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Consular Affairs and Diplomacy
Reviewed by June Kunsman
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Jan Melissen and Ana Mar Fernandez, (Eds.) Consular Affairs and Diplomacy, Leyden, Netherlands: Brill/Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2011, ISBN 978-90-04-18876-1, 334 pp. $172.00

Consular Affairs and Diplomacy, the 7th in a Diplomatic Studies series of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, gathers a series of papers on the history, roles and challenges of “the consular institute” (or, more comfortably from an American perspective, “the consular function”). Arranged in three parts, the book opens with Themes in Contemporary Consular Affairs, moves to Part II with three articles discussing American, Russian, and Chinese perspectives and approaches to the challenges including several of those raised in Part I. Historical reviews of the consular institution including the evolution of the Spanish, Dutch, and French consular services make up Part III. While the papers range across submissions from nine countries, each does, in its course, address two central shared interests. First, when and how has the consular function been integrated into the larger diplomatic corps in various foreign services? Second, what roles have consular officers played in foreign affairs throughout their history and what roles are theirs today? The emphasis is on citizen services. Though the texts do address visa adjudication issues, that topic is not the central focus but is worthy of a text of its own that includes analysis of the fraud prevention, intelligence sharing and national security challenges in an interagency and international context in the world after 9/11.

Despite a few neologisms, the articles manage to avoid jargon, minimize use of acronyms and, in a text of over 300 pages dealing with the structures of various government foreign affairs agencies, burden the reader with only one wiring diagram. As with any collection of papers from multiple sources, no single voice or style directs the text. Several of the articles need serious editing to eliminate redundancies and ease the eye-glaze burden on the reader, particularly the polemical article on honorary consuls. In addition, the organization of the three sections appears more random than focused on a logical progression.

The various articles describing the creation and evolution of consular functions and titles through reviews of the Spanish, Dutch and French services that make up Part III provide the context for the articles on current challenges in the delivery of consular services. Those challenges are remarkably similar across the American, Russian and Chinese services discussed in Part II. It is the discussion of the structural questions of how to deliver services to European Union citizens in Part I that address an issue that has bedeviled consular officers worldwide. Isn’t there some means of structuring some portions of our citizen services work to share resources with partner foreign services, particularly to organize to respond more effectively in crises? Where and how much sovereignty can we yield and how much will our citizens permit us to yield to provide services?

The constant in consular affairs of all the states in these papers was and remains the protection of the nation’s citizens. Originally citizens abroad were largely communities of traders with the consular officers providing notarial, juridical and commercial development services. During the twentieth century, commercial officers generally took over trade development. But consular officers did not lack for work as more tourists traveled abroad and more citizens in more diverse communities resided abroad. In that same timeframe, consular officers in most foreign services transitioned from being a separate consular service to becoming members of the diplomatic corps. The diplomatic corps discovered that crises requiring consular services demanded the attention of the entire diplomatic staff of a mission abroad. Even without commercial services, without responsibility for shipping and seamen and with the termination of extraterritorial courts worldwide, the demand for passports, emergency services and, above all, visas has exploded. Papers by EU, Russian and Chinese writers chronicle similar challenges. Donna Hamilton, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, describes how information technology and centralized domestic pre-processing have been harnessed to respond to ever-rising volume and expectations

In a more connected and “global” world, new requirements, expectations, multilateral treaties, and bilateral agreements change the landscape in which diplomatic officers work to provide consular services. Dual or multiple nationalities, international adoption, international child custody disputes, instant media coverage and blogging, and the political implications of travel warnings mean that many more parties than the citizen and the consular officer are engaged with the host country in addressing consular issues. The twin demands of rising public expectations and the twenty-four hour media cycle are nowhere more visible and instructive of the challenge of twenty-first century consular affairs than in the areas of international adoptions and child custody cases. Consular officers face demands of multiple family members, the media, and a wired public to intervene with host governments and set aside any delay generated by international agreements or legal requirements intended to protect children and families. Emotion, enhanced by photos of very cute children, keeps the media attentive and quick to judge negotiation as failure if it does not produce instant results.

For readers who are strangers to consular affairs, these papers capture the extent of the demanding, complex nature of consular work that is built on a combination of human need and legal constraints. For experienced consular officers, the book is an opportunity to trace and recognize themselves in the common threads of history and current challenges across multiple foreign services.bluestar


During her 30 plus years in the United States Foreign Service, June Kunsman served abroad five times as a consular officer and three times in the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington. Her most recent assignments were Director of the Office of Intelligence Coordination in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (2003-2006), Managing Director of the Office of Visa Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs (2006-2009) and Director of the Office of Employee Relations in the Bureau of Human Resources (2009-2010).

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