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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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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Looking Forward, Looking Back: Cautionary Vignettes

The outset of a new year, and indeed, of a new decade, is as good a time as any to pause and reflect.  As far as I can determine, the roiling, whirling forces of globalization which have been dominant for at least twenty years continue to cut all ways.

Consider, for instance, this initial sampling:

  • Long-serving Tunisian President Ben Ali – one of the region’s less despotic rulers in one of its more stable and prosperous countries – has been driven from power in a revolt which few, if any saw coming
  • The Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, which have in recent years experienced severe drought,  now face disastrous flooding
  • Baby Doc Duvalier, a reviled former dictator forced to seek exile in France in 1986, has returned to his still earthquake-devastated homeland, Haiti, for reasons as yet unknown
  • A previously obscure Icelandic MP and one-time WikiLeaks volunteer spokesperson, Birgitta  Jonsdottir, has become a near-celebrity, mainly by virtue of the attention lavished upon her by the US Justice Department
  • After decades of intermittent civil war and failed peace negotiations, the results of an internationally-monitored referendum suggest that Southern Sudan is now headed inexorably towards independence
  • The latest mass shooting incident in the USA has unleashed torrents of political vitriol and interpersonal venom, but has not appreciably advanced the case for gun control

Add to this mix a smattering of, say, suicide bombings and IED blasts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq,  and what emerges is a pretty good snapshot of the day’s news.

At first blush, it doesn’t sound much like anything that would have inspired Louis Armstrong to record “What a Wonderful World”.

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

Readers of Guerrilla Diplomacy will know that in that volume I argue that if development is the new security in the age of globalization, then diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

Were policy-makers to accept this formulation, then diplomacy, and in particular public diplomacy (PD), would be placed front and centre in international relations. Science diplomacy (SD), a term which encompasses both the use of international scientific cooperation to advance foreign policy objectives and the use of diplomacy to achieve scientific ends,  represents a critical component within the broader public diplomacy ambit.  Science diplomacy is an expression of soft power. It is perhaps best understood as a way to liberate scientific and technological (S&T) knowledge from its rigid national and institutional enclosures and to unleash its progressive potential through collaboration and sharing with interested partners world-wide.

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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.