Lashings of Insight – Part II

One reason for the ISA’s enduring popularity is the sheer variety of presentations on offer. Anyone weary at the prospect of attending yet another panel on, say, constructivist critiques of neo-colonialism, or a reconsideration of the English School perspective on regional integration, can simply browse the telephone book-like ISA program and almost certainly find something of interest.

I am drawn typically to sessions offered by the Association’s Diplomatic Studies and International Communications sections. But I am attracted as well to discussions organized by other sections – intelligence, or foreign policy analysis, for example. Those panels which touch on the core issues of issues of guerrilla diplomacy, namely security, development and globalization, are of particular interest.

Following is an eclectic and highly distilled dollop of all that, garnished with a side order of commentary acquired in conversation:

  • globalization is down, but not necessarily out as the defining historical process of our age; palatable alternative options are not on the horizon
  • public diplomacy in large part is the new diplomacy, but it will never completely displace traditional diplomacy, and could usefully be adapted for use by the representatives of developing countries in the cities of the metropolis
  • major international organizations (UN/IFIs) were designed by the USA in post-war years primarily in order to serve US interests; American dominance has waned, its interests have changed, and most institutions now require radical reform or complete re-invention
  • evidence of direct correlation between climate change and incidence of conflict is uncertain and possibly exaggerated (cf. Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars)
  • growing popularity and influence of Al Jazeera English may be more significant over time than foreign policy decisions/ actions taken by many of world’s governments
  • Russia is currently the wild card in the international system – armed, dangerous, re-assertive, but falling faster and harder than EU or US; a collapsing  Russian economy will be more significant than religion or nationalism in conditioning outcomes in the Eurasian colossus
  • India’s latent economic and military power has not yet translated into real international influence, it almost certainly will, but not anytime soon
  • al-Qaeda is now more of a brand than a centralized terrorist network, but the brand has been damaged by setbacks in Iraq, Jordan and Palestinian territories; response by brand managers is centred on internet marketing and heavily reliant upon new media
  • Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia militias in Iraq, all with deep roots in populations and territories, are likely to outlast al-Qaeda
  • number of fragile, failing and collapsed states is set again to increase, but the track record of donor countries in nation-building is mixed  to poor
  • inability of NATO members to agree on grand strategy for Afghanistan may result in participating ISAF members joining the ranks of outsiders who have tried, but inevitably failed to have their way with this “graveyard of empires.”

In all, quite a lot to chew on.

The theme for next year’s event is Theory vs. Policy: Connecting Scholars and Practitioners. While compelling enough in itself, the venue is New Orleans, a city still struggling almost five years after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina revealed so much to so many about the hollowing out of the American state.

Stay tuned.

Lashings of Insight: Tid-bits from the Brain Food Buffet (I)

Last month I spent five days at the 50th annual conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New York City.

I make a point of participating in this sprawling brain food buffet most years, and although the intensity and pace of the program can be exhausting , with 40-50 simultaneous panels, five times per day over four days, it does provide a comprehensive snapshot of academic thinking about most things international at a given point in time.

In that respect, this year’s event was perhaps especially interesting in the wake of the recent arrival of the Obama administration in the USA. The expectations that have been engendered by the heavy rotation of the “hope and change” agenda, both during the long campaign and after, are enormous. Will the new government be able to deliver as advertised? Or will expectations have to be managed and downsized?

With these, and many other issues in mind, I attended many sessions on global order and US foreign policy. Following are some of my summary observations. Processed, condensed, and unattributed, they are intended less as a record of the proceedings than as points for further discussion and debate:

  • US foreign policy will be both framed, and constrained by economic crisis, the depth and duration of which remain unclear, but menacing
  • Obama’s powerful message of hope and change is very different in tone from that of his predecessor, but could lead to an “expectations gap” which will be tough to bridge
  • choice of advisors at upper and mid levels was characterized by one speaker as “neo-con lite”; main international policy directions are more likely to be representative of continuity than change (eg. despatch of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, and message about international policy priorities which that conveys)
  • commitment to Global War on Terror is likely to persist, even if the taxonomy has changed; careers, budgets, institutions and industries now depend on it (GWOT is “sedimented” in Washington)
  • notwithstanding the temporary bump associated with “Obama effect”, the continued relative decline of US power and influence is inevitable
  • unipolar moment has passed, but the world seems headed towards heteropolar rather than multipolar order – US will lead militarily, but EU and BRICSAM countries will be major economic forces, with other nations powerful culturally, demographically, and environmentally
  • emergent order will take time to work out; requirement for cross-balancing at various levels may result in lower levels of state-sponsored violence, but not necessarily more stabilty than during brief period of US hegemony
  • evangelical US model (deregulation/marketization/democratization) for the world political economy has been deeply discredited; authoritarian, regulated, statist capitalism seems ascendant
  • the good news? A smaller US place in the world and concomitant need for complex balancing will necessitate a larger role for diplomacy, and possibly a smaller role for the military in the overall international policy mix
  • influence of Ambassadors is set to increase and regional military commands/commanders likely to diminish

All in all, a pretty rich harvest, and I will be providing more by way of take-aways from the ISA meeting in future posts.

Manoeuvring the Ship of State

Most diplomats work in foreign ministries, and most foreign ministries have been struggling to adapt to the challenges posed by globalization. Those challenges, which include the emergence of rival international actors ranging from celebrities, to NGOs, to other government departments – are compounded during periods of weak leadership and uncertain political interest. At such times, absent international policy demands or the requirement to produce related real-world outcomes, the employees of foreign ministries tend to fall back on the transactional, on the perfection of bureaucratic process, on entrail gazing. Endless internal reviews, re-organizations and narrow careerist calculation often substitute for policy analysis, development and implementation.

The result strikes me as something like a metaphorical equivalent to the board game “Snakes and Ladders”… or perhaps, “Vipers and Chutes”.

What to do? A few years ago, following the separation of the Canadian Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, senior officials tried to turn adversity into opportunity by launching an initiative to create a “Foreign Ministry for the Twenty-first Century”, or FAC 21. At the centre of this strategy was a significant re-definition and sharpening the of the foreign ministry’s s mandate as an interpreter of globalization, articulator of foreign policy, integrator of the international agenda, advocate of values and interests, provider of services, and steward of public resources.

The plan?

To identify and address the imperatives for institutional change by:

  • strengthening policy capacity;
  • renewing core professional skills;
  • increasing agility, reducing rigidity;
  • maximizing assets in the field;
  • connecting with wider networks; and
  • focussing on public diplomacy.

All of this struck me as completely sensible, and indeed overdue, but an election intervened, the government changed, new resources were withheld, and the attempt to build a contemporary, stand-alone foreign ministry, but one that did not contain a trade component, was among the first casualties of the subsequent re-integration of the two departments.

When I think back on this initiative, or reflect on former Secretary of State Rice’s efforts to transform the State Department, or consider the current initiative in the UK to produce an FCO which is more foreign, less office, a certain image keeps returning to my consciousness. I imagine a scene set on the bridge of a once-magnificent ocean liner, still in service but well past its prime. The boarding process is complete, and thousands of passengers are excited about their imminent departure. The captain is gazing ahead, taking note of possible navigation hazards and enjoying a majestic view from his command centre on the bridge.

The last few voyages, though, have been a bit rough and the captain is eager to get underway. He gives the order to cast off, does a final check of the instruments, nudges the wheel to port and slides the throttle forward to “all-ahead half.” He waits to hear the rumble of the mighty engines… but nothing happens. He shoves the throttle to “full.” Still nothing. “Reverse.” Nothing. He tries to correct course – but the wheel now spins as if it were being used for roulette.

The captain looks down and to his horror discovers that none of his controls are connected. Either someone else is driving, or the ship is adrift.

Interpretation?

The success of any diplomatic surge will be dependent, a least in part, upon fixing the foreign ministry.

Diplomatic Surge? Part III – The dilemma of smart power

The question of appropriate instrumentality raises an even more fundamental issue: does hard power plus soft power in fact equal smart power?

In my view, and notwithstanding popular assumptions to the contrary, the answer is: not necessarily.

The challenge associated with the promise of smart power strikes me, in fact, as crucial. While combining hard and soft power makes a certain amount of sense in principle, in practice it may not always work. Attempts at turning diplomats into counterinsurgents, soldiers into diplomats and academic anthropologists or ethnologists into “human terrain systems” interpreters in a military context can be both morally difficult and personally hazardous. As the tragic experiences of Glyn Berry, Trevor Greene, and Michael Bhatia, respectively, have demonstrated, the alchemy of smart power is highly volatile and potentially deadly. This may be attributed, among other things, to the difficulties of civil-military coordination which flow, among other reasons, from vast resource imbalances. Put another way, with the military holding most of the cards, it is difficult for the other players to remain effectively in the game.

When it comes to international political communications, known in military circles as information operations, diplomats and government aid workers can’t compete with the armed forces when it comes to budgets and bodies. An AP investigation recently disclosed that the Pentagon is spending at least $4.7 billion this year on “influence operations” and has more than 27,000 employees devoted to such activities. At the same time, the report said, the military has grown more aggressive in withholding information and hindering reporters. “The Bush administration turned the US military into a global propaganda machine while imposing tough restrictions on journalists seeking to give the public truthful reports about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”, according to Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley.

Within the broad civilian realm, I would maintain that it is diplomats, and perhaps in particular guerrilla diplomats, rather than soldiers, or aid, or NGO workers who are more likely to have the personal disposition, the language and cross-cultural skills, the knowledge of history and culture, and access to the kind of granular intelligence required for effective strategic communications. As adaptable, agile, professional political communicators, they are also more likely to have the messaging right.

Peeling back the layers, even the problems associated with an uneven playing field and disparate team pale in comparison to what may well be the elemental conundrum. Quite possibly the main challenge associated with ongoing efforts to coordinate military and civilian information operations or strategic communications stems from something even more basic than who is trying to do the communicating. Here I refer to the essential differences, and perhaps especially several of the less appreciated ones, between the nature and agency of hard and soft power. The former is associated principally with the armed forces, and the latter with diplomacy, in general, and public diplomacy, in particular. When the two power sources and international policy instruments are compared, the obstacles and constraints to effective communications collaboration become clearer. Following are some of the basic distinctions:

Definitions. Hard power is about compelling your adversary to comply with your will through the threat or use of force. Soft power is about attracting your partner to share your goals through dialogue and exchange.

Objectives. Hard power seeks to kill, capture, or defeat an enemy. Soft power seeks influence through understanding and the identification of common ground.

Techniques. Hard power relies ultimately on sanctions and flows from the barrel of a gun. Soft power is rooted in meaningful exchange and the art of persuasion.

Values. Hard power is macho, absolute, and zero sum. Soft power is supple, subtle, and win/win.

Ethos. Hard power engenders fear, anguish and suspicion. Soft power flourishes in an atmosphere of confidence, trust and respect.

These distinctions between hard and soft power can become disjunctures when placed in an institutional setting. That is, while significant enough in themselves, the disconnects are exacerbated by differences within and between the bureaucratic cultures of the military and the foreign service. An institution designed primarily for fighting might not be best suited to take the lead on talking. Hierarchy, obedience, and control are part of the DNA of military hard power. The genome of soft power, of public diplomacy, in contrast, turns on relationships, on lateral connectivity and on the construction and maintenance of collaborative networks.

Animated by the service of such antithetical ends, it is hardly surprising that full spectrum cooperation and coordination in getting from diktat to dialogue through the application of smart power has have proven so difficult. Smart power is much easier to say than it is to use.

To conclude, in the era of indivisible security which comes with the territory of global issues, it may be that some kind of combination of hard and soft power will prove effective for those states with the capacity to marshal and mix the necessary ingredients. For all others, a transformational form of public diplomacy – guerrilla diplomacy, if I may – could offer brighter prospects for a more secure and prosperous international policy future.

All that said, it remains cause for celebration – not to mention an enormous relief – to be hearing suggestions supportive of diplomacy coming at long last from high places.

Three cheers for the diplomatic surge.

Diplomatic Surge? Part II – The things we carry

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.

Diplomatic Surge? Part I – From buzz to becoming

These should be heady days for diplomats. After a long stretch languishing in relative obscurity, the willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force in the pursuit of international policy objectives has become suddenly, well, fashionable.

The arrival of the Obama administration, and especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, has unleashed a torrent of commentary on soft power, smart power, branding and public diplomacy. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – the guru of soft, and now, in the vernacular of the moment, smart power – is becoming almost a household name. Special envoys have been appointed, difficult issues broached, executive orders signed and new directions indicated. Diplomatic studies specialists, long neglected by both the media and the mainstream, and rarely if ever consulted by decision-makers and opinion-leaders, are finding themselves surprisingly popular. Even within the sometimes rarified heights of international relations scholarship, diplomacy is receiving unprecedented attention.

The short road from heresy to liturgy is getting even shorter.

Foreign ministries and diplomats everywhere will welcome the attention; they have been through a rough patch and now have their work cut out for them, doing things like assisting with broad-based development, supporting democracy and human rights, and building bridges to civil society. Moreover, practitioners have rarely been better positioned to address pressing professional issues, to burnish the tools of the trade and to engage publics abroad through dialogue and partnership. In much of the world, the image and reputation of the West in general, and the USA in particular, has huge potential on the upside.

In short, statecraft is on a roll, and the timing could scarcely be better.

For those accustomed to toiling unnoticed in the diplomatic wilderness, all of this is giving rise to something akin to an out of body experience.

Carpe diem.

What might be said of this promising trend? How might the diplomatic difficulties of the past few decades be explained? And where to now – can smart power deliver as advertised? In this calculus I see both change, and possibly a disconcerting hint of continuity.

Some observations. Firstly, the new political leadership in the USA appears to have re-discovered that diplomacy per se matters. In the face of a profusion of unresolved conflicts and unaddressed global threats and challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology, a fresh willingness is in evidence to give negotiation, compromise and meaningful exchange an overdue test drive. But the machinery and its operators have been idling on the sidelines in recent years. A major tune-up, if not a complete re-build will be necessary.

Secondly, and in that regard, the delivery of something broadly similar to the core of former Secretary Rice’s program for transformational diplomacy – representational reform, the retooling of organizational structure and bureaucratic process, and enlargement of the resource base – will be imperative. The implementation of this strategy will not in itself, however, suffice if talking is to triumph over fighting as the international policy instrument of choice. The dominant world view, too, needs a complete refit.

Thirdly, then, and perhaps most fundamentally, it seems to me that diplomacy reached this critical impasse as a result of the imposition of a particular ideological perspective which conditioned, if not determined the political and intellectual environment in which the foreign ministry and foreign service have had to operate.

Let me deal summarily with the first two points:

1. Over the long history of delivering international policy results for states, diplomats have had to manage issues such as territorial disputes, treaty and legal problems, and ideological competition. In the early 21st century, these sorts of challenges, to which might be added terrorism, migration and criminality, are still out there, but have been joined by a daunting set of S&T based issues: climate change and pandemic disease; resource scarcity and environmental collapse; weapons of mass destruction and genomics, to name a few. Most serving diplomats are not equipped, in terms of background, knowledge and experience, to handle successfully these types of files.

2. The prescription for transformational diplomacy recognizes that diplomacy needs to be re-invented from the bottom up, and that this will involve a complete rethinking of the diplomatic business model and reimagining of the essential skill set of the diplomatic person. I am convinced completely of the need to reconstruct the foreign ministry. In OECD countries especially, these tend to be among the oldest of central government institutions. Westphalian conventions are profoundly embedded, and the culture tradition-laden, hierarchic and risk averse. Placing adequate emphasis on overcoming these internal obstacles will be crucial.

Globalization has radically altered the role and place of states in the international system diplomats, diplomacy and the foreign ministry have not adapted well The main diplomatic institutions must accordingly be reconsidered fundamentally or face irrelevance, if not oblivion. Success at this game of catch-up will require vision and dexterity. Which brings me to the third point. Foreign ministries and diplomats have their shortcomings, but are their other reasons that performance has faltered? Might this affect the ability of the apparent diplomatic surge to endure?