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?