical divisions and scars. At the same time, I had the privilege to represent a youthful, newly democratised ‘world in one country’ (as South Africa is fondly known). 

Hailing from Africa – the most colonised and marginalised of continents in the modern era – my empathy with the developing world is visceral. But I do not over-emphasise the global South in my diplomatic and academic approaches; I merely insist on an inclusive, broader perspective. It is impossible to conduct diplomacy and to solve global problems without that wider context. This is one poignant lesson that the global North has learnt from the Covid pandemic!

What is your own academic specialisation?

My first degrees were in Political Science and International Relations, but it was really my sojourn in Oxford, doing the DSP in 1996/97, that instilled in me a passion for diplomatic studies. Until recently, this specialisation was surprisingly rare in academic circles.

My subsequent doctoral studies focused on the strategic education of diplomats, and this in turn led to my management and design of diplomatic studies courses at universities and diplomatic academies in various countries. During 2019 I published two books on diplomacy, drawing on my lived experience of the theory-praxis nexus.

In addition to ‘pure’ diplomacy my research interests include foreign policy analysis, international ethics, conflict resolution, identity politics, and structural power within international society. It is difficult to be a diplomatic studies scholar without venturing into inter-disciplinary terrain!

Do you have specific plans for the future of the Diplomatic Studies Programme?

I do, but I also want to maintain the unique profile of the DSP. More than five decades ago, what was then called the Foreign Service Programme set out as a global trendsetter in the realm of diplomatic studies. Since then, diplomacy has become a growth area in terms of research and tuition, and postgraduate programmes in diplomatic studies have proliferated world-wide. In the midst of this competition, I want to ensure that we continue with the best of the DSP traditions.

Chief among this is the esprit de corps that develops among its multinational participants as they take a year-long sabbatical to immerse themselves in reflection on the institution of diplomacy. The DSP has always offered special benefits, including the international study tours, practical skills workshops and interaction with a line-up of expert guest speakers. The institutional environment, needless to say, is unparalleled: we are part and parcel of the University of Oxford and its hive of world-class scholarship.

What I would like to diversify are our approaches to teaching, assessment and research. The pandemic has forced many institutions to adopt new pedagogic methodology, and diplomatic studies lends itself wonderfully to a wider, innovative basket of instruments. Modularisation of course content is another goal, so as to give our students more choice in the subjects they study. The agenda of contemporary diplomacy demands elements of specialisation, and we could support that without losing the essential ‘generalist’ scaffolding of a diplomatic education.

My emphasis will also be (as it always is!) on diversity. Our student profile has always been wonderfully diverse, but the same inclusive approach is called for in the presentation and content of our curriculum. A Eurocentric approach is intellectually stifling and anathema to the very idea of diplomacy, which implies a continuous bridging endeavour.

Another imperative for diversification is that an increasing number of students who enrol for graduate diplomatic studies are not formal diplomats (i.e representatives of sovereign states), nor do they aspire to that role. They can, however, be de facto diplomats in their efforts towards conflict resolution and institution-building within international society. We have to embrace that diversity in our recruitment and curriculum content.

Finally, I am determined that the research output of our students should assume a higher profile, and feed into the work of global peers. The DSP’s research component was traditionally less emphasised, given the Programme’s vocational offering, but we can proudly showcase the contributions of our students to the body of literature in diplomatic studies. This is especially important for those DSP participants who aspire, as many of them do, to doctoral studies or other research ventures.

Published 10 February 2022