Exploring the Myths of International Relations: Three Deadly Disconnects?

Summer in Canada is a wonderful time to reflect.

In that spirit, I was intrigued by an article, entitled “Seven Myths About International Relations”, which appeared recently on the splash page of the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) web site. It is part of a new series being published under the theme Diplomacy and Duplicity: The Myths, Fictions and Outright Lies of International Politics.

I commend the CIC on this latest initiative. Over a few short years of existence, this organization has produced an impressive record of achievement. It has carried forward the work of its predecessor, the venerable, but perpetually vulnerable Canadian Institute of International Affairs, but has innovated, diversified, and reached out to new members and partners. Two years ago the CIC launched its comprehensive Open Canada report on possible new foreign policy directions, and in the interim have presented a steady stream of high quality commentary and analysis authored by the likes of Roland Paris, Jennifer Welsh, James Der Derian and many others. The Council doesn’t hesitate to address sensitive issues, such as what went wrong in Afghanistan, and it keeps the fresh content flowing.


It occurs to me that in this era of anti-government government, and with the continued downsizing of the state, Canada’s comparative advantage in thinking about the implications of a changing world may well be moving out of official Ottawa. With budgets at DFAIT, CIDA, IDRC and other international policy institutions under significant downward pressure, it is both refreshing and a great relief to see a civil society actor stepping up to the plate and helping to fill the civic gap created by a muzzled, cowed and receding public sector.

This country’s vibrant community of NGOs, universities, and think tanks could now be in a position to drive the international policy discussion and debate.

I certainly hope so.

But a closer consideration of just how those structural changes might play out is for another day…  Back now to the CIC’s list.

The “Seven Myths” paper sets about puncturing the following tenets of received wisdom:

  • Europe is united
  • The U.S. is exceptional
  • The ICC is an International Criminal Court
  • China pulls the world’s financial strings
  • Aid helps
  • The U.S. will defend Taiwan against China
  • Casualties undermine public support for war


In reviewing the nature and treatment of the candidate topics, I am reminded of Foreign Policy magazine’s regular “Think Again” feature. While the CIC’s catalogue might be considered somewhat particularistic and eclectic, I admire the effort to parse the issues and to bring some focus and shape to an otherwise sprawling and chaotic intellectual tableau.

Still, it seems to me that a selection process of this sort must itself be underpinned by a deeper set of assumptions. These serve in turn to inform the appearance (or not) of the specific items elaborated on the CIC compendium.

At this more elemental level of analysis the real mythology of international relations is more clearly revealed. In that respect I can identify three discrete, but inter-related clusters of ideas. All are widely subscribed, but none can be convincingly supported:

  • Multipolarity is back – power can once again be balanced;
  • Security is a martial art – armed force should be the policy instrument of choice;
  • Diplomacy is ineffective and irrelevant – its place is on the sidelines.

Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Multipolarity. In the wake of its colossally ill-conceived intervention in Iraq and the subsequent Great Recession, the United States’ unipolar moment has ended. It is widely held that the world is now reverting to some kind of a multipolar dispensation, much as prevailed in Europe from the 19th century until the end of WW II.  To be sure, world order is once again characterized by the existence of multiple poles. However, unlike in the days of Metternich and Castlereagh, the Congress of Vienna and Concert of Europe, this time around the sources of power and influence most closely associated with each pole are characterized by difference rather than similarity. Assessed in those terms, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the USA today have much less in common than did the “Great Powers” 100 years ago. Multipolarity in those days was premised upon the conviction that because the vectors were comparable, power could be quantified and balanced. With the contemporary diversity and diffusion of power – up, down, and out from states – that fundamental observation no longer obtains. A different model is required.

I would propose the concept of heteropolarity, an approach to the understanding of world order which is predicated upon the heterogeneous nature of competing poles.

Security. Back in the epoch of multi-, bi- and unipolarity, theorizing about security was highly state-centric: how best to defend against threats posed by other states. Today, however, the most pressing issues imperilling the planet – climate change, environmental collapse, the need to cooperatively manage the global commons – are transnational rather than international. In terms of impact, they are felt less by states than by people. Generals and admirals, bombs and guns can do little to protect the well-being of individuals in the face of these sorts of challenges. Indeed, the principal concerns preoccupying the majority of the world’s inhabitants seem to revolve largely around meeting basic needs in the absence of want and fear, and finding ways to pursue opportunities without encountering inordinate constraints. If the human person is the primary referent of security in the 21st century, then security is best understood not as a martial art, but as the flip side of long term, equitable and sustainable development.

Put another way, it is underdevelopment which breeds insecurity.

Diplomacy.  Since the dark days of Chamberlain in Munich, diplomacy has been associated with weakness and appeasement, with caving in to power. Diplomacy’s image remains decidedly negative. Like the cartoon caricatures in pin stripes and pearls, diplomats are widely seen as dithering dandies, hopelessly lost in a haze of obsolescence somewhere between protocol and alcohol. Diplomacy also has serious problems of substance – it is not performing at anything near its potential. Rigid, disconnected and convention-ridden, the profession and its practices and institutions have been slow to change and adapt. Yet however incapacitated, marginalized and misunderstood, a compelling case can be made that diplomacy today matters more than ever. When it comes to the management of global issues and international relations through non-violent political communication, there are no alternatives.

In our messy and complicated, heteropolitan and insecure world, it warrants a much closer look.

How, then, to stitch all of this together? In a nutshell, I believe that because development has become the basis for security in the age of globalization, diplomacy must replace defence at the centre of international policy.

Unconvinced? Then try this on. Since the end of the Cold War, in seeking to advance their interests or in the face of significant differences, most governments have opted to reach for the gun. This practice has become so widespread and ingrained that policy has become an instrument of war, rather than the reverse. The consequences have been calamitous in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, while on the home front society is becoming militarized and the armed forces are adulated.  Defence departments and their uniformed services have become prominent, and in some cases dominant national institutions.

For Canada, this rebranding represents a radical departure.

Yet the world’s most worrisome problems – and I would not place religious extremism and political extremism amongst them – are simply not amenable to military solutions. Drone strikes are useless against hunger. Special Forces can’t capture the cures to pandemic disease. Alternatives to the carbon economy won’t be acquired through invasion. Still, defence departments receive the lion’s share of international policy funding, while foreign ministries and development agencies struggle on the sidelines. Not only does this asymmetry give rise to serious distortions and misallocations, but governments have failed to apprehend the main lesson of the Cold War, namely that militaries work best when they are not used.

Take the sword out of the scabbard, and it makes a dreadful mess.

The military is both too sharp, and too dull a policy instrument to treat the vexing problems of globalization – polarization and inequality not least – which afflict us all.  A capacity to engage in knowledge-based problem-solving, informed analysis and complex balancing – that is, diplomacy, made smarter, faster, lighter, more intelligent and supple – is our best hope. To be sure, 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. The good news is that with a commitment to reform and some modest re-investment, diplomacy’s deficiencies can be remedied.

So, there is another way forward. By rethinking world order, recasting security and re-imagining diplomacy, a better future is within our reach.

If the will can be found to address and treat these three deadly disconnects, it just might be possible to avoid the swathe of worst case outcomes – including many of those set out on the CIC list – which are otherwise headed our way.