Exploring the Myths of International Relations: Three Deadly Disconnects?

Summer in Canada is a wonderful time to reflect.

In that spirit, I was intrigued by an article, entitled “Seven Myths About International Relations”, which appeared recently on the splash page of the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) web site. It is part of a new series being published under the theme Diplomacy and Duplicity: The Myths, Fictions and Outright Lies of International Politics.

I commend the CIC on this latest initiative. Over a few short years of existence, this organization has produced an impressive record of achievement. It has carried forward the work of its predecessor, the venerable, but perpetually vulnerable Canadian Institute of International Affairs, but has innovated, diversified, and reached out to new members and partners. Two years ago the CIC launched its comprehensive Open Canada report on possible new foreign policy directions, and in the interim have presented a steady stream of high quality commentary and analysis authored by the likes of Roland Paris, Jennifer Welsh, James Der Derian and many others. The Council doesn’t hesitate to address sensitive issues, such as what went wrong in Afghanistan, and it keeps the fresh content flowing.

Kudos.

It occurs to me that in this era of anti-government government, and with the continued downsizing of the state, Canada’s comparative advantage in thinking about the implications of a changing world may well be moving out of official Ottawa. With budgets at DFAIT, CIDA, IDRC and other international policy institutions under significant downward pressure, it is both refreshing and a great relief to see a civil society actor stepping up to the plate and helping to fill the civic gap created by a muzzled, cowed and receding public sector.

This country’s vibrant community of NGOs, universities, and think tanks could now be in a position to drive the international policy discussion and debate.

I certainly hope so.

But a closer consideration of just how those structural changes might play out is for another day…  Back now to the CIC’s list.

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In Defense of DFAIT: Why Diminished Diplomatic Capacity Damages Canadian Interests

These are not the best of days at DFAIT.

According to an article on p.1 of this week’s of Embassy magazine, Canada will be moving to a “hub and spoke” model for its diplomatic network in Europe, centralizing resources at a few larger missions while reducing the Canadian presence elsewhere in the region.

A box on p. 9 in the same edition reports that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will lose about $170 million from its budget over the next three years. As a result, and among other things, the Department will:

• Review Canada’s participation in some international organizations

• Close five US missions in Anchorage, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Raleigh-Durham, and one satellite office in Princeton

• Introduce five new regional clusters in the United States: West Coast, Midwest,Great Lakes, South East, North East, and the South Rocky Mountain corridor

• Phase out the international Canadian studies program

• Reduce the funding and geographic scope of the International Scholarships Program

• Change DFAIT’s domestic network to have five regional hubs (Vancouver, Calgary,Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax) and close offices in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon,Winnipeg, St. John’s, Charlottetown, and Moncton

• Eliminate 35 Commerce Officer positions

• Reduce the vehicle fleet at missions

• Update allowances for diplomats

• Extend the length of postings

• Sell some official residences abroad

Working smarter?

Readers may well be thinking… Hub and spoke in the EU? A bit of trimming here and there?

Under the prevailing circumstances in public finance, these measures seem modest, sensible, and perhaps timely if not overdue.

Shrug.

With a few exceptions, that has certainly been the reaction across the Canadian mainstream.

As with so much received wisdom, however, a closer examination is necessary.

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Rethinking Diplomacy, Security and Commerce in the Age of Heteropolarity

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.

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The Incredible Shrinking Canada


I am now approaching the end of my sojourn in London, some comments about which were referenced here.  While away I have even managed to get a bit of Canadian press.

After almost a month away, I must say that in relation to the relative absence of similar possibilities in Ottawa, there is lots of interesting stuff to be done here in the world city. The energy, dynamism and cosmopolitan buzz attributable to this place are absolutely invigorating.

But what is on my mind this Sunday morning is last week`s federal budget, and especially the latest round slashing and burning of Canada`s once robust and engaged global presence.

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Heteropolarity, Globalization and the New Threat Set

In the last two posts I have tried to develop the concept and content of heteropolarity, which I  believe has some value as a heuristic tool for describing and analyzing contemporary world order. In part three of the trilogy, I assess the implications for grand strategy and the work of foreign ministries.

The most profound threats which imperil the heteropolis – and religious extremism and political violence do not make the A-list – are not amenable to military solutions. The best army cannot stop pandemic disease. Air strikes are useless against climate change. Alternatives to the carbon economy cannot be occupied by expeditionary forces. You can’t capture, kill, or garrison against these kinds of threats.  As instruments of international policy, defence departments are both too sharp, and too dull to provide the kinds of responses required.

Still, militaries continue to command the lion’s share of international policy funding, while foreign ministries struggle on the sidelines. Not only does this give rise to serious inefficiencies, distortions and misallocations, but Western governments have failed to apprehend the main lesson of the Cold War, namely, that force works best when it is not used. Take the sword out of the scabbard – think Iraq, Afghanistan – and it makes a dreadful mess.

Recalling the dismal experience of two world wars and a Cold War, the products of failed attempts at “managing” the emergence of new powers in the 20th century, this time around an alternative approach will be required. In the heteropolar world under construction, security will flow not from defence, but from development and diplomacy.

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Heteropolis Rising: World Order in the 21st Century

In the previous post,  I argued that the short-lived era of unipolar American hegemony has given way to  a new international dispensation best characterized as heteropolar rather than multipolar. This metamorphosis may be attributed mainly to a series of colossal strategic misjudgements and the profusion of diverse sources of power and influence globally. The implications for security and diplomacy are profound.

To be sure, and as was the case with the multipolar world dominated by the European Empires from the 15th to 19th centuries, there are once again many poles. But this time the differences between them far outweigh the similarities. These players share little in common.  Unlike in previous eras, the heterogeneous nature of today’s competing actors renders comparison difficult and measurement even more so.

That said, and although this is very much a new order in the making, we can begin to trace the contours and discern the content of heteropolarity, a condition which I believe will increasingly define international relations. New poles are forming, and old poles are evolving. In terms of identifying the major heteropoles in the early years of the 21st century, the following thoughts come immediately to mind.

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The Retreat From Internationalism – Part II

In the last entry, I tried to illustrate how changes in domestic Canadian politics, in combination with the imposition of capacity reductions on the Department of Foreign Affairs, had contributed to a turn away from this country’s internationalist traditions. Today, I continue that line of inquiry with an exploration of the profound shifts in the nature and orientation of media coverage, as well as the impact of Canada’s rapidly changing demography.

As the Euro-zone’s continuing debt and monetary crisis has underscored, growing global economic interdependence means that all nations are vulnerable and exposed to events unfolding beyond their frontiers. At the same time, travel, tourism, immigration and the Internet have contributed to a vast increase in cosmopolitanism. These realities, however, are rarely reflected in the overall news mix, and less so in the content behind the headlines. Even as Canada’s increasingly diverse and multicultural  population charges ahead ever more completely into the culture and ethos of globalization, the coverage of international affairs in the mainstream media – television, radio, newspapers – continues to slide. To the extent that the media informs and conditions the public and political spheres, this paradox will have broader implications.

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Diplomacy in the Digital Age

Today the contributors to a recently released collection of essays assembled under this title and edited by Janice Stein will gather in Toronto to discuss the lifetime contribution to the diplomatic profession of  former Ambassador to the USA Allan Gotlieb.

It is encouraging to see attention of this nature being directed towards the study of diplomacy. Over my 30 years of diplomatic practice and scholarship, I could never understand why so many mainstream educators, senior officials and analysts spent so little time trying to understand or assess the inner workings of the world’s second oldest profession.

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Diplomacy, Journalism, and the New Media

Over the course of the past few months I have been conducting research for an article on “Digital Diplomacy” and the implications of the “WikiLeaks/Cablegate” revelations for diplomatic practice and international relations. That piece, when finished and peer reviewed, is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming reference text entitled the Oxford Handbook on Modern Diplomacy.

Reflecting on that enterprise, it has occurred to me that much of what is new in contemporary diplomacy may one way or another be attributed to the emergence of the Internet. Over the space of about twenty years it has displaced other venues as the principal medium for global information exchange and interaction. As more and more people look to the Web as a primary source of information and communication, including e-mail, social networking, video conferencing, and telephony, and as higher transmission speeds and greater bandwidth expand audio and visual streaming possibilities, communications media are converging. In recent years the Internet has edged out newspapers, TV, radio, and conventional telephones as the primary communications medium. Current Web 2.0 applications, featuring an emphasis on networks, wikis, interactivity, file sharing and downloadable “podcasts” – in marked contrast to the simple Web 1.0 presentation of static information – promise to further accelerate this trend.

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Libya and the World after Gadhafi: Preliminary Thoughts

It is perhaps premature to propose potential conclusions and lessons learned in the immediate wake of the rebel victory over the Gadhafi regime. On the surface, it appears that NATO support for the rebellion assisted materially in achieving the objective of ridding Libya of a widely detested dictator.

In terms of success, this would seem to represent more than can be said for Western efforts in backing one side in the Afghan civil war, or intervening under manifestly false pretences in Iraq. Both of those episodes have proven extremely costly. Still, before breaking out any more champagne, there are several issues regarding the Libyan affair which require more sober and sustained reflection than they seem to have received at the international meeting on Libya’s future held September 1st in Paris.

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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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Osama and Obama: Turning the Page?

The reported killing earlier today of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is unlikely to prove a game changer for American foreign policy. Secretary Clinton has already suggested as much – the war on terror will continue unabated. Careers, promotions, budgets and bonuses depend on it.

I believe such a commitment to be both hasty and unfortunate, especially given the unmitigated disaster which the current course has visited upon the USA and the world since 9/11. That said, the death of “The Sheik”, the spiritual head of a loose federation of jihadi extremist groups affiliated worldwide under the ideological banner of the Al Qaeda franchise, does raise a series of other critical questions and issues.

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The Bottom Line: Thoughts on Commercial and Economic Diplomacy

For the past few weeks I have been lecturing and travelling in the UK and Europe with a group of MA candidates in diplomacy and international business. They are studying at the University of East Anglia’s London Academy of Diplomacy, and the subject of my short course is science, technology and international policy.

Even by Canadian standards, the group is exceptionally cosmopolitan and multicultural, with students from Afghanistan and Albania, South Africa and St. Lucia, Spain and Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Zambia. It’s a mini-UN, and our exchanges are informed and enriched by the diversity of perspectives brought to bear.

Continuous learning and compelling conversation.

Last week at Nyenrode Business University just outside of Utretcht, Holland, we received a very interesting lecture on “Commercial Diplomacy”. The subject also came up a few days later during a briefing at the Dutch Foreign Ministry, where we learned that in response to the Great Recession, the new emphasis for Dutch representatives abroad  is “Economic Diplomacy”. Some missions are being closed (mainly in Latin America), and a few new ones opened (mainly in Asia) with that priority foremost in mind.

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Five Potential Pitfalls of Western Military Intervention in Libya

In a posting penned a couple of weeks ago, I expressed serious reservations  over the growing prospect of a Western military intervention in Libya. A political and diplomatic resolution would have been far preferable.  It remains a mystery in Western capitals how the unenthusiastic consideration of a no-fly-zone somehow morphed, with minimal public or political debate, into to an ambitious and ever-widening program of ground attacks.  Now, suddenly, the dogs of war have been let slip, and the actions of yet another  “coalition” are in full swing.

The Chinese, Russians and Germans, among others, have already stated their misgivings, and both Brazil and India abstained from the sweeping UN resolution which authorized the air campaign. While conflict outcomes  and their implications are inherently difficult to assess or predict, there are a number of factors in place which suggest that this episode may not end well.

Consider the following:

  • This cannot, in the first instance, be considered a humanitarian intervention as set out under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The explicit goal here is regime change, which means that Western countries have essentially chosen sides in a regional and tribally-based civil war – a highly fraught course, as  experience in Afghanistan and Iraq makes clear;
  • Passage of Resolution 1973 notwithstanding, the UN Security Council is not broadly representative of world power or opinion; its authority arguably outweighs its legitimacy – significantly, no Arab countries have yet joined in the bombing, the  African Union is not supporting the intervention, and the Arab League, while initially on side,  has since voiced concerns. The debilitating optics, and catastrophic consequences of Western warplanes again attacking an Islamic country and killing Muslims will almost certainly erode whatever support remains;
  • The citizenry in participating Western countries were not asked if they supported a more robust form of intervention that had been initially mooted. Support for the present course is likely thin, and will become more so if the duration of the violence is protracted and non-combatant casualties mount;
  • Diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force were not exhausted earlier in the process, and there is no obvious post-war plan;  today, there appears little room for any kind of negotiated settlement or face saving way out. The lack of a dignified exit strategy could blow back, and encourage Qaddafi hang on;
  • Qaddafi ‘s regime, however unpalatable, is not obviously more authoritarian or less representative than those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman or Yemen, all of which still enjoy Western backing. Although no one will defend his appalling performance on human rights or corruption, the Colonel`s record of investing more than most in schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, together with coalition duplicity, suggests a degree of policy incoherence which can only become more obvious over time.

And then, of course, there are the notorious what ifs… What if the US decides that leading three wars simultaneously is too much, tries to hand off to NATO, and some members, including key players such as Turkey and Germany, balk? What if the campaign goes on and on, and nothing changes?  What if Egypt intervenes to break the stalemate or to protect the remaining rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk, effectively partitioning the country?

These are early days. If the intervention does not drag on, produces limited collateral damage, averts a slaughter,  and results in the formation of a popular, unified new government then it may yet prove justified. Taken in combination, however, the observations set out above are troubling, and underscore once again the inescapable problems associated with a reliance upon military force as the international policy instrument of choice.