New diplomacy: where do we want to go?

Jul 08, 2018 by adminidd in  Events

What is diplomacy? Who is a diplomat? And what is it that diplomats do? The answers to these questions will always be contingent. We can only ever give them from the vantage point of a particular place and time. We tend to forget this when we debate these questions. We also tend to forget that things could be otherwise and that by raising these questions we not only debate what is but also have a chance to rethink how things could or even should be.

In a recent blog post, Philip Conway takes up and renews the debate on ‘new diplomacies’ which (re-)emerged in a series of blog posts last year (here, here, and here). He makes a strong call for bringing the ways in which diplomacy is conducted, in particular who counts as a legitimate participant, into sharper focus. He argues that we should not focus so much on debating the new kinds of diplomacy as denoted by shiny new prefixes or ‘x diplomacies’. Rather, we should be concerned with (historical) marginalisation, existential recognition, and legitimate practices.

Scholar-practitioners like Shaun Riordan have a point when they urge us to question the theoretical and practical value of declaring new kinds of diplomacies such as sport diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and business diplomacy to name but a few. This is an important debate to have. However, I very much agree with Philip that to end the debate on new diplomacy here, is to miss a much larger point. Who is excluded? Whose practices are discounted?

New diplomacy… anyone?

It is useful to return to the current use of the term ‘new diplomacy’. In its recent incarnation, it describes the emergence of individuals and organisations hitherto not visible at the international level, and the inclusion of topics that have so far not been considered relevant for international relations. Depending on who you ask, this is considered an empirical fact, a functional necessity, or a normative imperative.

In practical terms, we have seen glimpses of this new diplomacy emerge in the form of calls for multistakeholderism – the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders – and the establishment of multistakeholder models of global governance. This is strongly articulated in debates about Internet governance (IG) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in particular. Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been praised for the inclusive consultation process that led to their adoption.

However, in both cases, observers are concerned about the depth and width of this new diplomacy and whether the term really delivers on its promise of greater opportunities for participation. Concerns have emerged that multistakeholder Internet governance is dying. Similarly, consultations as part of the SDGs have warned against ‘token forms of participation’, which are ‘obstacles to genuine forms of empowerment and involvement’.

In this vein, but focused on a different set of examples, Geoff Berridge finds evidence of the ‘counter-revolution in diplomacy’, understood as a turn away from the promises of new diplomacy, towards an increased reliance on secret negotiations and power politics. In other words, one of the conclusions one might draw is that the state is back and new diplomacy is all but a myth. But much like the focus on prefix diplomacy and ‘x diplomacies’, we cannot end our discussion here.

From widening our perspective to pluriversal views

If we take the long-term view and understand diplomacy as a practice that is historically contingent, another perspective emerges. We find a long history, in which the diplomatic system of modern Europe with its focus on the nation state, adopted as the global standard in the early 20th century, is only one of the more recent incarnations. In other words, however one might describe the current system, it is simply one of several incarnations of a diverse practice. From this perspective, attempts to solidify one particular model of diplomacy, by for example only declaring representatives of (European style nation-) states as legitimate participants, are not only unhelpful but also complicit in the marginalisation of practices that do not fit the established mold.

Diplomacy is plural, as Costas Constantinou, Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp highlighted in their introductory chapter to The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy. However, in the traditional understanding of diplomacy, this plurality is circumscribed by the state. Who and what are we missing when we only count official representatives of states as legitimate actors?

If we take the idea that diplomacy is to be plural seriously, this plurality cannot be circumscribed by preemptively narrowing down the range of participants and topics or by narrowly pre-defining the process through which deliberations should take place. But what is the yardstick then?

This is where the pluriverse can offer a way of rethinking current practices. As Philip puts it, the term pluriverse describes a way of ‘recognising that there are indefinitely many more ways of existing in the world, indeed of conceiving and making worlds, than has been admitted by the imperial proclivities of modernist Eurocentrism’. In the words of post-development scholar, Arturo Escobar, it is ‘a different way of imagining life’ and ‘another mode of existence’. In this sense, the pluriverse is more than simply a plurality of views that could easily be condensed together through compromise.

Where do we go from here?

As a starting point, a diplomacy which aims to pay respect to different ways of imagining life needs to hold space for recognising other modes of existence as legitimate. There needs to be space for raising views and discussing issues related to these different ways of imagining life through an appropriate process of deliberation.

It seems that this is the point where our current diplomatic system is failing. For example, processes such as the SDG consultations that promise greater inclusiveness, struggle with this. As have I begun to argue elsewhere, the SDGs, though global in ambition, could do better in reflecting a plurality of imagining life. For example, looking at the way the SDG indicator framework defines quality education, it seems that we encounter one particular way of viewing the world and one particular way of defining what good education looks like and what it is supposed to accomplish in society. Despite broad consultations, we do not find broad views reflected in the outcomes. There is a very real danger that a global goal simply does not reflect the pluriverse with its different ways of imagining life and other modes of existence.

This raises questions beyond new prefix-diplomacies and ‘x diplomacies’ that we urgently need to tackle.

Enough of ‘new’ diplomacies: reclaiming the diplomatic pluriverse

Jul 08, 2018

I am a little late to this particular party; however, in the middle of last year, a very interesting debate broke out between the blogs of Shaun Riordan, Katharina Hone and others on the subject of ‘new’ diplomacies. Does the proliferation of new ‘kinds’ of (or prefixes for) diplomacy serve an intellectual, analytical purpose, or is it just another case of academics hankering after scholarly turf?

As Katharina writes: ‘Indeed, those practices we describe as diplomacy are expanding. We are seeing discussions on digital diplomacy, climate diplomacy, health diplomacy, business diplomacy, education diplomacy, and sport diplomacy to name but a few. Should we, as scholars and practitioners of diplomacy, be concerned? The worry seems all too real. If everything is diplomacy, then nothing is. An ever-expanding concept eventually becomes meaningless. Does this charge apply to these new diplomacies?’

To be sure, from ‘-isms,’ ‘turns’ and (lately) ‘-cenes’ to ‘x diplomacies,’ the urge to name and rename is a strong one. I myself have named this urge ‘entrepreneurial neologism’ (which is, of course, an example of itself).

But, as regards diplomacy, is this just another semantic snowball fight masquerading as thought or does it serve a purpose? Well, to be honest, I think this is a case of a badly formulated question. We have the starting point all wrong.

If what we are really talking about are the conditions under which different kinds of practice can be legitimately counted as ‘diplomacy’, then we are dealing not at all with an idle academic question but, rather, with an intensely – indeed, existentially – political one.

As Sam Okoth Opondo and others have argued, through the course of what is known, euphemistically, as ‘the expansion of international society’ (i.e. European colonialism), the non-white and non-Western were precluded from being agents of diplomacy until such time as they ‘were converted into something recognizable, yet inferior to the European standard’. Modes of inter-collective negotiation and conflict resolution that did not conform to the received standard not only could not be accepted as legitimate but could scarcely be accepted as existing. By definition, diplomacy was an institution of the civilised; therefore…

If there is a gap – nay, a gaping abyss – in the research of diplomacy today, it does not concern the role of sports or business people (although these are legitimate and necessary courses of study). Rather, it concerns the historical marginalisation and suppression of forms of diplomatic practice undertaken by and between collectives not recognised as legitimate (i.e. state) actors by colonial and imperial powers.

Practices like the ‘wampum diplomacy’ of the Iroquois have received some coverage in anthropological and, to a lesser extent, diplomatic literatures. However, such studies are few and far between. Within the academy at least, the decolonisation of diplomacy has barely begun.

So, in short: Questioning the varieties of diplomacy is not just an idle intellectual debate. It is a matter of sovereignty and existential recognition. In other words, we are talking about matters of diplomatic ontology – what kinds of beings can be recognised as legitimate parties to diplomatic engagement?

This is an historical matter; however, it is also utterly contemporary. When representatives of the First Nations existing within the territory of Canada meet with state representatives, is this an ‘internal’ negotiation between the government and an interest group like any other? Or, is it a meeting between occupying and occupied polities?

It seems to me that this is the point from which to begin questioning diplomatic plurality, rather than from formalistic schemas or issues of professional propriety. That said, starting from this point does not preclude any of the questions that Shaun, Katharina and others have been asking. It simply makes clear what is at stake.

In anthropology and elsewhere, it has become popular to contrast the ‘universe’ with the ‘pluriverse’ – the latter term recognising that there are indefinitely many more ways of existing in the world, indeed of conceiving and making worlds, than has been admitted by the imperial proclivities of modernist Eurocentrism.

The problem with the ‘new’ diplomacies debate is twofold. First, it implies that issues of diplomatic variety are somehow recent, rather than the state-centric understanding of diplomacy itself being historically produced. Second, and as a consequence, this debate thinks too small – fiddling while Rome burns the world.

We must accept nothing less than the reclamation of the diplomatic pluriverse.

Philip Conway is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled ‘The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.’ He blogs on these and other issues at http://circlingsquares.blogspot.co.uk.

Confessions of a #DigitalDiplomat

Jul 08, 2018

Is diplomacy better off with the Internet? This question was on my mind as I was following the Twitter exchange between President Trump and the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Each tweet escalated the rhetoric and moved us further from a peaceful solution – to conflict – and a resolution of differences, the main purpose of diplomacy.

Whether the Internet makes diplomacy better or worse is a very personal question for me. For the last 25+ years, I have been promoting the use of computers, and later the Internet, both in diplomacy and society in general. In the late 1980s, in former Yugoslavia, the Sezam BBS (proto-Internet) was the place to hear voices that differed from official ones.

Back in the early 1990s when I moved to Malta, the only way to be part of global academic debates was to use the Internet. I connected by dial-up to the Graduate Institute and CERN in Geneva. Our high telephone bills were worth paying, since it meant being part of global debates and exchanges, despite physical remoteness. In 1996, DiploProjects offered the first online course for diplomats from small island states in the Commonwealth. For many small island states from the Pacific and Caribbean regions, online training used to be (and still is) the main way to train staff. We became – de facto – the diplomatic academy of small island states in a cost-effective and innovative way. It was digital enabling at its best.

This is how I have been ‘digitally formed’: with the simple, innovative, and effective use of the Internet, creating missing links worldwide.

But, the more the Internet became a business and political tool, the more cautious I became. I began to be concerned when the Internet enabling story started turning into a sort of ideology. Today, the Internet is being portrayed as a solution to most of the problems we face. In its most radical form, this ideology argues that the more computer power we have, the happier we will be. On this ideological journey towards a ‘bright digital future’, we are not supposed to ask too many questions. In the past few years, we have faced a bitter awakening. Technology has met humanity: ideological techno-optimism has been replaced by techno-pessimism.

Today, both the digital world and diplomacy are undergoing a profound transition. While the risks are enormous, the good news is that discussions about reconciling technology and diplomacy are frank and open.

First, we should get back to the basics of diplomacy. Diplomacy’s main function is to solve conflicts peacefully. Whether diplomacy acts to advance national interests or to serve a global cause, or both, it should do so peacefully. If the Internet does not help diplomacy, it should not be used. In fact, all main diplomatic breakthroughs in the last few years have happened without the Internet in the negotiating room (Myanmar and Columbia transitions, Kosovo negotiations, Iran Nuclear Deal). And most failures escalated online (tension with Korea, Jerusalem crisis, etc.).

Second, the #NoHarm principle should be the core principle for #DigitalDiplomacy. In practice, #NoHarm should include simple steps. For example, when a Twitter exchange is likely to escalate into a crisis, as often happens these days, diplomats should pick up the phone and talk to the ‘other’ side or, even better, if it is possible, go for a coffee with them. In addition, diplomats should try to communicate evidence and facts via social media. With these and many other ideas, we can launch the call of #NoHarm for #DigitalDiplomacy.

Third, diplomats should fight for the relevance of compromise. Compromise is the core tool of diplomacy and a pillar of an interconnected society. Without compromise, there are no inclusive institutions, the key for the success of digital society. But, the relevance of compromise is not echoed in societies worldwide. Compromise is not considered a virtue. Try to find a street in your town named after diplomats or politicians who engaged in compromise. The Internet is no help. Readiness for compromise is quickly becoming depleted in the highly polarised ‘binary’ debates on social media, framed around ‘us’ and ‘them’. Compromise is more than reaching a deal: It is a way of shaping and addressing the problem. It involves careful listening, empathy and engagement, and respect for others.

Revitalising compromise will take time. If we succeed in doing so, we will make a great contribution to the future of humanity in the digital era.

A timeline of activities promoting the use of ICT in diplomacy, spanning 25 years