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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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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Canadian Public Diplomacy – Where to?

In the previous post, I tried to show that during the 1980s and ‘90s the paradigm for the delivery of Canadian international policy shifted fundamentally. Over the course of those years, there was a deliberate move away from an emphasis on traditional, state-to-state interaction in the direction of public diplomacy (PD). This form of international political exchange features diplomats communicating directly with foreign populations and cultivating partnerships with civil society actors – NGOs, businesspeople, journalists and academics.  I also made the case that the PD formula, in conjunction with the right combination of political will and bureaucratic skill, can produce impressive results, especially if directed towards projects with broad popular and media appeal, such as a land mine ban or efforts to improve the lot of children in conflict zones.

Looking back, it can be seen that Canadian PD reached its apogee under Foreign Minister Axworthy (1996-2000). At a time of severe government-wide cost-cutting, Canada fundamentally down-sized its international ambitions, but that exercise was not translated into a retreat from the field. To be sure, the large scale, long range, potentially world changing projects of the post-war decades  – poverty eradication, conflict resolution, global environmental conservation – were gone. In their place, Canadian officials proposed a series of special projects – for example, curbs on the trading of “blood” diamonds and small arms – designed for implementation within media-friendly diplomatic niches. They did not always succeed, but each initiative featured a defined start and finish. Upon completion, the Minister could simply call a press conference, declare victory and move on.

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Canadian Public Diplomacy, Then and Now

I have recently been reviewing a new book entitled Diplomacy in the Digital Age, which is a collection of essays prepared in honour of Allan Gotlieb, a former Undersecretary of State  for External Affairs and Canada’s ambassador in Washington from 1981-89. It is an absorbing anthology, and contains valuable entries penned in some instances by those who worked with Mr. Gotlieb during his time in the USA. Quite apart from eliciting specific reactions to the content of the volume, reading it has also spurred me to reflect on the larger issue of what became of Canada’s once considerable contribution to the study and practice of public diplomacy (PD).

The Government of Canada was until fairly recently regarded as a somewhat of PD pioneer. That reputation would now be difficult to sustain. Indeed, I have come to the rather stark realization that whatever this country may at one time have achieved by way of advancing its interests through PD, those days are now long gone.

In official and political circles in Ottawa today, little or nothing is heard of PD. Diplomatic representatives can no longer connect directly with foreign populations unless their scripts have been pre-cleared, and even the use of the term has been discouraged. Within the foreign ministry (DFAIT), the function has been almost completely de-resourced.

Hence the questions must be put: what, exactly, did Canada manage to achieve in terms of public diplomacy outcomes over the past several decades?  Why has PD fallen from grace? Can any lessons of broader relevance be adduced?

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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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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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Guerrilla Diplomacy Revisited

It has now been a year since the release of Guerrilla Diplomacy. I have spent much of this time trying to promote the book’s main arguments in support of restoring the diplomatic ecosystem and de-militarizing international policy. Following are a few reflections on those efforts.

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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 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?