Lessons from the Ends of the Earth

In my recent travels down under, I was struck repeatedly by the sense in which New Zealand and Australia seem for a Canadian at once remote yet accessible, exotic yet familiar.

They are in, but not of the Global South.

I was even more impressed by the extent to which the necessity of adapting to the reality of power shift – notably from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific – has registered at both the official level and among the population writ large in both countries.

As Anglophone outliers on the fringe of a former empire, this strategic and historical re-orientation is in many respects understandable, especially given the stunning rise of China and India, the steady progress of integration in Southeast Asia, and the extant economic accomplishments of Japan and Korea. Still, and certainly more so than countries in Europe or the Americas, they are doing what they can to position themselves to advantage.

As I travelled around, field testing the Guerrilla Diplomacy message – namely that the time is ripe for a revolution in diplomatic affairs and the adoption of an alternative understanding of security,‭ ‬development,‭ ‬and international relations in globalization age – the main lines of argument seemed to resonate.

Kiwis and Aussies didn’t need much convincing that if they are going to prosper in the Pacific Century, then they will have to make the most of their diplomatic assets in an increasingly heteropolar world.

For them – as for Canada – hard power coercion is simply not an option. And even if people are not shouting from the rooftops that grand strategy is urgently required, most of those whom I encountered were far less quiescent about their place in the world than your average North American.

Many of those I spoke with even agreed that diplomacy does, or at least should matter.

Nonetheless,‭ in the Antipodes as elsewhere, diplomacy ‬has been marginalized,‭ ‬sidelined,‭ ‬and is in crisis. It is suffering from the same “triple whammy” which has exacted such a devastating toll just about everywhere:‭

  • the continuing militarization of international affairs, through which policy has become an instrument of war,‭ ‬rather than reverse, and as a result of which foreign ministries find themselves severely under-resourced
  • the substantial failure‭ of diplomatic institutions to ‬adapt their practices to exigencies of globalization, resulting in structures that remain far too risk averse, hierarchic and authoritarian, and largely without the capacity to manage the emerging suite of transnational issues which are rooted in science and driven by technology‭
  • the debilitating image, if I may paraphrase the London cabbies whom I focus tested last fall, of diplomacy as synonymous with weakness and appeasement, and diplomats as dithering dandies, hopelessly lost in haze of irrelevance somewhere between protocol and alcohol.‭

Today,‭ then, diplomacy is suffering from grave problems of both image and substance. It is not delivering results for governments or for citizens. To make matters worse, that performance gap is exacerbated by an environment in which the‬ demand for diplomacy vastly outstrips its supply.‭

Evidence of this yawning diplomatic deficit is found not only in the rising tide of suffering,‭ ‬inequality,‭ and ‬unaddressed threats which beset us, but also in the ongoing socialization of globalization’s costs and‭ ‬the privatization of its benefits. The resulting polarization, coupled with the abject failure of diplomacy to engage remedially, in my view constitutes a peril far greater than ‭than any kind of terrorism, political extremism or religious violence.

So. If you don’t want to live in some variation of a of surveillance driven, razor wire encrusted green zone, with security provided by Blackwater and sanitation by KBR, what to do? How to break from this vicious cycle, to get from the unenviable place where we are to somewhere better?

Voyages down under have brought me back to first principles.

In the first instance, the art of international political communication through dialogue, negotiation and compromise needs a new,‭ more ‬contemporary narrative which goes well beyond the current discourse on either traditional or public diplomacy.

There are signs that this project is underway.

Secondly, analysts require a whirled view, a model of global order which extends well beyond the obsolete and territorially distinct notions of first, second and third worlds.

This, too, may be in train.

Finally, a radical and comprehensive reconstruction of mainstream thinking about the essential nature of international relations is long overdue.

Evidence of that enterprise remains scant.

On this climate change challenged, pandemic disease ridden, chronically resource scarce planet we live on, governments desperately need to find a better way forward, one without the enormous human and financial costs associated with the use of armed force.  I would suggest that they start by investing in the creation of a cadre of diplomatic professionals adept at knowledge-based problem solving, and able to apply complex balancing skills among and between sharply competing values, policies and interests.

Defence departments have the money, but this isn’t a job for soldiers.

And aspiring international policy bureaucrats –  those who now dominate diplomatic services and who favour life “in the bubble” to that in the street and prefer chatting with colleagues about what might be going on outside to finding out for themselves – need not apply.

It is time to hold on dispatching the legionnaires and instead to invest in the development of guerrilla diplomacy