A few weeks ago I attended an International Symposium on the the subject themes organized by the University of East Anglia’s London Academy of Diplomacy. I was especially keen to participate because I had helped with the conceptualization and design of the conference. Lately I have also been trying to develop the idea of heteropolarity as a tool for making better sense of world order in the 21st century.
Attendees were invited first to consider a fundamental question: “Does diplomacy still matter?” The consensus was yes, increasingly so. But most also agreed that diplomacy’s practices, practitioners and institutions have not adapted well contemporary circumstances, and in particular to the exigencies of the globalization age.
It was observed that in the public mind diplomacy has suffered from its association with weakness and appeasement, and that diplomats have been caricatured as ditherers, drinking and dining off the public purse, lost in a haze of obsolescence. Western diplomacy especially is seen as having failed to deliver the expected peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, a problem compounded by the militarization of foreign policy after 9/11 and the prosecution of an undifferentiated and ill-defined “war on terror”. The Cold War, it seems, simply morphed into the Long War, featuring “overseas contingency operations”, stabilization programmes and counter-insurgency campaigns world-wide.
In short, the conferees agreed that diplomacy – a non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise – has not delivered the goods. Most diplomats work for states, and these days states are of diminishing importance, only one actor among many on a world stage now crowded with multinational corporations, NGOs, think tanks and celebrities. In recent years foreign ministries have lost much of their turf, with leadership passing increasingly upwards, into the hands of presidents and prime ministers, outwards, to other government departments and a host of new players, and downwards, to other levels of government. Tradition-bound and inherently change-resistant, diplomacy has been sidelined and become marginalized, displaced in government by a preference for the use of armed force.