How much is Your Foreign Ministry Worth? A Latin American Comparison

September 3, 2020
Brazil’s foreign ministry, aka Itamaraty, is often acclaimed as one of the world’s strongest. In contrast, Mexican diplomats and scholars routinely complain that their country’s foreign ministry is understaffed and underresourced. Yet Brazil’s foreign prestige had started to diminish, and Itamaraty’s diplomatic grip to erode, even before Jair Bolsonaro took the country’s wheel. The third largest Latin American power, Argentina, boasts no wheel – there is no such thing in a rollercoaster. From diplomatic pariah to international praise and back, Argentina’s foreign ministry displays chronic political instability. These contrasting developments are puzzling: is the stabilizing presence of a powerful foreign ministry increasingly irrelevant in current times? We cannot know: the literature lacks an instrument for measuring the policy-making capacity of the office – there is not even consensus on the concept’s definition. The goal of our article is to provide one and apply it to Latin America.
Policy-making capacity depends on the degree to which an agency can achieve its goals with the least intromission, or maximum cooperation, from other agencies. We define the policy-making capacity of a foreign ministry as the ability to advance its own preferences on other state bureaucracies and to implement such preferences while retaining internal and external legitimacy.
Using the concept of family resemblance, we pose that a foreign ministry with high policy-making capacity is constituted by three features: the professionalization of the diplomatic corps, ample institutional attributions, and extensive presidential delegation. The first feature is a necessary condition, the second and third features are substitutable: a foreign ministry can have its policy-making capacity heightened either by institutional attributions or by extensive presidential delegation.
We have explicitly developed a flexible concept – one that acknowledges that different roads may lead to high policy-making capacity – so as to accommodate the rich and complex historical experience of Latin American countries in building their diplomatic corps. However, a foreign ministry can only have such a capacity if its staff is thoroughly professionalized. This is the indispensable core of our concept, as shown in the accompanying diagram. The shaded area is where a foreign ministry with high policy-making capacity can be found. Once a country professionalizes its diplomatic corps, different pathways can lead to further strengthening the foreign ministry. One is highly political and, therefore, easily revocable: presidential delegation. The other is by granting the foreign ministry institutional attributions, which tend to be stickier than presidential delegation. Many permutations between varying degrees of delegation and attributions are possible. It is by combining the indispensable core and these permutations that we map the evolution of three foreign ministries’ policy-making capacity over a large stretch of time (70 years).
To empirically validate our concept, we measure its three dimensions in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico between 1946 and 2015 using data on diplomats’ recruitment and career paths, influence of diplomatic schools and doctrines, appointment patterns of foreign ministers, and relevance of presidential diplomacy, with an emphasis on travels abroad.
Our findings show that nowadays Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico enjoy a high level of professionalization of their diplomatic corps. This means that the necessary condition for a foreign ministry to display high policy-making capacity is met in all three countries (Argentina began the professionalization of its diplomatic corps in 1963; Brazil in 1946; and Mexico in 1967). Differences remain as regards the two substitutable dimensions: institutional attributions and presidential delegation. The former has been traditionally minimal in Argentina and Mexico and is declining in Brazil, whereas the latter has been highly irregular in Argentina, sporadic in Mexico and, again, declining in Brazil. Institutional attributions have suffered a rollback given the growing intervention – and professionalization – of other state agencies, mainly defense or economy ministries (depending on the country). This is not an uncommon pattern: the relative decline of the State Department vis-à-vis the National Security Council staff and White House advisers was documented decades ago. Furthermore, recent research showed an impressive decline of the US Department of State vis-à-vis the Pentagon, especially under President George W. Bush. Our article is the first attempt to identify, measure, and compare similar processes in Latin America.
Over time, presidential delegation has receded as stronger presidents, whether their strength derived from regime change, ideological turns or personal character, withdrew competencies their predecessors had handed over to foreign ministers or professional diplomats. The blossoming of presidential diplomacy over the past three decades has eventually taken its toll on professional diplomacy and its bedrock, the foreign ministry.
Larr article can be found here
Paper's citation: Amorim Neto, O., & Malamud, A. (2019). The Policy-Making Capacity of Foreign Ministries in Presidential Regimes: A Study of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, 1946–2015. Latin American Research Review, 54(4), 812–834. DOI:

About Author(s)

Amorim_LARR's picture
Octavio Amorim Neto
(PhD University of California at San Diego, 1998) is full professor at the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration (EBAPE) of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Rio de Janeiro. His research interests are comparative political institutions, foreign policy-making, civil-military relations and defense policy, and Latin American politics.
Malamud_LARR's picture
Andrés Malamud
(PhD European University Institute, 2003) is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. His research interests focus on regional integration, foreign policy, political institutions, Latin American politics and EU studies.