Diplomacy’s Prospects: Looking Forward, Looking Back – Part I

During my travels in the fall of 2009, and especially while spending time on trains and in airports, I  had many opportunities to reflect on the nature and future of diplomacy and international policy. I concluded that during the first decade of the 21st century, and 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there has been much more continuity than change in the conduct of international relations.

Global governance is still faltering.  States, however diminished in relative stature, and various transnational actors are still relying on the use of force – not simply as the final arbiter in settling disputes, but often as the chosen instrument in addressing their differences.

International policy remains heavily militarized, and the consequences have been calamitious.

Might the arrival of a new decade mark the beginning of diplomacy’s return to the mainstream of international relations from a protracted period of exile in the margins?

The arguments in favour are as persuasive as the track record is discouraging.

Diplomacy at its best is supple, versatile, highly cost-effective, and can produce lasting results.

The military, ironically, works best when it is not used. That was the enduring implication of the Cold War. The sword stays sharpest when left in the scabbard. Take it out, and you can make a terrible mess.

And the blade dulls very quickly.

In Afghanistan, the presence of foreign soldiers, once seen as liberating, has apparently become part of the problem. The Afghan people do not represent a threat to their neighbours or to the West. Like most anyone, however, they do not like to be occupied. They never have, as all who have tried can attest. Yet the burden of history has been ignored.

NATO metes out punishment with one hand, then offers to help and protect the population with the other.

When not rebuilding schools, power dams and hospitals, NATO troops fire on locally registered vehicles that fail to stop when a convoy passes, mistakenly bomb wedding parties, kick down doors looking for arms and Taliban, and incidentally maim and kill children as collateral damage.

This seems more like a formula for making enemies than friends. A percentage of the population will inevitably resist. That highly motivated group has nowhere else to go – they live there, they can wait, and they know the land and its people intimately.

What to do? Casualties are mounting as the ferment intensifies. Yet the US military, supported symbolically by at least some of their NATO allies, is surging. Whatever the window dressing, this may amount to an effort to put out the fire by adding more gasoline.

No one can read the future, and all historical parellels are imperfect, but in this case Viet Nam seems to me a better point of comparative reference than Iraq. Whatever its troubles, and however nasty the leadership and venal the regime, Iraq was an otherwise functioning country now ruined by the misguided application of external force.

Viet Nam, on the other hand, and not unlike Afghanistan today, was poor, had been wracked by civil war, and had a recent history of failed imperial interventions. The US role was divisive, media saturated and increasingly unpopular on the home front.

Legitimacy remains the issue. Karzai now is eerily evocative of Thieu then – weak, surrounded by corrupt cronies and acolytes, and deeply discredited domestically and internationally. A pair of marionettes. ISAF committments to accelerate training and the transfer responsibility to the Afghan National Army and Police sound very much like echoes of Vietnamization.

After a huge expenditure in terms of lives, finance and national reputation, in 1973 a face-saving way out of Southeast Asia was finally negotiated for the USA and its few remaining allies.  A few years later, the inevitable occured.

Diplomacy was used, but only as an exit strategy of last resort.  Sooner or later a replay is to be anticipated in Kabul for whatever remains of ISAF.

Meanwhile, as Iraq is being scaled back and Afghanistan cranked up, the threat conjurers are looking for the next candidate. Hardy perennials Iran and North Korea are again being tried on for size.

Yemen returned to centre stage after another stunning failure of intelligence and near epic tragedy on Christmas day.

Keep an eye on that space.

All of this might be sounding a bit too familiar. Whether restyled as counterinsurgency, stabilization, overseas contingency operations, or whatever, this is a continuation of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) by another name.

Watch what governments do, not what they say, and follow the money.

The GWOT is an open-sided, universal and undifferentiated campaign which may serve the interests of some, but amounts to a prescription for war without end.

British analyst Robert Fisk famously remarked that the only lesson we ever learn is that we never learn. There is a better way.

What if diplomacy was used, in the first instance, as the international policy instrument of choice?

In the next installment, we will cast our gaze backwards in time to look for some clues regarding how diplomacy might be employed to address the drivers of insecurity and underdevelopment in the decade ahead.