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.


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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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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Defence Policy, International Security and the Military: Time to Talk

South of the border, there have in recent years been a growing number of voices expressing serious concern over the militarization of American life.

I certainly share that sentiment.

Is an F-16 fly over and trooping the colours  really appropriate for the opening of the Super Bowl?

The USA is apparently becoming the Praetorian pole in an increasingly  heterpolar world order. Still, I think that a debate of this nature is culturally healthy, and have always admired the fact that some of the most trenchant, even withering criticism of U.S. policy and actions comes from domestic sources, including not least that country’s many military academies and war colleges.

Even in the mainstream media, a decade’s worth of assumptions used to justify deploying the military to pursue the epically misguided global war on terror are finally being questioned.

One could only wish that a similar degree of the scrutiny accorded defence issues in the USA  might one day be evident in the discourse on international policyin Canada.

Apart from a few faint echoes in the academy and a handful of specialized publications, that discussion here  is practically non-existent. I find that most unfortunate.

Canadians need to start talking about the kind of military that they require in the face of all identifiable threats and challenges. They must then somehow try and square the outcome of that conversation against a thoughtful consideration of whether or not the defence capability that they need matches the one that they have got.

I have my doubts.

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Cairo Burning: Implications for the Defence vs. Diplomacy Debate

The following commentary, based in part on my “Ferment in North Africa” entry, was posted by the University of Southern California’s Public Diplomacy Blog 02 February:

This is one of those rare, defining moments in world history. In Egypt – as well as Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere – change is unfolding at almost blinding speed. The reactions of the USA, EU, and UN  so far have succeeded mainly in positioning the international community well behind the curve, scrambling to catch up. Developments on the ground continue to outpace responses by a wide margin.

Between concerns over secure access to oil,  radical Islamic politics, and the prospects for Middle East peace, Western interests are heavily engaged in the region. What, then, are the the broad strategic considerations which policy planners and decision-makers could usefully take into account?

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Lashings of Insight: Tid-bits from the Brain Food Buffet (I)

Last month I spent five days at the 50th annual conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New York City.

I make a point of participating in this sprawling brain food buffet most years, and although the intensity and pace of the program can be exhausting , with 40-50 simultaneous panels, five times per day over four days, it does provide a comprehensive snapshot of academic thinking about most things international at a given point in time.

In that respect, this year’s event was perhaps especially interesting in the wake of the recent arrival of the Obama administration in the USA. The expectations that have been engendered by the heavy rotation of the “hope and change” agenda, both during the long campaign and after, are enormous. Will the new government be able to deliver as advertised? Or will expectations have to be managed and downsized?

With these, and many other issues in mind, I attended many sessions on global order and US foreign policy. Following are some of my summary observations. Processed, condensed, and unattributed, they are intended less as a record of the proceedings than as points for further discussion and debate:

  • US foreign policy will be both framed, and constrained by economic crisis, the depth and duration of which remain unclear, but menacing
  • Obama’s powerful message of hope and change is very different in tone from that of his predecessor, but could lead to an “expectations gap” which will be tough to bridge
  • choice of advisors at upper and mid levels was characterized by one speaker as “neo-con lite”; main international policy directions are more likely to be representative of continuity than change (eg. despatch of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, and message about international policy priorities which that conveys)
  • commitment to Global War on Terror is likely to persist, even if the taxonomy has changed; careers, budgets, institutions and industries now depend on it (GWOT is “sedimented” in Washington)
  • notwithstanding the temporary bump associated with “Obama effect”, the continued relative decline of US power and influence is inevitable
  • unipolar moment has passed, but the world seems headed towards heteropolar rather than multipolar order – US will lead militarily, but EU and BRICSAM countries will be major economic forces, with other nations powerful culturally, demographically, and environmentally
  • emergent order will take time to work out; requirement for cross-balancing at various levels may result in lower levels of state-sponsored violence, but not necessarily more stabilty than during brief period of US hegemony
  • evangelical US model (deregulation/marketization/democratization) for the world political economy has been deeply discredited; authoritarian, regulated, statist capitalism seems ascendant
  • the good news? A smaller US place in the world and concomitant need for complex balancing will necessitate a larger role for diplomacy, and possibly a smaller role for the military in the overall international policy mix
  • influence of Ambassadors is set to increase and regional military commands/commanders likely to diminish

All in all, a pretty rich harvest, and I will be providing more by way of take-aways from the ISA meeting in future posts.