Diplomacy on the Rebound at the Brain Food Buffet

From Tuesday through Saturday last week I attended the 52nd annual conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Montreal. The theme for this year’s event was Global Governance: Political Authority in Transition.

What does that mean? I still can’t say. But I can attest that this meeting represents one of the very rare occasions during which living legends such as Joseph Nye, Stanley Hoffman and Thomas Schelling can be seen and heard in the same general place and time. Moreover, they represent only the more recognized figures among the thousands of experts and specialists on hand.

Although dominated by participants from the USA, the conference also attracts scholars from Canada, Europe, the UK, Oceania and elsewhere around the globe. International relations is by far the most common of the disciplines represented, but economists, sociologists, anthropologists, and many others – including government officials, consultants and NGO representatives – attend as well. If it’s a subject of academic enquiry, international in scope, and communicated in the English language, then chances are you’ll find it at the ISA.

The event program looks and reads like a telephone book. Four times a day for four days, beginning at 8:15AM and ending at 6:00PM, 100 or so panels run simultaneously. While exhausting, this is a guarantee of  almost limitless choice, and if one promising discussion falls flat, there are endless fall back possibilities.

Each panel is organized under the auspices of one of the  various “sections” of the ISA – International Security, Foreign Policy Analysis, Political Economy, Intelligence, Development, and so forth. For networking, contact development, and most of all as a way to obtain a snapshot of leading edge thinking about just about anything international, nothing compares to dining out at this brain food buffet.

That said, for those whose primary interest is diplomacy, in past years it has been a good idea to eat before coming. If your tastes run towards dialogue, negotiation and compromise, the ISA has often served up some rather thin gruel. The diplomatic studies section is small, the panels it organizes tend to be poorly attended, and its membership is generally dispirited over the fact that within international relations, diplomatic studies is seen as somewhat of an orphan, marginalized and sidelined by the discipline’s preoccupation with more fashionable streams of enquiry. As Paul Sharp, the former head of the section remarked to me once: “This stuff is so important… I just don’t understand why no one pays any attention”.

It feels a bit like being a ham sandwich at a banquet, or the State Department representative at a Pentagon briefing.

Last week,  however, there were signs that things might be changing. Several important developments set this session of the ISA apart from its recent predecessors, and in combination suggest that diplomacy, at least within the ISA and perhaps even beyond, may be on the rebound.

One major shift involved the level and intensity of participation on the part of members of Canada’s oft-maligned Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). I began to attend these conferences regularly back in 1997, and can recall many occasions when there were few if any DFAIT staff in attendance. This year I counted at least ten, including the Deputy Minister, Morris Rosenburg. His appearance at a reception co-hosted by CIGI was as unprecedented as it was welcome. I can think of no better way for the deputy head of the foreign ministry to meet face to face with the major Canadian and international thinkers in his area of responsibility.

Kudos to those who recognized the ISA meeting in Montreal as a strategic and cost-effective outreach opportunity, and moved to seize it.

Also noteworthy at this year’s event was the formation of a Public Diplomacy Working Group. This new body drew wide participation from among members of both the Diplomatic Studies and International Communications sections of the ISA in a full day pre-conference seminar. Discussions at this convocation, and at several panels organized by the working group over the course of the ISA itself, included topics such as PD results measurement, theory and research, new media and multidisciplinary approaches. The creation of this new PD entity, in combination with the much improved attendance at the various of the other sessions on diplomacy, has provided some much needed inspiration to those committed to the study, practice and promotion of the world’s second oldest profession.

In total, there were the eighteen panels this year dedicated to the discussion of diplomacy. The topics widely varied, and included nuclear non-proliferation, global health, and multilateral negotiations. I attended many of these sessions, and also served as the commentator for a panel on diplomatic training. All of which got me thinking – if diplomacy is on the rebound at the ISA, what of its broader prospects?

Will governments be prepared to revisit their international policy priorities and provide the resources necessary to engineer a diplomatic renaissance?

What is the future for diplomacy in the 21st century?

More on that in a later entry.