A better way forward in a troubled world? Why radical diplomatic reform is imperative

It is September, the seasons are changing, and Canadians have every reason to feel uneasy.

The erstwhile global village is today looking more and more like a patchwork of gated communities surrounded by a roiling wasteland of violent and terrifying shantytowns.

Over the course of the summer – and  undoubtedly much to the delight of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – the media has delivered saturation coverage of the Islamic State on the rampage, Iraq fissuring, carnage in Gaza, civil war in Libya, Russian adventurism in the Ukraine, state failure in Afghanistan, rising tensions in the East and South China Seas…

The torrent of troubles has been unrelenting.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, and just when the ill-starred Global War on Terror seemed finally to be winding down, our political and opinion leaders seem convinced that Western civilization is once again being menaced, this time by new iterations of both threats: a revived, and particularly strident version of Russian revanchism, and a media-savvy, unusually treacherous form of Islamist terrorism operating out of a reconstructed Caliphate.

Be afraid, be very afraid…

Reaching for the gun

What are Canada and our NATO allies doing in response? Talks have been initiated under various auspices, but these have been on the margins. In the mainstream, coalition-of-the-willing cheerleading and military machinations have prevailed, including:

  • Firing precision guided munitions and sending arms, advisors, and special forces back into Iraq
  • Pressuring NATO member states to increase military spending
  • Creating a new rapid reaction force
  • Bolstering air and missile defences and ground forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltic
  • Increasing naval assets in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.
  • Strengthening alliance relations in Europe and the Western Pacific.

Add to all of this the legacy of NATO’s aggressive eastward expansion 1999 – 2009, a back-to-the-future return of hostile sabre-rattling directed at Russia, and barely concealed efforts at the “containment” of China, and the full gravity of the current situation becomes clear.

The West has again been engaging in the international policy equivalent of putting out fires with gasoline. Doing more of the same old, same old, while hoping against hope that ratcheting up the threat or use of armed force will somehow make matters better.

This outcome is patently unlikely. For starters, much of the present instability – not least the devastating blowback now emanating from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – is causally rooted in the failure of previous military interventions. Secondly, when your tool of choice is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Not a very supple strategy of statecraft. Finally, all of this ignores the most enduring 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.

It all looks too familiar. Like the unpaid “peace dividend” of the 1990s, President Obama’s commitment to weaning the USA off its “permanent war footing” now lies in tatters. Instead, the US “strategy” to defeat the Islamic State consists of one part re-hash and one part long shot – not necessarily the defining elements of a winning combination.

Talk, don’t fight. But first…

The observations set out above may help to make the world today more intelligible, but they do not make it justifiable. If we are to avoid once more reaping the whirlwind generated by an over-reliance upon armed force, an entirely different approach will be required. Specifically, people everywhere will have to insist that diplomacy displace defence at the centre of international policy. Relative to the alternatives, diplomacy’s approach to the non-violent management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise is highly cost-effective.

Except… Just when they are needed most, most diplomatic institutions and practices are in crisis. Before diplomacy is ready for prime time, the world’s second oldest profession will require major reinvestment and a complete overhaul.

Although doing diplomacy has never been easy, these days the challenges are particularly daunting. With some significant exceptions – China, India, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia amongst them – the budgets of foreign ministries are being cut, diplomatic missions are being closed or downsized and foreign services are losing staff.

The profession has been slow to adapt to the globalization-driven reconfiguration of the operating environment. It is widely misunderstood, and suffers from debilitating image problems associated with perceptions of weakness and appeasement.

Before a credible case can be made for the infusion of new resources, however, ways must be found to identify new economies, to embrace innovation and to adapt. Radical reform will be required.

Mission impossible?  No, but progress will be complex and difficult.

An outline of ten concrete proposals will appear in the next post.