Diplomacy is changing but it can still thrive
For many centuries, diplomacy and diplomats were held in high esteem, both as agents of maintaining peace and stability and of facilitating smooth and non-violent change in the international arena. It is almost impossible to pinpoint when societies, even in their very nascent forms, saw the need to communicate with each other in order to ensure their survival and promote their interests. It was not until the 15th century that Italy’s independent political entities began to establish permanent diplomatic missions. Ever since then, it has been the role of diplomacy, carried out by professional representatives, to act as the guardian of order in international affairs.
Diplomacy, like many other professions in the 21st century, is under attack due to changing public perceptions of politics, as well as advances in technology. The need for permanent representatives in other capitals — especially with public finances under ever-increasing pressures and some diplomatic tasks supposedly able to be replaced by telecommunication and social media technologies — is being questioned. Faster modes of transport, together with instant online communication, suggest that decision-makers can communicate directly with each other, making diplomacy and diplomats obsolete. Moreover, in the age of round-the-clock news networks and social media, the importance of diplomats’ engagement with the public seems to be diminishing. But all of these assertions must be challenged. A closer look at the diplomat’s “job description” reveals that these very changes might indeed require the diplomatic services to adjust and adapt; but nevertheless, as representatives, experts and negotiators, their importance is as crucial as ever, if not more so.
Instead of pronouncing diplomacy dead, we can inject a new lease of life into this revered profession.
No technology can replace the level of expertise and professionalism required of those who represent their country overseas or who work in foreign ministries across the world. Nor can it match the role diplomacy plays in international affairs, including settling disputes and conflicts. If diplomacy’s main concern is with the management of relations between states and between non-state actors through peaceful means in a world that is becoming increasingly belligerent, then the role of negotiators is far from being confined to history.
By the evidence of Brexit, or the need to contain the nuclear and regional ambitions of states such as Iran and North Korea, to prevent trade wars, and to bring about peace in the Middle East — to mention just a few examples of areas of international conflict — there is a desperate need for the art of diplomatic negotiation to be performed at its highest level. Frantic posts on Twitter or Facebook and inflammatory statements on primetime TV are no substitute for diplomatic interaction; in fact, they actually undermine the chances of reaching an amicable compromise.
This was noted by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said: “In order to be a successful negotiator, as a diplomat you have to be able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Unless you can understand what is motivating them, you are never going to be able to figure out how to solve a particular problem.” To do so, one needs to have the training, knowledge, expertise and experience that is embedded in the professional diplomat.
The more complex the task in hand, the more these attributes will stand in good stead those who negotiate on behalf of a country or non-state actor. For sure, heads of state or foreign ministers can travel between capitals and meet at very short notice, and they can also often call for summits. But they will never possess all the necessary knowhow on every single issue they need to decide on — some of which are matters of life and death — as will the diplomats who devote their lives to researching such issues and/or have their ears to the ground and their fingers on the pulse of the countries where they serve.
Public and digital diplomacy are two areas that are relatively new and growing in importance. As Joseph Nye, the renowned American political scientist, rightly contended: “In an information age, success depends not just on whose army wins but whose story wins.”
Public interest in international affairs grew steadily throughout the 20th century. The 1815 Congress of Vienna may have ushered in a golden age of diplomacy, which for nearly a century preserved stability in Europe by incorporating conflicting interests into a “balance of power” system that prevented major conflict. But, when this eventually came crashing down in 1914, as nationalism and miscalculation turned into a global cataclysm, people lost trust in an elite-led diplomacy. As a consequence, diplomacy gradually ceased to be the monopoly of the aristocracy, and the general public wanted to have input too. Fast forward to the present time and, as argued by Tom Fletcher, a former British ambassador: “The ‘iGeneration’ has more opportunity than any generation before it to understand their world, to engage with it and to shape it.”
Herein lies the opportunity. Instead of pronouncing diplomacy dead, we can inject a new lease of life into this revered profession by employing new technologies in order to avert or resolve conflict through negotiation, not to mention removing bias and prejudice by promoting cultural awareness and advancing economic cooperation. In a world where unabated nationalism and xenophobia have become toxic, diplomacy can use the same digital platforms to engage with the international public, based on thorough studies carried out in foreign ministries, to improve the human condition, rather than drive wedges between societies.
New technologies are presenting new opportunities for the world of diplomacy, but at the same time this doesn’t negate the importance of retaining some of the qualities of “old” diplomacy. The daily work of embassies across the world to safeguard the interests of their countries by constantly engaging with all walks of life enables them to become experts on the countries where they serve and to alert their home capitals of opportunities and dangers, while smoothing potential frictions. New technologies have not altered the truth of this by one iota. And the good old art of face-to-face negotiations, at times conducted in secrecy but without ignoring the need for approval of their outcomes by the sovereign bodies, remains an essential tool for maintaining international peace, stability and order. Long live the modern diplomat.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.