The Retreat From Internationalism – Part I

From the late 1940s  through to early in this century, Canada enjoyed a reputation as a determined, capable and effective internationalist. Regardless of which party formed the government, this country actively engaged with other peoples and states in the in the pursuit of collaborative solutions to the world’s major problems and challenges. From the founding of the UN, post-war reconstruction and the Suez crisis to non-proliferation issues, protection of the global commons and working to address the plight of children in conflict, Canada was always present, and, when appropriate, ready to lead.

As Canada’s relative power and influence inevitably declined with the recovery of Europe and Asia and the emergence of China, India, Brazil and others, the scale of Canadian activism was down-sized.  Grand, long-term goals such as eradicating poverty and bringing peace to the world gradually gave way to to smaller, “niche”  projects such as the land mine ban, conflict diamonds and the construction of innovative new doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect.  The nature of Canadian internationalism changed with the times, and public diplomacy was mobilized to advance the likes of Human Security Agenda, but a core commitment to internationalism endured.

Today, little remains of that tradition, and international policy decision-making seems related mainly to the quest for future electoral advantage.

What happened?

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Science Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn?

A few weeks ago in Oslo, Norway, in the company of about 40 other invitees from around the world, I attended an OECD “experts” meeting, sponsored by the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research, on the subject of Science, Technology, Innovation and Global Challenges.

The workshop was predicated upon the shared realization that if  international policy and decision-makers cannot be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then in the not too distant future the planet may reach a tipping point. Beyond that point, recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.

Think climate change, diminishing biodiversity, food insecurity, resource scarcity, pandemic disease, and so forth.

So… we were talking about the principal threats imperilling life on the planet.

Not your standard bit of bureaucratic process.

Today, I am en route to Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, to speak at a conference entitled Science Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn. Among many other speakers are Murray McCully, the Foreign Minister of New Zealand, Vaughn Turekian, head of  the science diplomacy unit at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and Dr. Jeffery Boutwell, from Pugwash USA.

Two global gatherings in two months on science, technology, diplomacy and international policy. Is it possible that something’s happening here, even if what is ain’t exactly clear?

Maybe.  I certainly hope so.

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The New Threat Set: Humanity’s Race Against Time

From May 18-20th in Oslo, Norway, along with participants from some 40 countries and organizations around the world, I attended an “experts workshop” on Science, Technology and Innovation to Address Global Challenges. The meeting was organized jointly under OECD auspices by the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research

The agenda included presentations and discussions on issues such as priority setting, funding, capacity building, and…

Asleep yet?

Well, this is your wake up call.

The Oslo meeting was far from a garden variety bureaucratic encounter. The rubber really hit the road during the final substantive session, which was innocuously entitled “Delivering Benefits.” At that point in the proceedings a consensus began to develop around a single, somewhat terrifying realization: If  international policy and decision-makers cannot be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then in the not too distant future the world may reach a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.

The consequences could well be catastrophic.

To understand how a group assembled by such a respectable institution as the OECD could reach such a disturbing conclusion, some sense of the over-arching analytical narrative is required. My  interpretation of the fundamental line of argument goes something like this.

In the globalization era, the most profound challenges to human survival — climate change, public health, diminishing biodiversity, and resource scarcity, to name a few — are rooted in science and driven by technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and insecurity, far more than religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental threats to world order. In this context, the capacity to generate, absorb and use science and technology (S&T) could play a crucial role in improving security and development prospects. Addressing the needs of the poor, and bridging the digital divide could similarly become a pre-occupation of diplomacy.

Although poverty reduction contributes to development, and development is the flip side of security, S&T issues are largely alien to, and almost invisible within most international policy institutions. National governments, foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to manage effectively. If this is to change, and in order to examine the remedial possibilities, politicians, opinion leaders and senior officials must be critically aware of both the dynamic inter-relationships among principal actors and the key questions and issues at play.

Unfortunately, their preoccupations lie almost entirely elsewhere.

The lion’s share of international policy resources are at present devoted to the military, which according to the rationale outlined above represents a colossal, and extremely costly misallocation. With a dominant international policy focus in many industrialized countries on counter-terrorism and the struggle against religious extremism and political violence, the threats and challenges which most imperil the planet remain largely unaddressed.

All told, this tale amounts to one terribly disturbing disconnect.

Because not only are the dots not joined-up.

In  most cases, there are no dots.

Whatever comes out of the Oslo meeting, it clearly will not, in itself, be enough to save the world. But if the project contributes to a more acute and widely-shared awareness of the real threat set, then we may all emerge at least with something in rather short supply under the present circumstances.


Coming up Short in Copenhagen: Puzzling a Multilateral Meltdown

Today is Winter Solstice in Central Canada. From this point forward, and for the next six months, the days begin to get get longer.

That is an encouraging thought. And a superior one when compared to anything that I can muster when reflecting on the meaning of the just-concluded Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Some background. For the past few weeks I have been preparing the detailed syllabus for a graduate seminar in Science, Technology (S&T) and International Policy (IP) which I will be teaching next term at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre.

One of the central themes the course, and indeed of Guerrilla Diplomacy, is the need to bridge the near complete disconnect between the worlds of S&T, on the one hand, and IP, on the other. This is necessary because science and technology are profoundly implicated in the majority of the principal threats and challenges facing international policy managers and decision-makers in the globalization age.

Nowhere has the gulf separating these two solitudes been more clearly revealed than over the past several weeks in Copenhagen, where COP 15 dissolved December 19th in a fiasco of damage control and forced face-saving.

Despite best efforts on the part of conference organizers to somehow salvage something from the ashes of the event, no amount of spin could obscure the vacuity of the results, which amount to little more than an almost inaudible whimper. Absent entirely from the “Take Note” agreement are verifiable emission cuts targets, numbers,  dates, and deadlines. Nor is there any reference to a strategy or a time frame for the conversion of this vague statement into a detailed and binding treaty.

By any reasonablee measure, Copenhagen radically underachieved on even the most modest of conceivable expectations. Without high level political commmittment, direction and drive from the largest greenhouse gas emitters, the process drifted aimlessly. The negotiations were disperate and unfocussed, and the outcomes, for those looking for fundamental change, were appalling. Early on the event descended into  a circus of infotainment, and it never recovered. The void created by the lack of any real news related to substantial progress on the issues was filled by the mass media, who with little better do reported  on whatever sideshows happpened to be running whenever it came time to file.

Dashing the hopes of millions and defying the benefit of years of planning, the Copenhagen Accord amounted to an  empty vessel at a time when the need for freight is acute.

The ramifications for global governance are little short of depressing. Based on this experience, the prospects for effective international collaboration towards the design of brighter collective future are slender.

And for Canada?

Things did not pan out as might have been hoped. Instead, it was the disjuncture between this country’s long established image and ruptation as a progressive, constructive and engaged participant in international negotiations, and the present, distant reality which was on prominent display. This very public transformation and departure from past peformance was noticed, not least by the NGO community.  Their representatives dished out dollops of scorn, rebuke and ridicule upon a country who not long ago placed a premium on international environmental stewardship, leadership and partnership with civil society.

Lest we forget… Canada once led the world by initiating action on environmental treaties designed to help protect the ozone layer of the atmospherereduce acid rain, and clean up the Great Lakes. Canada was the motive force behind the organization of the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, which, building upon the foundations set out in the Earth Charter,  produced Agenda 21, the Biodiversity Convention, the Statement of Forestry Principles, and – yes – the first Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The difference between then and now is so stark as to be shocking.

Jean Charest was Canada’s federal Environment Minister at that the time of the Rio Conference. He was also at Copenhagen, this time as Quebec premier. Like most delegates, he arrived in Copenhagen with a full agenda. Like all of them, he left with little to show for his efforts.

Who knows how he must have felt?

I, however, do know how I feel.

Sadness, mainly. And shame.

For Canada.

And for the world.

Let’s hope that this miserable failure can at minimum serve as a learning experience, and that massive multilateral meltdowns of this nature will not be repeated.

Yet if the climate change science is at least indicative, and baring any short-term breakthroughs in bio-remedies, the world and its leaders are going to have to learn very, very fast.

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?