War and Diplomacy – Part III

In the past two posts, using the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have tried to show that in today’s highly conflicted world,  diplomacy matters more than ever. That said, the world’s second oldest profession is underperforming and faces a crisis of relevance and effectiveness. Diplomatic institutions and practices have not adapted well to the challenges of globalization, and diplomacy’s image is too often negative.

For these reasons and more, diplomacy has been largely ignored, and not infrequently ridiculed by journalists, think tanks, and international relations scholars. Perhaps most surprisingly, even governments – if expenditure priorities are any indication – have chosen to invest elsewhere. That neglect, I believe, has proven costly, as foreign policy has become increasingly militarized and as states have continued to rely on armed force as the instrument of choice. The results have been calamitous, not only in themselves, but because the more profound threats and challenges facing the world, most rooted in science, driven by technology and having little to do with political violence or religious extremism,  have not received the attention they deserve.

Diplomacy’s problems can be remedied, but the necessary transformation will require a fundamental rethinking of some key elements of international relations, “security” and “development” foremost amongst them. Most of all, the entire “diplomatic ecosystem”, consisting of the foreign ministry, foreign service and the diplomatic business model, will have to be reconstructed from the ground up. But don’t hold your breath. Fixing diplomacy, and getting from fighting to talking, from diktat to dialogue and from coercion and compulsion to compromise and negotiation is going to be one tough slog.

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Looking back, it has been at least 100 years since diplomacy began its drift away from the mainstream to the margins of  international policy. In that respect, except for maybe a moment or two around November 11th, few people think much about the First World War. That’s unfortunate, because there is much to be learned from that turbulent period.

Although civilians were not targeted and casualties among non-combatants were comparatively low, the mass use of the most technologically sophisticated and lethal armaments that the world had ever produced brought state-sponsored death and destruction to new levels. The onset of industrial scale war ensured that the military toll, at over three million, was staggering. When it was all over and a peace deal struck finally at Versailles, the War to End All Wars resolved little, and, over the longer term, achieved less.

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I have always been fascinated by the last century’s first great conflagration. My grandfather enlisted at 17 and spent four years in Europe’s trenches. A couple of summers ago, for the third time since the early nineteen seventies  and in the company of my father and son, I revisited several of the principal battlefields along the former Western Front in France and Belgium. We were interested especially in the places where Canadians had fought: Vimy Ridge, Beaumont-Hamel and Courcelette  near Arras; Passchendaele, Hill 62 and  particularly St.Julien around Ypres, site of the first large scale gas attack.

There are now many interpretive centres and museums, brimming with photos, artifacts and maps that assist the visitor in coming to terms with the magnitude of the carnage. To my mind, however, the human costs are expressed most forcefully in the endless rows of white stone tablets that populate the countless cemeteries maintained impeccably by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. For Canadians, the emotional experience of confronting this physical testimony to the waste of so many young lives is magnified by the embossed presence, at the top of each headstone, of a single, stylized maple leaf.

The burial grounds and monuments are certainly powerful — the solitary “brooding Canadian” at St. Julien stands in striking contrast to the soaring, sorrowful statuary at Vimy — but there is no substitute for visiting the battle sites to appreciate the almost unimaginable dimensions of the violence. Two hundred thousand French dead at Verdun. Fifty-eight thousand British casualties on July 1st, 1916, the first day of battle on the Somme and the worst day ever in the history of the British army.

Were it not for all of the memorials, and all of the dead, the casual passer-by would not guess what happened there. The former front lines are eerily peaceful and mainly pastoral now. Years of tillage have restored the once mangled landscape.  The orderly patterns of established agriculture have a calming effect. Ragged shell holes and huge mine craters have mostly been smoothed away, like so much else of what we would rather forget, and their shapes now melt seamlessly into the flowing rural contours. The trees, reduced by artillery to pulp and matchsticks ninety years ago, have re-grown. The atmosphere is pacific and prosperous, very much the new Europe.

These images evoke reflection on the big questions that haunt us still. Why, for instance, did the political leadership choose war over peace, fighting over talking? When it became clear so early on that stalemate would be the main result of frustrated attempts to outflank each other in Western Europe, why did both sides opt to continue the slaughter for another three and a half years?

Could diplomacy have resolved outstanding differences and accommodated the rise of new powers by offering plausible alternatives to violence?

Almost certainly. But to address this century’s complex suite of threats and challenges, there is much to be done.