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How Strategic Can Diplomacy Be?

July 14, 2010

A few years ago I spent quite a lot of time hanging around with people from the Business School and one of the things that I picked up was the distinction that the management  literature  makes between ‘designer’ strategies and ’emergent’ strategies. (I think that this was debate that stemmed from some of the writings of Henry Mintzberg in the 1980s)

A designer strategy was one that fitted with a classical view of strategy as choice .  You look at the problem and figure out a solution.  You then implement the strategy and solve the problem.   Designer strategy  takes its cue from the state of the industry, it’s externally oriented.  An emergent view of strategy sees strategies as something that evolve from within the organization.  This has both analytical and prescriptive dimensions.  Analytically it says that the strategy that an organization has tends to emerge from an accumulation of decisions made in the middle and lower levels of the business not by a god like designer.  Prescriptively an emergent view of strategy focuses more on the capabilities of the organization it looks at what the business is good at doing and builds the strategy from that.  Emergent strategy’s critique of designer strategy is that organizations can choose strategies that they cannot implement in contrast emergent strategy is rooted in to the reality of practice.   The designers respond by pointing out that an emergent strategy is always going to be suboptimal and that sometimes an organization must make radical changes if it is going to survive.  Of course you can see how this debate would develop – it has to end with a synthesis of the two.  A purely emergent strategy will  result in a loss of strategic focus and a purely designer strategy may result in a strategic vision that  cannot be implemented by an organization.

Proposals to revamp diplomatic organizations usually demand that they become more strategic.  Implicit here is strategy understood in designed terms.  The problem is that the implicit models of strategy at work here are things like political or military campaigns.  Campaign models fit extremely well with the designer model of strategy.   American political campaigns are an extreme example because they are put together from scratch so that a consultant can actually build the campaign organization (sometimes including the candidate)  around the strategic concept.  This is not an opportunity that established organizations have.

I think that diplomatic organizations are pulled towards emergent strategies (or non-strategies) by the nature of diplomatic relations themselves.  Relationships create constraints.  A state’s diplomatic relations are permanent, embassies and country desks will seek to maintain and improve relations with their countries. In the absence of new resources changes in strategic priorities inevitably mean fewer resources for some of the portfolio of existing relationships which will inevitably be seen as a downgrading.  For instance the UK closed  embassies in a number of countries including Paraguay and Lesotho in 2005 and Israel had to cut back its diplomatic representation earlier in the decade.  It’s hard to read the closure of an embassy as anything other than saying ‘we don’t think that you are very important’.

So what is the conclusion?  Efforts to make foreign ministries more strategic lean towards the designer view of strategy but the conservatism (and resistance)  that they detect in diplomacy actually comes from the nature of the work itself, that is the practice of building and maintaining relationships.  On the other hand there still has to be a way to balance the competing demands of these different relationships.  This leads to the problem of how do we achieve the synthesis between the benefits of designed and emergent strategies in diplomacy?

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