Rethinking Diplomacy, Security and Commerce in the Age of Heteropolarity

A few weeks ago I attended  an International Symposium on the the subject themes organized by the University of East Anglia’s London Academy of Diplomacy.  I was especially keen to participate because I had helped with the conceptualization and design of the conference.  Lately I have also been trying to develop the idea of heteropolarity as a tool for making better sense of world order in the 21st century.

Attendees were invited first to consider a fundamental question: “Does diplomacy still matter?”  The consensus was yes, increasingly so.  But most also agreed that diplomacy’s practices, practitioners and institutions have not adapted well contemporary circumstances, and in particular to the exigencies of the  globalization age.

It was observed that in the public mind diplomacy has suffered from its association with weakness and appeasement, and that diplomats have been caricatured as ditherers, drinking and dining off the public purse, lost in a haze of obsolescence. Western diplomacy especially is seen as having failed to deliver the expected peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, a problem compounded by the militarization of foreign policy after 9/11 and the prosecution of an undifferentiated and  ill-defined “war on terror”. The Cold War, it seems, simply morphed into the Long War, featuring “overseas contingency operations”, stabilization programmes and counter-insurgency campaigns world-wide.

In short, the conferees agreed that diplomacy – a non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise – has not delivered the goods. Most diplomats work for states, and these days states are of diminishing importance, only one actor among many on a world stage now crowded with multinational corporations, NGOs, think tanks and celebrities.  In recent years foreign ministries have lost much of their turf, with leadership passing increasingly upwards, into the hands of presidents and prime ministers, outwards, to other government departments and a host of new players, and downwards, to other levels of government. Tradition-bound and inherently change-resistant, diplomacy has been sidelined and become marginalized, displaced in government by a preference for the use of armed force.

This condition, most speakers suggested, could usefully be remedied.

Today, clearly delineated empires are no longer colliding, and the spectre of world war and thermonuclear annihilation has receded. In the globalization era, the most profound threats and challenges to human survival – public health and pandemic disease, food security and resource scarcity, diminishing biodiversity and climate change, to name a few – require solutions which are rooted in science and driven by technology. The use of armed force is unlikely to be of much utility; bombs and guns, generals and admirals can’t readily address the issues which now imperil the planet.

Diplomats can and should dedicate themselves to engineering this kind of security.

But are they?

Not well enough, it was conceded, and the emergence of a heteropolar world will make the task of improving diplomatic performance all the more difficult. The mainstream view is that world politics hav returned to some kind of a multipolar dispensation. From that observation it is believed to follow that traditional means can be used to establish some kind of new balance, one based largely upon conventional, and widely shared assumptions about the nature of power and the use of influence.

As is so often the case with the received wisdom, several speakers argued, there are good reasons to doubt that proposition.

For the past few hundred years, high-level statecraft has been concerned mainly with balancing power in an ever-changing world.  From the age of European empires through to the end of the Cold War, the statistical indicators of national power – armies, navies, missiles, warheads, economies, populations, territories – were carefully calculated, codified and notionally balanced in an attempt to secure stability. Treaties were entered into and alliances made for purposes of expressing or extending these balances. When imbalances arose, as they inevitably did, negotiations were re-opened. If the negotiations failed, wars usually ensued.

And so were efforts to craft security and world order fashioned.

With the advent of globalization, however, international power and influence have become are highly dispersed geographically, and, crucially, the sources and vectors now vary enormously. Unlike the case in the previous eras, the heterogeneous nature of the competing poles renders comparison difficult and measurement even more so. The emergence of a heteropolitan world in which the drivers and goals of power and influence are no longer easily meshed will inevitably cause friction. Among and between highly differentiated poles, edges will be sharp, competition fierce, objectives divergent and interests difficult to align. In areas such as trade, investment and environmental protection, and finding basis for bargaining has already become difficult. Efforts at balancing are certain to be dizzyingly complex.

In that regard, and even more so at this time of global economic weakness and uncertainty, insufficient  attention has been paid to relationship between diplomacy and global business, and to the matter of commercial diplomacy. Senior executives at the helm of large multinational enterprises have a role not unlike that of corporate ambassadors. They could learn much from diplomatic practitioners, not least in terms of mastering the arts of cross-cultural and strategic communications, relationship and network building, advocacy and representation. Commercial attaches and trade commissioners, for their part, need to rise above the routine tasks of trade and investment promotion in order to focus on finding ways to make globalization work for a larger number of the world’s inhabitants.

This has little to do with knowing where the meeting rooms are or having an inside line on VIP room reservations at the airport. What counts most in terms of adding value will be market intelligence and the quality of interpersonal contacts: key players, opinion leaders, facilitators, and potential partners. The accomplished commercial diplomat will certainly how things work, but, more critically, will know how to work the system.

So, does diplomacy matter, are diplomats still necessary?

Symposium participants answered resoundingly yes, not least because diplomacy privileges talking over fighting.  If human-centred, long-term development is the key to the new security, then diplomacy must displace defence at the core of international policy.  But if diplomacy is going to work, then the basis of security will have to be re-imagined, and foreign ministries will need to be fixed – made relevant domestically, made effective in their operations, and made more responsive to today’s challenges.  The requirement to manage globalization and heteropolarity in a manner which addresses the issues associated with growing polarization and inequality will be germane.

It is for elected governments to set foreign policy.  But if policy is the poetry of international relations, then diplomacy is the plumbing.  And diplomats must ensure that when the tap is turned on, something other than rust and scale comes out.

Those who gathered in London last month agreed that if provided with the resources, training and outlook to get the job done,  diplomacy and foreign ministries can and should be restored as the catalysts for the imaginative strategic thinking and broadly-based policies required in the 21st century.

And yet… are governments listening?

Recent budgetary decisions taken in Canada and elsewhere make me think not.