I would attribute the running down of diplomacy in recent years to a trio of developments related to the carry-over from the Cold War of certain habits of mind, or intellectual baggage, which have been hoisted into the globalization age from the preceding era. In a nutshell, in the face of the complex threats and challenges engendered by globalization, and the concomitant need for deep knowledge, nuanced understanding and a subtle approach, many continued to view the world in a way best described as Manichean, alarmist and militaristic.
Without getting into the full details of the argument, or assessing the important implications for recruiting, training and diplomatic practice, this must be unpacked a bit. During the Cold War, the West organized its international policy around the objective of ‘containment’, by deterring, blocking, and wherever possible, rolling back what was seen as a world-wide Communist threat. Think Harry Truman, George Keenan NSC 68 and Mutually Assured Destruction. From 1947 to 1991, the adversary was portrayed as a monolithic Red Menace – Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, North Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans… No matter. Those Commies were all the same.
For a decade after the walls came down, there were few credible threats available to be conjured, but this changed instantly post 9/11 when a very similar, open-ended impulse – and function – again found expression. The Global War on Terror filled the ideological void once occupied by the Cold War. Al Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah – no matter. All Islamic extremists were alike. Substitute terrorism for communism, recycle a familiar ideological construct, et voila – away they went. Again. No secretive conspiracy here, just consensus among members of certain influential groups who identified an opportunity to advance their agenda.
The principal elements of this Cold War carry-over include:
• the adoption of a binary world view, which reduces almost infinite complexity to a matter of “us versus them; you are with us, or with the terrorists”;
• the use of fear to galvanize domestic support by characterizing the threat as urgent and universal “they are not only out there, everywhere, but they are among us and could strike anywhere, anytime. Red alert. “, and;
• a preference for armed force in responding to perceived threats, and the favouring of defence over diplomacy or development in what might be reasonably described as the militarization of international policy.
Taken together, these elements constitute a persistent, and troublingly resilient line, one endlessly hyped in the media and deeply lodged in the public mind.
What is wrong with this picture? In my view, getting over this debilitating mindset, even more so than taking full account of science and technology as a driver of international policy and transforming diplomacy, will be the sine qua non for the success of any diplomatic renaissance. Diplomats can become entrepreneurial brokers and network nodes, building relationships and supporting civil society actors in efforts to advance democratic development, good governance and the management of political and social plurality. But this won’t be possible unless the model, the context and the motives are changed. It is not yet clear that all of these pre-conditions are in place.
In particular, and in response to the burden of left luggage:
The world is not black and white but a many layered and multi-stranded swirl of greys.
Fear motivates the construction of gated communities within a national security state; hope is a far superior starting point for policy formulation.
Compulsion has its place in international relations, but attraction is more widely applicable, generally more effective and much less costly.
The fact of this psychological transfer of Cold War perceptions into the globalization age has meant not only that the peace dividend remains unpaid, but that for the past two decades the scope for applying non-violent approaches, such as diplomacy, to the resolution of international differences has been very limited. Iraq and Afghanistan are the obvious examples, but there are many more ranging from Darfur and the Democratic Congo to Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan/Kashmir.
The planet has paid a high price for this hiatus. Notwithstanding that diplomacy, often in combination with development, offers the key to sustainable security, both have in recent years been in large part displaced by defence. By any measure – resource allocation, domestic political influence, even academic interest – diplomacy, the foreign ministry and the priority of equitable, sustainable and human-centred development have been on the back burner. Not so the legions, although an over-reliance on the state’s instruments of violence has imposed a whole host of other costs.
The economic and market meltdowns have spurred a realization of the need for innovative thinking in coping with the uncertainties of globalization. They have also given rise to a sense that some of the tools so hurriedly stashed when the train left the Cold War station may be worth dusting off, public diplomacy (PD) perhaps foremost among them. Not only are the large scale international scientific, educational, and cultural exchanges of days gone by now sorely missed, but AIDs cannot be detained; the climate cannot be garrisoned; the environment cannot be extraordinarily rendered; hunger cannot be bombed out of existence.
For these reasons and more, the ball is finally coming back, at long last, to practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession. By linking development and security through the medium of international policy, diplomacy, and especially public diplomacy, is poised again to occupy a place front and centre in international relations. Diplomats are advantageously placed to provide the essential strategic advice required by governments to integrate values, policies and interests right across the international policy spectrum. Neither members of the military, nor aid workers, NGO reps nor journalists can provide the sorts of supple intelligence required. They lack the tools of engagement, the cross-cultural skill set, and the capacity to generate the detailed, place-specific knowledge which might permit them to substitute in this critical role.