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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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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Heteropolarity, Security and Diplomacy: Not the Same Old, Same Old

Almost a decade ago, at an annnual conference of the International Studies Association, I heard my colleague James Der Derian from Brown University use the word heterpolar to describe the new world order. I had not come across the term before, and was uncertain as to its precise meaning. Still,  it struck me at the time as an original idea, and those are rare. It lodged in my mind.

I took a first crack at developing the concept in Guerrilla Diplomacy, where I defined heterpolarity as: An emerging world system in which competing states or groups of states derive their relative power and influence from dissimilar sources – social, economic, political, military, cultural. The disparate vectors which empower these heterogeneous poles are difficult to compare or measure; stability in the age of globalization will therefore depend largely upon the diplomatic functions of knowledge-driven problem solving and complex balancing.

In preparation for a forthcoming conference at the London Academy of Diplomacy, I have been trying to further elaborate the implications associated with the emergence of a heteropolar world order. Those with an interest in the evolution of international relations may find the line of argument worth pursuing.

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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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Canada and the world post-9/11: What has been learned?

Looking back over decade since 9/11, what events and developments stand out globally? Among others:

  • The ongoing Global War on Terror and associated Western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The hollowing out of the middle class, the financial crisis and the continuing Great Recession.
  • The lost opportunities to support non-violent political reform during the Arab Spring.

9/11 changed everything, and the carnage and consequences engendered by that day haunt us still.

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Sitting on a Powder Keg

One of the defining characteristics of globalization is its tendency to produce winners and losers by polarizing, economically, socially and politically, within and between nations.

Globalization’s benefits have been privatized, while its costs have been socialized.  The appearance of severe inequalities – in incomes, opportunities, and future prospects – after decades of generally narrowing gaps, has been one of the most worrisome consequences. With the triumph of neoliberalism,  social democracy on the run most everywhere, and not least in Canada. However much this may please special interests such as business groups and the wealthy, a smaller state almost inevitably translates into program and service reductions for the disadvantaged and those least able to defend their interests.

For the past several years I have spent  about a month a year teaching at the London Academy of Diplomacy. During those very pleasant interludes, it has struck me that London has become a world city primus inter pares, a cosmopolitan global crossroads and network node for business, finance, culture and education.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a position to benefit from it’s status as a world city,  London presents vast possibilities and is a wonderful place to live and work. There is really no place quite like it.

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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.


Days of Future Past – Part II

Editor’s Note. A few days ago I received an email from one of my younger brothers. While cleaning out some old files, he came across a paper which I had sent along for comment back in the spring of 1993. It was entitled At the Crossroads and had been prepared for delivery at a session of the Canadian Learned Societies on 07 June of that year.

I offer a selection of unabridged excerpts below, in hopes that readers may find them of some interest as a very early critique of the “New World Disorder”, neo-liberalism,  and what has come to be known as globalization.  For ease of handling, I have divided the post into two parts, the second of which follows:

At the Crossroads (continued)

The world may be smaller…

The global village has become crowded and unruly. The huts are ramshackle and the underprivileged precincts poorer. The profusion of ever more meagre units of political affiliation, and in particular the proliferation of dubiously viable, ethnically inspired states which have oozed from the wreckage of former federations, has greatly complicated the task of forging any consensus on new forms of international organization. With the possible exception of the UN, most of the post World War Two institutions are failing or facing irrelevance. The rational pursuit of national interests has been rendered vastly more difficult. The tribes are rising as states and institutions crumble.

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Days of Future Past – Part I

Editor’s Note. A few days ago I received an email from one of my younger brothers. While cleaning out some old files, he came across a paper which I had sent along for comment back in the spring of 1993. It was entitled At the Crossroads and had been prepared for delivery at a session of the Canadian Learned Societies on 07 June of that year.

I offer a selection of unabridged excerpts below, in hopes that readers may find them of some interest as a very early critique of the “New World Disorder”, neo-liberalism,  and what has come to be known as globalization.  For ease of handling, I have divided the post into two parts, the first of which follows:

At the Crossroads

Bubble, bubble, toil and…

These are ironic times. The end of the Cold War has lifted the pall of nuclear Armageddon, and the doomsday clock has been wound back. Yet few have felt any tangible benefits, and the work of multilateral institutions, policy analysts and decision-makers has been made immensely more complex and difficult. While the familiar patterns of behaviour imposed by the rigours of a superpower stand-off have faded from view, the outlines of the next global paradigm are only beginning to coma into perspective. The icy hand of death has slipped from the tiller, but the passage into unknown waters promises to be anything but smooth.

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Ferment in North Africa: A Guerrilla Diplomacy Take

Stand-off in Tunis.

Riots in Khartoum

Cairo burning.

In the erstwhile global village, which today looks more like an island patchwork of  heavily guarded, gated communities surrounded by an angry sea of seething shantytowns, the relentless forces of globalization continue to transform world politics. Cairo is the current, and increasingly turbulent epicentre, but many countries in the region are susceptible to similar rebellions.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and elsewhere, change is unfolding very rapidly. The reactions of the USA, EU, UN, and certainly Canada have positioned the international community well behind the curve. Developments on the ground have outpaced responses by a wide margin, and an anti-Western backlash, which could carry major economic and political implications, cannot be ruled out.

What, then, are the the broad strategic considerations which decision-makers could usefully take into account?

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The World’s Oyster? Rethinking Canada as the Globalization Nation

With the G8/G20 meetings about to begin, the attention of the international media will inevitably, if fleetingly, focus on Canada. What kind of impression might be conveyed?

For journalists prepared to eschew the backdrops, sound bites and briefing books and to venture beyond the sterile secure areas, there may be a few surprises.

Even the least intrepid would soon discover that in a world of well-established, pre-packaged national identities, this country is different.

That difference has little to do with beavers or moose, with the cold climate or the scenic attractions.

It is not the place. It’s the people.

No matter where you’re from, if Canada were a mirror, you would see your own face reflected.

And because everyone is here, no one stands out.

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Whither Development?

Or, should that be withered development…?

It was not that long ago that terms such as  “international development”,  “development cooperation”, “development assistance” and even “aid” were in heavy rotation in the discourse on international relations. This was true not only in places like the United Nations, but also in many capitals, great and small.

Today development, like diplomacy, has becom somewhat of an exotic.

And yet, and yet… It wasn’t always that way. Remember the would-be New International Economic Order? The North-South Summit in Cancun? How about calls for a New International Information Order? The Rio Summit on Environment and Development, surely?  That meeting produced, among other things, a sweeping manifesto intended to guide development into the next century: Agenda 21.

Its contents make interesting reading even now, almost two decades later.

Even without reference to the much more recent, but already forlorn Millennium Development Goals,  I think it fair to say the the internatnational community, as it is so euphemistically known, has come up a bit short on its commitments. Indeed, the discussion of international development per se has has pretty much disappeared from the mainstream, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The GWOT continues. Whether restyled as the Long War, or Stabilization, or Overseas Contingency Operations, the epicentre of international policy remains heavily militarized. This has imposed all kinds of costs, ranging from the emaciation of diplomatic alternatives, to the hijacking of the post- Cold War peace dividend, to the reallocation of scarce public resources at the expense of vital social programmes.

Among the less noticed impacts, however, has been the effective marginalization of development  – and diplomacy – in the name of security.  It is not so much that development itself has become “securitized”, as occured during the Cold War with the competition for hearts, minds, and client states. Instead, it has simply been shunted aside, a victim of “compassion fatigue” and competing priorities in metropolitan centres where the development constituency is typically thin to non-existant.

Not so for defence, where the launching of the open-ended GWOT and its successors has put the military industrial complex back into business.

In previous posts I have set out the case that security is not entirely, or even mainly a martial art. You can’t garrison against climate change, or call in an air strike on resource shortages,  or pay Blackwater to protect you from pandemic disease. Among the many redeeming qualities of the human security doctrine is its insistance on the link betweeen development and security.  Expressed in a few words, you won’t achieve freedom from fear in the absence of respect for basic rights, the rule of law, good governance and, not least, freedom from want.  Met needs are the well-spring of dignity, and basic needs must be fulfilled before much else becomes possible.

In important respects, as I argue at some length in Guerrilla Diplomacy, development has become the new security.

Development, though, is not just a matter of engineering the achievement of various qualitative measures, such as economic growth or increasing trade and investment flows. While each of these may well figure in the overall development mix, for instance, none will guarantee a decrease in poverty if the issue of distributive justice remains unaddressed.

Nor, popular opinion notwithstanding, is development much related to disaster relief or emergency humanitarian assistance. These may certainly be required, as was the case, for example,  following the 2004 tsunami, or in the wake of  various earthquakes or famines. But the beneficial effects of such interventions are often fleeting, and tend to give rise to lingering distortions, such as changes in diet or a debilitating reliance on charity.

At the end of the day, development is in my view all about improving the quality of life for the majority of the population, about finding ways to encourage the emergence of circumstances which will afford each citizen  opportunities, such as access to education an health care, through which they might achieve their full potenial.

Genuine development, then, must be long term, equitable and sustainable. It must be grass-roots and participatory, whereby those affected are the subjects, not objects of their fate. And that  implies the necessary existance of significant political and social components in any grand development strategy.

Most of all, and as implied by these sorts of measures, development, like security, must be human-centred. And, like globalization, it is best thought of as a process rather than a condition or an end state. It is that dynamic relationship – between development and underdevelopment, security and insecurity –  which I have tried to capture in the ACTE world order model.

In the midst of the most sever economic crisis since the Great Depression, official development assistance budgets are shrinking, overseas remittances are falling and corporate philanthropy is drying up. In a world in which so many have so little, and so few have so much, one might expect rather more by way of discussion and debate on all of this.

Clearly, we will have to delve more deeply.

Grappling with Globalization

Working in a foreign ministry is as good a place as any, and better than most, to observe the world in transition.  I did it for 28 years. From that vantage point, it was near impossible to avoid thinking about why diplomacy has been performing so dismally, especially in recent years when diplomats have been sidelined, and departments of defence favoured as the international policy instrument of choice.

In trying to assess the crisis of diplomacy, I was led repeatedly to the same observation. Simply put, many of diplomacy’s failings can be attributed to its failure to adapt effectively or well to the challenges of the globalization age.

As a result of that early finding,  readers will notice that many of the constructs which support the arguments presented in Guerrilla Diplomacy are based upon my understanding and analysis of the paramount features of the phenomenon popularly referred to as globalization. But, what, exactly,  is that?

Globalization is both over-used and under-appreciated. It also a highly contested term, and has been ascribed a variety of different meanings. At the highest level of apprehension, globalization can be thought of as the successor era to that of the Cold War.

Yet that would be too easy. Globalization is clearly more than that. I would define it as a totalizing historical force which is conditioning, if not determining outcomes across a broad range of human enterprise. Among its effects and at a planetary level, globalization tends to integrate economically, fracture politically, polarize socially and homogenize culturally. It is multifaceted, vexing, and above all, enormous. Might I venture to say that from both practical and ideational perspectives, globalization is the dominant theme of our times.

But its essence cannot be captured in a single narrative.

Images of Nike, Mercedes, McDonalds and Clinique are only the tip of the iceberg. Globalization compresses space, accelerates time, and has unleashed a hornet’s nest of threats and challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology. A sampling would include:

  • climate change
  • pandemic disease
  • environmental collapse
  • genomics
  • weapons of mass destruction

This catalogue demonstrates that globalization has framed and populated the contemporary  international policy agenda. These issues, moreover, differ in kind from the territorial disputes, ideological rivalry, military confrontation and competition for client states which were the hallmarks of the Cold War.

But even all of this is only a very small part of the story. Like a scythe, globalization  cuts all ways, bringing comfort, choice, power and influence to a few, and hardship, constraints,  anger and resentment to many.

For the beneficiaries, globalization contributes to prosperity and capital accumulation.

For those lost on the periphery or trapped on the underside – at any level and in any location –  globalization can breed insecurity, exacerbate inequality and abet undervelopment.

Globalization has on balance been good for corporations and bad for governments. It jeopardizes fragile states and increases the liklihood of their failure. The backlash against globalization has contributed to violent extremism, often religiously affiliated, world-wide.  It is percieved in many places as the latest incarnation of something more familiar, empire.

Absent the institutions of effective global governance, globalization will remain largely beyond the purview of either popular sovereignty or the public interest.

Like so much else in life, then, where you stand on the question of globalization depends in large part upon on where you sit.

In the midst of the worst international economic downturn since the Great Depression, it would be tempting to conclude that the age of globalization is over.  Indeed, many have. Yet that kind of conclusion would be based upon a relatively narrow understanding of the term, one rooted mainly in observations about trade liberalization, investment flows, resource prices and other, for the most part  macro-economic indicators.

Even by those criteria, I would hesitate to subscribe to the “end of globalization” thesis.  These sorts of measures are highly variable, and in the overall scheme of things, these are early days still. Reports of globalization’s passing are at best premature.

Staggeringly complicated and  immensely consequent, globalization may be  down, but it is far from out.

The implications for security, development and diplomacy, as we shall see, are far-reaching.