Archive for the ‘Diplomacy’ Category


Foreign Policy Elite Defends the Foreign Office

November 24, 2015

This week we are hearing about the UK’s public spending plans for the next four years which will include substantial cuts. Given that the government has committed to spending 2% of GNP on defence and 0.7% on aid the only place for cuts in the foreign budget is the FCO and two groups have put out reports in the last couple of weeks to make the case for growth in foreign affairs expenditure.   First on the scene was Strengthening Britain’s Voice in the World from the UK Foreign and Security Policy Working Group and this was closely followed by Investing for Influence from the LSE Diplomacy Commission. The latter group has a more academic make up – although the ‘academics’ include several retired diplomats and the former is more drawn from the think tank community. The media is represented by the Financial Times and the BBC, the LSE has a banker.

As you might expect the ‘think tankers’ have produced a more narrowly focused report while the ‘academics’ take up broader issues of nature of the international system and the purposes of foreign policy but the two reports recognizably emerge from the same milieu. Both argue that the UK should pursue an active foreign policy and needs to invest in its diplomatic machinery. Both are concerned about the decline of spending on the diplomatic service. As the think tankers conclude governments ‘cannot talk the rhetoric of being a global player while at the same time cutting back on many of the institutions that sustain British influence abroad’.   They also agree what British foreign policy is about; for the think tankers it is the ‘support of an open, liberal international order’ for the LSE ‘a dispassionate advocate of both globalisation and governance.’ These two papers essentially restate the logic of the past two decades of British foreign policy which have produced the current situation where however persuasive the government finds the argument for 2%+0.7% everyone else finds the UK unengaged with foreign policy.

What is more interesting in these papers is the what is absent from them and looking at them this way suggests some of the features of how the British foreign policy elite constructs the world.

  1. This is international politics without politics. Britain should support ‘a rule based international order’ or in the words of the LSE ‘the UK’s key relationship, as it for all states, with international society as a whole: in a globalised, networked world, states’ interest in the system’s overall operation vastly outweighs their partial interests within it.’   There is zero insight that there might be different rule based orders and that the UK tends to favour a particular version of a rule based order.    Everyone might agree that the absence of rule based order would be bad but that doesn’t mean that they agree on which rules and how they are applied.
  2. This is international politics without priorities. Part of the reason for this is that there is no sense of geopolitics in these documents – indeed it is the think tankers who head a section ‘global not just regional’.  Geography is one way in which priorities can be set.       Both the reports slip into the typical British perspective of identifying Europe with the EU as something which is different from foreign policy. Here there is something that can be learnt from French thinking where the EU and an idea of Europe as a geopolitical space coexist, the EU is an asset that France can choose to use or not, and the existence of the EU does not abolish countries as geopolitical actors.   From this perspective Europe must always be a foreign policy priority for the UK regardless of the EU.
  3. There is very little in these documents about democracy and human rights – oddly the academics have less discussion of this than the think tankers.   How much significance should be attached to this? Are they advocating de-emphasizing these concerns or merely taking them for granted?
  4. There is also little about one of the centrepieces of British foreign policy thinking over the last decade and a half: the doctrine of stabilization.  That fragile and failed states are the sources of threat to the international order (not least through terrorism, drugs and refugees) recent events make this proposition plausible. The corollary is that the UK (and its partners) can, through a mix of military, political, humanitarian and development actions, resolve the situation. The problem is that while the proposition makes sense in theory it’s not really clear that it works in practice. The political and organizational challenges of stabilization are simply too much for Western coalitions to handle.   If organizational dysfunction is normal should the UK put so much effort into doctrinal and organizational innovations (eg Building Stability Overseas Strategy, Stabilisation Unit and associated funding streams)?

If you read these reports together you get an idea that British foreign policy is supposed to be about doing global good deeds with little sense of priorities or feasibility; it’s no wonder that beyond the members of these study groups most people (including the political class) don’t seem very engaged by it. These are the same ideas were originally set out at the height of post Cold War Western self confidence. If British foreign policy is not to be guided by George Osborne’s random enthusiasm for China we need some new thinking for a post Western World.


Five Quick Thoughts on the Diplomacy and Development Review

May 13, 2015

I’ve been reading Enduring Leadership in a Dynamic World, the State Department’s recent Quadrennial and Development Review. There been some interesting commentary  for instance here, here and here

Four quick thoughts

  1. A few years back people began to talk about the fusion of diplomacy and public diplomacy. If you do that though what happens to the identity of diplomacy and public diplomacy?  On the basis of this report the dialectic gives you something new. There is remarkably little diplomacy or public diplomacy (or for that matter development) in this report what you get is diplomacy as the construction of a civil society centred model of governance.
  2. If you follow the Western practice of statecraft this isn’t surprising but I think that this is something of a challenge to academic Diplomatic Studies (either in the ‘classical’ or ‘modernist’ variants) and International Relations – the routine theoretical opposition between states and civil society doesn’t work when civil society is the chosen instrument of foreign policy.
  3. Practically every page of this report has new examples of programmes, initiatives, partnerships with business, civil society, foundations, international organizations and I’m left wondering how much of this is ‘real’ in the sense of making a significant difference and about the fragmentation of management attention and resources that this implies.
  4. Joe Nye and others have argued that in the contemporary world that there is diffusion of power from the established power centres to rising powers and a diffusion of power from states to non-state actors.  The key bet in this report is that it’s the latter that will win out but the resulting civil society will be a liberal and pro-American one.   I’m not convinced that this end run around nation-states will work out as well as the QDDR seems to suggest, not least because, as I’ve argued civil societies have a substantial national component.

Morocco’s New Public Diplomacy Network: West African Sufi Brotherhoods

March 23, 2015

In theory public diplomacy is about building relationships. In practice countries rarely start from scratch they build from a base provided by relationships that already exist.

There’s an interesting example of this in a new report from FRIDE on Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Morocco has tended to ignore Africa but because of the economic situation in Europe and the regional security situation it has launched a diplomatic offensive to build relations with African countries. One of the relationships it is activating is that with the Tijaniyyah Brotherhood a Sufi network with millions of members spread across west Africa. Because the Islam in the region was originally spread by the Moroccan Almoravid dynasty the king of Morocco is regarded as a religious leader and Fez as destination for pilgrimage this network is being activated as an asset for Morocco. This means pledges to build mosques, offers of training for imams and cheap flights for those coming to Morocco on pilgrimage. The promotion of Moroccan sufi Islam is extremely welcome in Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger and Benin presumably as a balance to the activities of more hardline varieties of Islam.

Of course this being International Relations there’s a competitive element here – Morocco traditionally regards Algeria as a rival and the sufi card is one that Algeria, as a formally secular state lacks.

It’s also worth noting that as with many things public diplomacy initiatives that new tend to be repetition of things that were done in the past Kane (1997) points to previous efforts, from the 1960s to the 1980s, by the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Saudis as well as the Moroccan to engage the Sufi brotherhoods as part of their public diplomacies.
Kane O (1997) Muslim Missionaries and African States, in Rudolph SH and Piscatori J (eds) Transnational Religion and Fading States, Boulder  Colo.: Westview, pp. 47–62.
Tadlaoui G (2015) Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Madrid: FRIDE.

Finland, Australia and Luxembourg at the 2012 Security Council Elections

October 30, 2013

In 2012 Finland stood for election to a two year term on the UN Security Council.  It was competing for one of the two vacancies for states from the Western European and Others Group against Australia and Luxembourg and against expectations failed to get elected.  As a result the Finnish foreign ministry contracted the International Peace Institute to find out why they didn’t get elected.  The IPI conducted 50+ interviews with delegates from across the members of the UN and came up with some ideas why Finland didn’t make it.

It’s an interesting document because it casts light on a process I didn’t know anything about but also because of what it says about the importance of image even among diplomats and national decision makers.

The process of getting elected takes a long time; Luxembourg declared its candidacy in 2001 and Finland in 2002.  Australia didn’t start until 2008 but is estimated to have spent about $25m while Luxembourg and Finland spent one and two million Euros respectively.  The report makes the point that one of the mechanisms at work is trading  promises of votes on other elections so I would guess that if you start earlier it gives you more elections to trade off.   The elections are conducted by secret ballot so there’s no real guarantee that promises of support actually translate into votes.

Campaigns work at multiple levels.  Firstly each country tries to put forward a general narrative particularly about its contribution to the UN, secondly, countries try to secure promises of support on a bilateral basis and thirdly, they try to use connections to particular blocs of countries to get support.

One of Luxembourg’s assets was its size – 105 countries are members of the UN Forum of Small States, it also tried to leverage its status as a Francophone state, as a monarchy and reached out to Lusophone states because it has a substantial Portuguese community.  Australia used the Forum of the Pacific and the Commonwealth, Finland was limited to the Nordic and Baltic States.

Australia appeared to have an advantage because it’s not an EU member, given that there are already two EU members as permanent members of the UNSC there was certain resistance to effectively giving the EU four votes on the Council.  Reading between the lines of the report Australia could count on support from Britain and the US and Luxembourg and the apparent lack of united EU support for Finland was seen to weaken its broader campaign.

There’s also a sense that the international identity forged by the Nordic countries during the Cold War has faded

Many delegates stressed that Australia, Finland, and Luxembourg were all seen as “Western” or “mainstream candidates, and that “despite the fact that all three pretended to be different and except for their take on Middle East issues, there was no real difference in their policies.”

One delegate is quoted:

The Nordics used to be seen as countries of social democracy, closer to the developing world than the United States or the Soviet Union or other European countries. But the world has changed. Their image is not so strong anymore.  Developing countries have their own models

One point where the Finland and the other Nordic countries do have something of a distinctive identity is that they are seen as particularly militant defenders of “western values”

 a number of delegates, in particular among the Group of 77 (G77) countries, also expressed frustration at attitudes that, they believed, are sometimes not respectful enough of cultural differences. This was particularly the case, according to some delegations, with issues related to women’s rights or freedom of expression. As one delegate put it, the “Danish cartoons saga reflected badly on all the Nordic countries.”

One delegate explained: “We have difficulties with the Nordic attitude on social and human rights issues. The Nordics impose their definitions, which sometimes are not acceptable to Islamic countries. Other EU members may think the same, but the Nordics are in the lead; they are more vocal. We want them to understand that there are different views, other cultures, and that the UN is not only Western. You cannot achieve your goal and make the others feel bad.”

It is difficult to assess if these views had actual consequences in terms of votes. However, in discussing Finland’s candidacy, several delegates did indicate during interviews their reservations on the profile of Nordic states at the UN and their preference for more “modest” candidates. One delegate noted: “Luxembourg was seen as the underdog, a modest country, not one that imposes its views among the Western countries. Being the small one among the West, Luxembourg was considered to be more understanding of the G77.”

The irony here is that Australia was seen as having the vulnerability of being particularly close to the US on Middle East issues.

The report suggests that as a UN good citizen Finland routes much of its aid through multilateral organizations which has the effect of reducing the country’s visibility.



Latour to British Foreign Policy via Blair, Part IV: Still Looking for A Policy

October 15, 2013

In this post I want to make the connection between Blair’s globalist vision and some of the more normal concerns of this blog about the machinery of government in the UK.

The basic argument here is that we have seen the development of a gap between high level visionary abstraction of the Blairite persuasion and the workings of a modernizing government machinery.

I think a key element here is the conjunction of two factors at work in British foreign policy over the past decade and a half; firstly the failed state agenda and secondly, the push for modernization in government.

Failed/fragile states have attracted a lot of policy attention –  Bosnia followed by the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq in addition there’s been relatively sustained policy interest in countries like Pakistan and Somalia.

Modernization had many facets but it was ‘joined up’, getting different bits of government to work together and it developing defined objectives that would allow assessment of value for money.  This is not something that has just happened in the UK.  Here’s a comparison between the UK, Netherlands and the Nordics.

It’s the combination of these factors that has led to a degree of learning and innovation in British statecraft.  This also saw policy innovations such as the Conflict Pool – funding accessible by different departments – and efforts to think through how to deal with this problems eg the Building Stability Overseas Strategy.  The result was an extremely coherent account of British statecraft although accounts of the system in action are much less impressive.

Despite this in there has a been a growing concern over the lack of strategic thinking in British government.  Including in the military.

What’s going on?  How can we have strategies but no strategy?

I think that the Building Stability Overseas Strategy gives hefty clue.  It explains why stability matters to the UK, what produces instability and how, faced with a situation of instability, UK government departments will work together and with other people to address the problem.  If this was a military document it would be extremely clear what it is.  It’s doctrine not strategy.  Doctrine gives a common understanding of a problem and an approach to working together to address it.  It doesn’t tell you which circumstances the UK will become involved or in which cases, it doesn’t tell you about resources, it doesn’t give timeframes.

In 2010 The FCO put out a training booklet on policy skills which laid out a hierarchy in which  strategy was placed above policy. To a Clausewitzian like me this raises a red flag.  Clausewitz places policy at the top of the tree not because it’s a label but because politics is where different aspects of the world are composed.  It we have five different priorities which do we choose to pursue? How do they affect each other?  How do they affect other people?  Can we get others to support us in this particular situation?

There is a parallel with a critique that applies to the  British and American armed forces.  Because national  leaderships will not or cannot properly define objectives and strategies based on political realities military thinking has tended to expand the reach of operational thinking (Strachan 2005, 2010, 2013, Bailey, Iron and Strachan 2013, Ledwidge 2011) .   I think that the same has been going on in foreign affairs more generally;  there has been lots of thinking about means and instruments much less about politics, policy and strategy.  What we get is a gap between the broad generalities of the Blairite vision and the working level.  This is gap that capital D diplomacy should partially be filling.

In the UK as in the US it’s become more common to see diplomacy, defence and development referred to together but in the context of failed states it’s the diplomacy that gets squeezed between defence and development.  In the US it’s common to see complaints about the militarization of foreign policy but in the UK it would be more accurate to think in terms of developmentalization foreign policy becomes an adjunct to development.  If we’re thinking in terms of modernizing government development and defence do planning and projects, they spend money and as a result have lobbies, they also both feel nervous about politics.  That’s really what diplomacy should be doing but the 3D formulation tends also to reduce diplomacy to a small d instrument of policy rather than a mode of interacting with the world.

There’s a big gap at the heart of British foreign policy between a particular one world vision and a set of techniques and resources to build that world.

In the final post of this series I’ll try (emphasis on try) to suggest a way forward.

Bailey JBA, Iron R and Strachan H, eds (2013) British generals in Blair’s wars. Farnham: Ashgate.
Ledwidge F (2011) Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Strachan H (2005) The Lost Meaning of Strategy, Survival, 47: 33–54.
Strachan H (2010) Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War, Survival, 52: 157–182.
Strachan H (2013) British National Strategy: Who Does It?, Parameters, 43: 43–52.

From Bruno Latour to British Foreign Policy via Tony Blair, Part 1.

October 8, 2013

I’ve been meaning to pick up my discussion of the potential of Actor-Network Theory for International Relations and the study of diplomacy but it’s got tangled up with something else I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently:  the state of British foreign policy both as it is and as it should be.    The result is something of an impasse and as way of moving forward on this I’m going to take (probably) three or four posts to work through these issues.  The argument in a nutshell is that the UK has quite a coherent theory of foreign policy, developed under Tony Blair, which is quite possibly wrong, Latour’s discussion of diplomacy tells us why it’s wrong.  A subsidiary theme of this is the disconnect between the theory of Diplomacy as it’s talked about at ISA and the contemporary practice of diplomacy.

The parts of this discussion are probably in the wrong order but as I need to push this ahead then we’ll take them as they come.

Firstly, Latour on politics.

One reason that I’m interested in Latour is because he frequently talks about diplomacy and politics as positive activities, in fact one of the basic problems with the modern world is that there isn’t enough of them. 

The importance of politics follows directly from his sociology.  As he argues, particularly in Reassembling The Social, sociology has been too ready to use ‘society’ to explain things when the real question is how can society exist in the first place.  In Latour’s world the mystery that needs to be explained is how things hang together rather than flying off in different directions.  Thus, politics is the way that assemblage of people and things are brought together and maintained.  This is a practical art, that in dealing with people places a heavy burden on rhetoric.  In his essay ‘What if we Talked Politics a Little’ he argues that it is precisely this effort to create the community that ensures that political speech always seems slippery but to demand that it follows the requirements of ‘straight’ talk either in the everyday sense or in a Habermasian version of ideal communication is to fundamentally misunderstand what political speech is about.  Pandora’s Hope (Chaps 7+8) contains a long dissection of Plato’s Gorgias where he argues that Socrates’s defeat of the sophists effectively replaces the necessary practical skills of politics with a version of  science  that is useless in practice.   This affects both how we understand politics and science by theoretically separating the two we become unable to effectively deal with the increasing numbers of hybrid issues where they are intertwined.

Tomorrow: Latour on Diplomacy, on Thursday Tony Blair.

Latour B (1999) Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Latour B (2003) What if we Talked Politics a Little?, Contemporary Political Theory, 2: 143–64. Copy here
Latour B (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: OUP Oxford.




Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

September 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.


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