Posted by: tnowotny | January 30, 2011

The Philosophy still underlying much of diplomacy is highly dysfunctional

In January of this year an event in the Vienna Diplomatic Academy commemorated the 50 year anniversary  of the re – establishment if this institution; as well as the 40 years anniversary of the Vienna Diplomatic Convention.

I was invited on a panel; The draft for the conribution I provided is rendered below. Diplomacy should seriously reflect of what it wants to achieve in today’s world. It would have to ajusts its tools accordingly


Thomas Nowotny

The Future of Diplomacy in a global context

What is diplomacy about. Which world – view is expressed in its rules and traditions?

Some of you might have come across a game called „diplomacy“

Players move of soldiers and military equipment across the maps of continents, and in order to prevail conclude or dissolve alliances with other players.

Isn`t it strange that today still such a game could still be marketed under the name “diplomacy”?

Are we still in a world in which in the words of Prussian king Frederic the Great “diplomacy without weapons  would compare to music performed without instruments”.

Obviously, those intellectuals who talk about the usefulness of war god Mars; and about his being superior to  the accommodating goddess Venus, these intellectuals  might still stick to the notion of war and the military being the base, being the sole true currency of diplomacy.

But we – the rest – should find it difficult to share this world view of Frederic the Great; this world view  of war – god Mars reigning supreme. Instructed by the history of the 20th Century we should feel obliged to discard such notions. In that time since 1913, all wars had an end contrary to the end envisaged by the side that started the war. Wars serve no rational, no political purpose.

So let us assume – or hope – that the view on the centrality of military power is indeed just the view of a shrinking minority. Yet even with these views discarded,  we would have to re – consider the other notions inherent  in the  traditional concept of “diplomacy”.

This concept has evolved together with the modern European states, with the purpose of legitimizing this new, post Medieval order as it was finally enshrined in the Westphalian Peace:

In this then new order of things the “Sovereign” was to  rule supreme, immune to all outside influences; unencumbered by supra national restrictions and authorities such as popes or emperors.

Diplomacy was given the task of safeguarding this autonomy and independence; and at these times such arrangements were not dysfunctional. These were the times of zero sum games or negative sum games. With the productivity of economies constant, wealth and power could be expanded by the expansion of territory only. It was thus sound practice to not just keep foreign armies out, but to keep out also any significant foreign influence on internal affairs.

Also, these sovereign and their diplomats did not have to bother too much about what we now call the Global Commons; or Global Goods and Global Bads. Fish were plenty in the oceans; starvation in China had no repercussion in France, and they did not have to deal with the issue of nuclear proliferation; or with the coordination of global air traffic.  

We have, I believe, not yet fully taken account of the implications of  the revolutionary changes in the global situation that has taken place since; and which have accelerated dramatically with the full onset of the industrial revolution.

The rapid growth in the world’s population and the even more rapid expansion in the world’s wealth has led to – and was contingent on –  ever more dense interdependence. In middle sized, wealthy countries, international trade nearly equals the Gross Domestic Product. Nearly as much is exported and imported as is consumed locally. For our mere survival, for food and energy, we therefore depend on things we import; and we pay for that by things we sell to the producers of energy and food. The area of Global Commons, of Global Goods and of Global Bads has expanded drastically; as becomes obvious in a register or the most pressing fears  that plague Austrians – such as fears about the impact  of the world economic crisis; about mass migration; about terrorism; about global warming; etc.  

Not just our wealth, but also our security and perhaps and in extremis even our survival is dependent thus on our capacity to govern this interdependence. It is  dependent on the capacity  to ban the dangers inherent in this interdependence  and to extract from it the vast potential for individual and collective improvement.

Diplomacy should be a tool – and an important one – in tackling that task. But has the old traditional diplomacy transformed itself enough to truly meet that challenge?

Not if it would be based on what nonetheless still is its foundation in official international law: namely the 1961 Vienna Diplomatic Convention. Its article 41 imposes the “ duty not to intervene in the internal of the receiving state”. That would imply that diplomats would be restricted in their contacts  to those with the ministry of foreign affairs of their host country. The convention also defines diplomats as the privileged and even solely relevant channels for communication between states,

That is echoed by the British diplomat Harold Nicolson whose book on diplomacy is still considered a standard text and according to whom, ”the ambassador remains the chief channel of communication “ and “he alone could explain the purposes of one government to another”.

Harold Nicolson and the Vienna Diplomatic Conventions might seem quaintly out of tune with everyday reality. We continuously interfere in other country’s affairs as,  in fact, the borders between the internal and external have become blurred.

The failure of US regulators to stop the destabilizing developments in the market for financial derivatives has been one of the causes of the a crisis that has indeed “massively intervened” in Austria’s internal affairs: And how other than as interference could one qualify interviews in CNN or Al Quezeera with   statesmen commenting  policies of other states?

But have we, in diplomacy, truly left behind that world of Harold Nicolson and of  the Vienna Diplomatic Convention? Has diplomacy really ceased to be an instrument of competition and strife between states – each seeking a  maximum of freedom of action?  Has it truly adapted to the task of managing interdependence; of maximizing “Common Goods” and  banning “Common Bads”?

Unfortunately, there is evidence that it has failed to do so at least on many occasions. It would be in our best interest, for example to have as leaders of international organization strong personalities. But more often than not, weaker ones were enthroned so as not to curtail the political options of member states.

Much of even present diplomatic life still seems diffused by a zero sum, dysfunctional  race for prestige and prominence; as evidenced by the disproportionate amount of political energy vested in a efforts  to fill this or that post of mere symbolic significance – such as the post as chairperson of a Committee of the UN General Assembly. The same spirit gleams through some of the present reflections on the era Kreisky and on Kreisky’s foreign policy. It would have made us more prominent than others; it would have gained us prestige, so as if that would have been the true and ultimate purpose of these policies. It was not.  Kreisky  promoted  policies aimed at international decisions and actions that served Austria because it served others too.

So we have to discard what is still left from these vestiges of an outmoded zero – sum diplomacy and adapt it fully to the present task of managing global interdependence.

What has to be taken into account? Let me just name a few factors:

The emergence of new global actors such as Non Governmental Organizations or – prominently – financial markets.

The globalization in particular of information, and the concomitant emergence of a global polity.

Within countries, civil servants other than diplomats will also assume functions that once were exclusively function of diplomats

Further shift from bilateral diplomacy to multilateral diplomacy; and shift in weight from representations abroad to work at the foreign ministry; and increasing specialization within the diplomatic service

New tools provided by information technology

A lessening of diplomats representative and symbolic functions

Coordination of national actors who become active in global governance

Increasing foreign policy role of the heads of government

And finally: an enduring role of states as anchors of the system of global interdependence, which diplomats still being essential for the completion of that assignment.


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