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The Foreign Office and Post International Politics

September 16, 2010

I’m working my way through a big pile of documents on British diplomacy at the moment hence the UK centric nature of a lot of the recent postings.

In developing public diplomacy studies it is important to build up a picture of how different countries conceptualize the field.  Over the past 10 years the UK has developed a very distinctive approach, one that now appears to be evolving in a different direction.

The approach has been rooted in an analysis of the world that would be familiar to readers of James Rosenau or Ferguson and Mansbach, basically we are in an era of post-international politics.

The analysis set out in white papers and annual reports goes something like this.

We live in a world of global issues, eg climate change, terrorism, illegal immigration.  Individual states cannot deal with them in isolation;  these problems require global solutions.  This is understood as the formation of international regimes to provide appropriate regulatory structures and the capacity to strengthen governance within states.  The traditional diplomatic role of managing relations between states becomes less important.

Therefore, the appropriate role for the Foreign Office is the construction of coalitions (or partnerships or networks) that can manage these global challenges.  These networks take in other UK government departments, other countries, international organizations, civil society groups, business etc.   This leads to the blurring of distinctions between diplomacy and public diplomacy.  This also leads to the reallocation of resources from countries or regions to issues.

The logical consequence of this analysis is a focus on issues and multilateral organizations not on relations with countries.  If anything in early iterations of the approach such as the 2003 White Paper UK International Priorities:  A Strategy for the FCO there is an assumption that it is possible to influence state behaviour by getting international organizations to adopt the UK’s preferred regimes.  The route to influence is by using the ‘international community’ to impose norms on its members.

Even in 2003 this analysis overstated the capacity of the UK to achieve its aims.  What has become clear since then is that countries like China, Brazil, India, Russia are much more attached to traditional Westphalian models of diplomacy (the axis of sovereignty is a nice turn of phrase here).   The ability of the UK (and the west more generally)  to define a problem in such a way as to generate an international consensus has declined.  I think that this is part of what lies behind the emphasis that William Hague is giving to strengthening bilateral relations with countries like India.  The emphasis on issues means that you lose focus on the relationship with the country.  The thought seems to be that in order to manage the issues we need to manage the relations with the country ie diplomatically.  The result is that, to some extent at least,  PD will reallocate resources to building relations with countries rather than building issue based coalitions.

One of the motifs in writing about post international politics is the diffusion of power from states.  The rise of the axis of sovereignty points to a different logic of the shift in influence  from one group of states to another.

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