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.

In countless presentations in Canada, the USA, UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand,  perhaps the main thing I learned is that diplomacy remains a very hard sell. It is still regarded as somewhat of an exotic, rarely discussed and widely misunderstood, even by those whose job is supposed to be doing it. In the public mind, as in the mainstream media, diplomacy has never recovered from the legacy of Chamberlain in Munich, when it came to be associated with weakness and appeasement. This can be seen in the still popular currency of expressions such as “talk is cheap” and “weasel words”.

Diplomacy suffers from a debilitating image problem, featuring diplomats as spoiled ditherers achieving little while drinking and dining off the public purse. It also faces a very real substance problem, related mainly to the inability of diplomatic practices and institutions to change with the times.

Diplomacy has not adapted well to the challenges of globalization, the defining historical process of our times which integrates economically even as it fragments politically, polarizes socially, and homogenizes culturally. This combination generates chronic instability, and what Chalmers Johnson has so aptly termed blowback. Even as it affords comfort and choice to a relative few, globalization has become a driver of the insecurity and underdevelopment which make for state frailty and, on occasion, state failure.

In the face of a rising tide of suffering, inequality, conflict and unaddressed perils – many rooted in science and driven by technology – the world is suffering from a double diplomatic deficit. This may be attributed to an increasing demand for, but diminished supply of diplomacy world-wide, and the serious performance gap which afflicts foreign ministries and foreign services most everywhere.

That said, diplomacy, by which I refer to international political communications characterized by a reliance upon negotiation and compromise, is still the most effective – and economical – alternative to the use of organized violence. The continuing dependence upon the force of arms, whether under the auspices of the Global War on Terror, or now, counterinsurgency, stabilization and overseas contingency operations, has proven costly and counter-productive.

Defence departments and military organizations exist, in the first instance, for the purpose of exerting power and compelling compliance. Foreign ministries and the diplomatic service, on the other hand, are designed to exercise influence through persuasion by identifying partners with whom to make common cause in the pursuit of shared values and mutual interests. To be sure, radical reform is overdue. Yet skilfully conducted, and notwithstanding the prevalence of misleading cartoon caricatures of men in top hats and women in pearls, diplomacy represents the best possible way forward when it comes to resolving entrenched differences and broaching even the most vexing of transnational threats.

The mitigation of globalization’s tendency to socialize costs while privatizing benefits, and the harnessing of its positive potential, should become the pre-occupation of both diplomacy and grand strategy. I remain convinced that the guerrilla diplomacy (GD) formula, through which messages are not only transmitted but received, and fed back into the policy development process, can deliver on that imperative. GD offers the prospect not only of improving the quality of international political communications, but also of altering behaviour at both ends of the conversation. Therein lies is the essence of the GD’s commitment to meaningful exchange.

In this climate change challenged, pandemic disease ridden, chronically resource short world we live in, diplomacy matters now more than ever, but it remains in crisis. Diplomats still languish in the bleachers as the legions march by.  That is why I have tried in the book to get beyond both traditional and public diplomacy, and why I will continue to advocate in favour of equipping our envoys for the 21st century and moving them into centre field. Absent that, this small planet is likely to look more and more like a smattering of razor-wire enclosed green zones, with security by Blackwater/Xe and sanitation by Halliburton, precariously vulnerable and exposed while attracting the anger and resentment of the excluded majority.

The continuing carnage in Iraq, multiple setbacks in Afghanistan, and the need to accommodate rising powers without repeating the mistakes of the last century suggest that governments today desperately need to find a better way to deliver international policy.

Guns will never get them there.

A capacity to engage in genuine dialogue, knowledge-based problem-solving, supple analysis and complex balancing just might.