Research Aims for a Sustainable Diplomatic System

A second-round conference on “sustainable diplomacy” recently analyzed efforts to produce a more viable diplomatic system even as the changing global security landscape places new pressures on it.

Keele University Professor Costas Constantinou, a co-convener of the day-long event, pointed to long-running dissatisfaction with the current system’s inability to resolve pressing global issues. Diplomacy must transform itself to remain viable, added fellow convener James Der Derian, director of the Watson Institute’s Global Security Program. Der Derian identified terrorism, instantaneous media, and other new challenges to traditional diplomacy, in a world where globally networked non-state actors practice diplomacy as well as a growing number of increasingly powerful nations.

The “Global Security and Sustainable Diplomacy” conference was held at Watson in late May with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute (PRIO). It followed a December event on “Paths to Sustainable Diplomacy” in Cyprus, which was also funded by PRIO. The goal is to publish path-breaking research on the subject and to suggest new directions to international policymakers. “This is not an academic exercise,” as Der Derian put it. “There are high stakes involved.”

The current challenges to traditional diplomacy may be paving the way for a new international political system, he said. As the bipolar system ended after the Cold War and the subsequent “unipolar moment” ended with the Bush administration’s failed Iraq war, three possible patterns began to present themselves: a multipolarity of powerful nations and their transborder institutions, the apolarity of a power vacuum, and a heteropolarity of states and their transborder institutions – along with non- and sub-state actors, nongovernmental organizations, and others practicing diplomacy through networked power.

Among other conference participants, Oliver Bange, a senior researcher and lecturer at Mannheim University, placed the conference’s discussion of “sustainable diplomacy” in historical context. Bange’s current research focuses on ostpolitik, the diplomatic and trade relationship between West and East Germany during the Cold War. In the 1970s, West Germany formally recognized East Germany’s existence and thus placed talk of immediate reunification on hold. However, its willingness to accept unfavorable conditions on the ground led the way to diplomatic relations with East Germany. Bange argued that throughout the following decades West Germany steadily “socialized the enemy” through increasing transfers of goods, people, and technology.

Sustained diplomacy is by definition inherently sustainable, Bange reasoned. He also identified the Middle East, the Koreas, and the Balkans as current geopolitical hotspots where the lessons of ostpolitik could be applied.

David Wellman, an assistant professor at DePaul University’s Department of Religious Studies, presented his research “placing diplomacy squarely within the disciplines of religion, anthropology, linguistics, and earth science.” Such factors go to the motivations of communities, including transnational communities, Wellman said. It is important for diplomats to understand how they play out in people’s lives and to relate to them in a sustainable way. Religion is often an overlooked element in transnational disputes, Wellman explained. It can also provide powerful vocabulary and imagery for crafting diplomatic solutions and promoting them to local populations. Wellman cited his fieldwork in Catholic Spain and Islamic Morocco, where shared Old Testament stories of Abraham and Adam provide parables for modern-day issues of international fishing rights and illegal immigration.

Another conference participant, University of Southern California Professor Geoffrey Wiseman, also called for a broader understanding of what constitutes diplomacy. There is a common misconception about policies of non-engagement, he explained. While politicians often argue that it’s as straightforward as “you talk to the enemy, or you don’t… [y]ou have a summit, or you don’t,” true diplomacy involves “diplomats of all sorts living in enemy territory.” Tourists, exchange students, and businessmen function as ambassadors of a country just as much as their official counterparts in the military or foreign service.

While discussing Wiseman’s paper, Geoffrey Pigman of Bennington College reminded conference participants that the default policy of non-engagement with an adversary country, essentially ignoring it, is a diplomatic strategy itself. International relationships are never one-sided, he maintained. The relationship still exists, it is just one of not talking or engaging. In light of this, Pigman then called for a wholesale reconsideration of American foreign policy. “We need to establish a big picture, comprehensive strategy for dealing with adversary states before deciding which techniques to use,” Pigman argued. Only after this long-range planning can the United States be certain that the technique of non-engagement accomplishes its policy goals.

Yet for all of the discussion of nontraditional diplomacy by these and other conference participants, Professor J. Peter Burgess, leader of PRIO’s Security Programme, reminded participants that, “Sovereignty is a concept that remains in play. … That’s where we still are.” Susan Allee, senior political affairs officer at the United Nations and visiting fellow at Watson, also urged conference attendees to expand the discussion of the future of diplomacy beyond academic circles to diplomats themselves. “Sustainable diplomacy is new to me,” said Allee, “and given where I work… that’s telling.”

Written with Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lindsay Mollineaux

Watson Institute 


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