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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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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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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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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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.

Hope.

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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A Role for Science Diplomacy? Soft Power and Global Challenges – Part III

Parts I and II of this series have examined the role and place – or lack thereof – of science and technology in diplomacy and international policy. How do those observations play out in reference to Canada, and, by extension, for members of the international community more generally?

The Canadian case brings many of these issues, and in particular the aspect of unfulfilled possibilities, into stark relief. Notwithstanding its humiliating electoral defeat at the UN, Canada retains a significant comparative advantage  vis-a-vis the global competition in terms of soft power.  A large part of this advantage may be attributed to default, that is, to the things which this country doesn’t  have or do, such as carry colonial baggage or harbor aggressive global ambitions. And however undeserved, Canada still enjoys a very positive international image and reputation. It’s brand was recently ranked the world’s best.

Unthreatening  and nice.

Cosmopolitan and approachable.

Open and welcoming.

The globalization nation.

Canada, moreover, has the capacity – educational, scientific and representational – necessary to make a substantial contribution to science diplomacy. Before that potential can be realized, however, significant reform will be required.

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A Role for Science Diplomacy? Soft Power and Global Challenges – Part II

Part I of this series examined the relationships – or lack thereof – between diplomacy, science and international policy, and noted the serious image problems which plague all three enterprises. These difficulties have hobbled the practice of science diplomacy, and are compounded by a host of substantial issues, which will be addressed presently. First, however, it may be useful to unpack the key terms.

Not unlike “intelligence” or  “policy”, “science” and “technology” are words frequently invoked in both conversation and writing. More often than not, however, the users have little more than an intuitive sense of what these terms actually mean.

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War and Diplomacy – Part IV

Two weeks after the shock of Canada’s UNSC debacle, discussions concerning the larger implications of that disaster continue. And so they should. Among the many possible messages, it is clearly time to turn the page on Pearsonian Internationalism and to get on with the job of rebranding this country as the globalization nation.

Where else but in Canada could a professor named Naheed Nenshi get elected as mayor in a place like Calgary? That happened only days after the electoral meltdown in the General Assembly, and the two events taken together represent a powerful symbolic combination – an epochal coda, and quite possibly a new beginning in the history in our national life.

So… Out with the old, in with the new.

But, in the meantime, back to some final thoughts on diplomacy and war.

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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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Science, Technology and Diplomacy

In his typically excellent September 1 – 2 press and blog review of the burgeoning discourse on public diplomacy (PD), John Brown cites a quotation by Manuel Castells, author of the magisterial Information Age trilogy:

Public Diplomacy is the…projection in the international arena of the values and ideas of the public… The aim of the practice of public diplomacy is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen. Public diplomacy seeks to build a sphere in which diverse voices can be heard in spite of their various origins, distinct values, and often contradictory interests.

Among the almost infinite variety of subjects which might form the basis for that kind of conversation, science (because of its universality, inclusivity and relevance to almost everything) and technology (because of its power and ubiquity) represent one area which is is particularly well-suited to international ventilation.

For those reasons, among others, scientific exchanges, alongside similarly popular educational and cultural programs, were prolific during the Cold War. Although not necessarily considered an element of public diplomacy at the time, international S&T programming nonetheless played a prominent role in both the American and Soviet camps.  In those days, wide-ranging ideological, strategic and geopolitical competition provided the framing and context, both directly and through third parties whose allegiance was being sought. One of the sources of continuing Russian influence in places such as India, Syria and Iran, for instance, stems from the scientific training received in the Soviet Union by at least a generation of  students.

In the globalization era, however, world order has become more hetero– than bi- or even multi-polar, and the institutional memory of those Cold War activities is fading fast. Now, markets rule, and much of the scientific research and technological development has  been either moved out of government and privatized, or has remained focussed on defence-related objectives.

None of that, of course, makes S&T writ large any less relevant. But it does make it harder to understand why so little is said about it outside of a few specialized, and somewhat isloated and obscure circles.

Although many of the most pressing issues facing humanity are based in science and propelled by technology, with critical downstream implications for development and security, most governments have not made significant efforts to ramp up the level of scientific and technological interchange globally. Were this to become a priority, foreign ministries, as the primary points of contact between the national and international interests of states, would almost certainly have to become involved.

All of which brings me to offer an account of a session I attended recently on “The Foreign Ministry of the Future”. Senior officials spoke at some length about matters related to to the creation of an international platform for the efficient delivery of common services abroad to other federal government departments, about the need to transform various aspects of the bureaucratic process, and about a number of human resource initiatives.

S&T?

It never came up.

In fact, the entire episode was suffused with a somewhat surreal air, not least because of the complete absence of any references to either diplomacy or foreign policy, which one might otherwise think would have to be germane to such a discussion. Nor did the acute shortage of resources, which is at present wreaking havoc upon operations at home and abroad, attract any commentary. All of which is quite surprising.

One dimension of S&T which might have come up regards the issue of virtuality and foreign ministries, by which I mean the application of information and communications technology (ICTs) and the use of the new media. Especially in OECD countries, and particularly in the USA and UK,  diplomatic methods and practices after a slow start have in fact have in fact adapted quite well to the possibilities inherent in the new media and ICTs. Ambassadors and foreign ministers are blogging, the web is being used interactively for the conduct of outreach and public diplomacy, foreign service officers in the field are being enabled through the issue of mobile communications devices such as Blackberries, and personnel departments are experimenting with telework and distance learning.

Among the many factors subversive of  the lingering elements of hierarchy, secrecy, cultural conservativism and top-down control still prominent in contemporary diplomatic institutions, these sorts of developments, and the revolution in S&T more generally, are likely to figure centrally.

In my view, that can’t happen too soon.

I began with a quotation from communications theorist Manuel Castells; let me conclude with a passage from Canada’s own Marshall McLuhan:

The vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been bypassed and engulfed by new media.

Enough said.

Science, Technology and International Policy – Part II

Remember the 20th  century?

At that time international relations revolved, variously, around geopolitical confrontation, ideological competition, territorial disputes, alliance politics, and multilateral  organizations. Today, clearly delineated empires are no longer colliding, the spectre of world war and mutually assured destruction has receded, and the centre of gravity in global relations has shifted. States are still with us and remain important, but they are now only one actor among many.

In the globalization era, the most profound  threats and challenges to human survival – public health, food security, alternative energy sources, to name a few – are rooted in science and driven by technology. The management of this sprawling suite of transnational  issues cannot be left to governments alone; it requires not only relentless creativity and tireless collaboration, but the engagement of cross-cutting civil society networks – NGOs, business, universities, think tanks and the media.

All of this is germane to guerrilla diplomacy, which at the highest level of analysis  is about advancing innovation in response to a world of complex and multiple insecurities, about charting the way from where we are to where we need to be. This means finding ways to get from looking to seeing, from hearing to listening, and from diktat to dialogue.

What better place to do that than at the intersection of science, technology and international policy?

What better means to spread the benefits of research and development,  and in so doing to help bridge digital divides, than diplomacy, which privilages talking over fighting, is powered by continuous learning and can tap into the global political economy of knowledge in order to solve problems non-violently ?

It all sounds just great…  except that it isn’t happening. Diplomacy has been marginalized as a result of the  militarization of international policy – probably the worst of our collective Cold War carry-overs. Foreign ministries are in large part without scientific expertise or technological savvy.  Except for certain defense-related issues, S&T is almost completely absent from the mainstream international policy mix.

Yet a capacity to generate, absorb and use S&T plays a crucial role in international relations, not least by improving development prospects and addressing the needs of the poor. Poverty reduction contributes to development, and development is the flip side of security.

All of which leaves the world in a rather precarious and exposed position – precision munitions can’t help much with increasing crop yeilds; legionaires are not very concerned with diminishing biodiversity or species extinction. Nor are international S&T issues much like the familiar suite of  political, economic  and ideational differences to which diplomacy, to the extent that it was engaged, had become accustomed. Those kinds of issues are by nature highly subjective and dependent upon perception – where you stand depends in large part upon where you sit.

Scientific and technological issues, on the other hand, are different in kind, and that may help to explain why the institutions of international policy have had such difficulty cooperating with S&T organizations or otherwise accommodating those sorts of considerations. Foreign ministries and international organizations are in the main just not culturally sensitive or attuned to S&T.

But the more intractable problems are even deeper:

  • Public and private sector interests in and perspectives on S&T are not necessarily complimentary
  • NGO representatives, academics and diplomats do not always agree on the role and place of S&T in the assessment of threats to international peace and security
  • S&T issues have not been accorded a central place in the non-specialist discourse on development/underdevelopment.

Each of these observations is troublng, and each requires some further unpacking.

Science, Technology and International Policy – Part I

Underdevelopment and insecurity, much like globalization itself, are intimately connected to science and technology (S&T). A capacity to absorb and use  S&T can confer significant competitive advantage upon individuals, groups, cities, countries and regions , while the absence of that capacity can be costly. Together, science and technology present both a very complex challenge to, and a critical opportunity for all members of the international community.

In the best of all possible worlds, S&T can be prime movers in propelling the planet forward towards a more peaceful, prosperous future.

In a worse case scenario, they may be our undoing.

At present,  S&T quite clearly is not delivering on its potential. Indeed, inadequate science and inappropriate technology seem much more closely associated  with all kinds of global problems – pandemic disease, climate change, genomics, resource shortages, weapons of mass destruction, environmental collapse – than with their solution. And this catalogue, it must be emphasized, represents a fair summary of the most pressing threats facing political leaders everywhere.

In a world of the polio vaccine and digital imaging, stem cell research and the i-pod, why do we find such radical underperformance in the face of such inspiring possibilities?

When I began construction of the research base which underpins Guerrilla Diplomacy, I was surprised to learn that there was very litttle in the mainstream literature which explores the links between S&T, on one hand, and international policy and relations, on the other. Today, I have a clearer understanding of of that lacuna. With few exceptions, and especially at the level of macro policy and grand strategy, there simply are no significant connections. That state of dis-integration, moreover, has become a key issue  facing both scholars and diplomatic practitioners, whether they know it, or (as is more likely) not.

In the day-to-day business of diplomacy and foreign ministries, S&T exists in a kind of floating world. It is there, but ensconced in a shiny bubble which few really understand or can easily penetrate.

These observations, and several closely related conceptual and theoretical issues, might be illustrated as follows. Imagine a town hall style meeting between employees and senior managers in the headquarters building of a foreign ministry most anywhere in the world. The purpose of the gathering is to identify and discuss the key issues likely to face policy makers and decision-takers over the medium to long term. A new recruit, for instance one of the candidates who has recently entered the State Department under the Jefferson Fellows Program, goes to a microphone and asks the panel of assembled Undersecretaries these three  questions:

  • What is the relationship among and between science and technology, research and development, and innovation, and how does this impact on the formulation of international policy and the management of international relations?
  • How has the nature and role of S&T changed in the transition from the Cold War to the globalization age?
  • Do transnational S&T issues differ in kind from more traditional challenges faced by analysts and policymakers?

While I am not in a position to guarantee that such a trio of questions would necessarily generate mainly an assortment of nervous glances, punctuted only by an awkward silence on the podium,  my experience would lead me to to predict exactly that sort of outcome.

Just why this might eventuate, and how those questions might have been broached, will be taken up in subsequent posts.

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.