New Diplomacy: Showing the Way in a Complex World?

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    Innovation in diplomacy is urgent as well as messy. It is urgent because for a country or region to position itself successfully within the rapidly changing global power balance traditional diplomacy does not suffice. 

    And it is messy because innovation in this case doesn’t mean replacing the old with something entirely new. It means continuing to do what works well, while experimenting with new ways to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the global community today; a community that has fundamentally changed since the start of the new Millennium. In this new dynamic, multi-polar world, every single solution to any of the flames flashing onto the global screen today requires multiple parties taking responsibility to ensure adequate outcomes are achieved.

    “With so many countries clamoring for a share of the global power pie, power was becoming more and more diffuse, and it clearly wasn’t just because China was becoming stronger. (…) The Obama administration was trying to harness the energy of these new powers and encourage them to take on world responsibilities. (…) America has to reinvent its diplomacy.” (Ghattas, p. 153)

     What is different? 

    Diplomacy is changing along at least three dimensions. The first is that in international relations today, national interests meet universal challenges. Not too long ago, diplomacy was about promoting national interests, while development was about eradicating poverty. Towards the end of the second Millennium, diplomacy and development started joining up much more, for example in the field of human rights, peace and security and international trade. Only a decade – and a global crisis – later a variety of challenges have been added to this global agenda, i.e. environmental sustainability, climate change, global health, private sector development, the absence of poverty, the right to food and clean drinking water. In addition most of these challenges are increasingly recognised as universal ones, meaning their effects and hence, international agreements to address them, impact all and not just a small number of countries. With this the broad categories of ‘industrial countries’ and ‘developing countries’ have been rendered all but useless. 

    What is left is a full panorama of nations that distinguish themselves from each other by the degree to which they have developed their polity, economy, and society and hence, the degree to which they are affected by and/or take responsibility for dealing with universal challenges. In international relations this implies that the more ‘traditional’ areas of diplomacy, peace and security, human rights, trade and business promotion have also intensified. And issues of national and regional interest - including fiscal constraints, access to energy, land, water and minerals - need to be factored in each step of the way. To be coherent in one’s approach to different issues therefore has become a central challenge. To strike a deal on just one item – i.e. poverty, trade, human rights - while neglecting the rest is no longer possible.

    The second dimension along which diplomacy is changing is the growing complexity of global interaction. The global power balance has been reshaped over the past decades. Strong economic growth in emerging economies, also in Africa, has increased the number of relevant global players. Besides, next to a rising number of intergovernmental and state actors, a whole new range of non-state actors has become relevant to diplomacy, such as international and local businesses, civil society organisations, as well as their global networks. Also policy relevant knowledge is no longer concentrated in a few places, but is generated and shared in distributed networks of policy institutes that span the globe. Finally, due to the intense media coverage international relations receive today - from traditional to social media - the general public has become a decisive factor. In short, today effective diplomacy requires activating a “large sticky web of diplomacy” (1), much beyond the networks of traditional multilateral organisations.

    “America had to be needed. It had to draw others close and sit at the center of a vast diplomatic web, an essential connector. For the proponents of smart power, this was another, essential way in which the United States could maintain its edge as a superpower in the twenty-first century” (Ghattas, p.39).

    The third dimension triggering diplomatic innovation is the availability of a wide range of additional channels and instruments to manage change in international relations and cooperation; today, effective international relations requires the combined use of diplomatic, security, financial, trade and development instruments. Multilateral institutions and multi-donor efforts remain important but many additional channels of influence may be activated as well: public-private partnerships, local, regional and global business and civil society networks, and national and international knowledge institutes and their global networks, to name a few. While sectors – sector ministries, industries, and dedicated civil society groups - take an ever more active part in international cooperation, including the forging of international agreements, the real challenge for effective diplomacy is to facilitate coordination, complementarity and coherence between the different actors and sectors necessary to hammer out a deal that lasts. 

    Challenges ahead

    New diplomacy harnesses hard and soft power by strategically applying the entire range of instruments of international relations and cooperation – i.e. Diplomacy, Defense/Security, Trade, Finance, Development – in a coordinated manner with international partners, striving at coherence and coalition building with relevant multilateral institutions and informal global networks of private sector and civil society actors for maximum global, regional or bilateral impact. It requires careful process planning and management: facilitating effective multi-stakeholder coalitions, including the private sector and civil society; articulating decision-making with multilateral institutions; stimulating private sector, civil society and public engagement and the effective use of knowledge and articulation with initiatives of informal networks around the world. 

    “…the inclusiveness under the ‘new diplomacy’ paradigm is not an impediment to a powerful post-2015 agreement. It is a chance to ensure ownership by all partners and increase the knowledge about needs. This is central to increasing the effectiveness of the future development framework.” (Frontini & Arends, p. 12 this issue)

    Some of the challenges that lay ahead: 

    (1) Diplomacy first and foremost needs to intensify its role in integrating international efforts to achieve tailor-made solutions to problems at partner country, regional and global level. Sustainable and inclusive development, accepted by most as the overarching universal objective, requires effective coalitions – of local, national and international players – and smart, well-informed solutions. The effectiveness of these efforts will be judged in terms of their outcomes. Hanne Knaepen (p. 26 in this issue) shows the need for such an integrated approach in the case of mainstreaming climate change in development. However, particularly in times of resource limitations, different initiatives need to push into the same direction, not counteract each other. So coherence will be another criterion to judge diplomatic success. Lundsgaarde (p. 21 this issue) points out the challenge of coordinating the roles played by the country’s own sector ministries.

    “The kind of help we need in the twenty-first century is for people themselves to overcome the differences that still divide them.” Hillary Clinton, quoted by Kim Ghattas, (ibid, p. 336)

    (2) Diplomats need to grow in their role as facilitators of international multi-stakeholder processes directed towards achieving support for national, regional and global public goods. External partners need to be needed, they need to be actively engaged in supporting local and national agendas in order to be able to gain the credibility necessary to help forge international coalitions for achieving durable solutions to global problems. In such processes ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ solutions will carry the day, as Ambassador Nana Bema Kumi argues in the previous article.

    ‘‘Development is a process of change, requiring adjustments in the societies of the developing countries themselves, as well as in those of developed countries. It also calls for profound changes in the structure of the relations between all nations of the world.’’ Prince Claus van Amsberg, The Netherlands.

     (3) Diplomats need to invest and immerse themselves in informal networks, besides playing their part in the spaces and events of formal diplomacy. In what a Dutch high level advisory committee to the Minister of Foreign Affairs characterised as our ‘hybrid’ world (1), diplomats need to actively engage in informal networks with key actors from business, civil society and knowledge institutes at the national, regional and global level. However, to (try to) engage with informal networks only when a crisis appears will not work, what is required is an active engagement over time with the transformative agenda of these networks to support and build trust with the network members.  And because such a long-term engagement is time and energy intensive, and costs money, strategic choices will have to be made by diplomatic services on what they can do, with whom and how. As a result, seeking complementarity and an international division of tasks among like-minded agencies seems absolutely necessary. 

    (4) Diplomats need to communicate effectively with a much wider range of audiences. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton understood (see quote from Ghattas below) this doesn’t mean personal contacts become any less important. But with the active engagement of informal and formal networks and the public at large in international affairs, the widespread and effective use of mass media, traditional as well as social media, becomes part of the daily routine of a professional diplomat. For diplomats who have been accustomed to doing their work mostly in private, perhaps this is one of the most difficult challenges: what to communicate, when and how to a broader audience? 

    “Diplomacy was no longer just about formal talks with leaders. Smart power was exhausting but, in Clinton’s view, essential. But though technology had shrunk the world to the size of a village, Hillary quickly learned that her counterparts still wanted to look her in the eyes to make sure they still mattered to Washington or to seal a deal. It was essential to show up – everywhere.” (Ghattas, p. 154)

    (5) In the face of the above challenges, diplomatic services clearly need to invest in reorienting, reorganising, and professionalising their services. In order to effectively seek collaboration and communicate one’s strengths in an overly populated international arena, a visible, distinctive and consistent approach to international issues is required. Countries and regions need to project a clear image of what they stand for and follow up on their commitments effectively. This requires for example, as Huub Ruël underscores in his article in this magazine, the need to professionalise commercial diplomacy. Peter van Bergeijk (p. 14 this issue) presents another example: improved decision-making tools to decide if and when particular instruments must be applied or not, need to be part of the baggage of the new professional of diplomacy.

    Dr. Paul Engel is Director of ECDPM.











    1. Kim Ghattas. 2012. The Secretary. Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC: page 39.



    This article was published in GREAT Insights, Volume 3, Issue 3 (March 2014)

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