In The Media

Ten steps to a world-beating diplomatic corps

by Daryl Copeland

iPolitics
September 26, 2014

In my last posting, I made the case for radical diplomatic reform as an alternative to the use of armed force in international relations.

How would that work?

A bit of background: Last month I attended an international conference in Salzburg which marked the centenary of the First World War. It was entitled Architects or Sleepwalkers: 1814, 1914, 2014 — Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future.

Participants were searching for ways to avoid the disastrous mistakes of the past century, during which two world wars and a Cold War killed tens of millions. I argued that although there are no military solutions to the most vexing challenges facing the planet, a cosmetic makeover of the diplomatic status quo will not suffice. At minimum, ten transformative steps will be required:

Mandate and mission: Foreign ministries are largely stuck in the 20th century — if not the 19th — and need to up their game by transferring issue-specific files to line departments. Responsibility for cross-cutting, inter-sectoral issues, for ensuring international policy coherence, and for the management of globalization in an increasingly heteropolar world would be the new focus.

Organizational structure: In an age when supple networks and lateral connectivity rule, diplomatic institutions remain rigid, stratified, and inward-looking. Administrative silos and elaborate hierarchies must be replaced by a smaller, flatter, more lithe and responsive structures better fit for present purposes.

Representational footprint: Diplomatic missions abroad reflect dated preconceptions and resemble cookie-cutter constructs concocted in an era of state-centricity. Today’s embassies and consulates must respond to conditions on the ground, which might mean setting up in a storefront, Quonset hut, hotel room or even virtually, wherever and whenever circumstances require.

Corporate management:  Too many senior executives believe that foreign ministries are cathedrals, that the foreign service is a priesthood, and that diplomacy is something akin to liturgy.  Those who have been “Peter Principled” to the top should be counselled-out and replaced by others with the skills and experience required to manage human and financial resources effectively.

Political leadership: In the absence of an energetic, inspired minister, foreign ministries tend to turn inwards, undertaking endless reviews, re-organizations, and otherwise trying to keep busy while biding time in anticipation of the next cabinet shuffle. Diplomacy flourishes under the demanding direction of an influential, capable and visionary leader.

Bureaucratic culture: Ambitious careerism, bureaucratic self-service and specialization in making the boss look good are poor substitutes for critical consciousness and speaking truth to power. Less ‘kiss-up, kick down’ and acceptance of arbitrary authority, combined with more risk tolerance and a rigorous commitment to innovation, are essential.

Diplomatic practice: Traditional diplomacy is largely conventional, scripted, and conducted in secret. Today the epicentre of enlightened diplomatic practice must be public — creative, interactive and transparent; smarter, faster and lighter.

Science and technology: The greatest threats to human survival and progress have little to do with political violence or religious extremism. If foreign ministries and international organizations are to successfully address global challenges such as climate change, diminishing biodiversity and environmental collapse, huge improvements in scientific and technological knowledge and capacity are imperative.

Digital tools: As clicks displace bricks and the Gutenberg galaxy gives way to cyberspace, social and digital media have become indispensible diplomatic instruments. Internet savvy is now crucial to everything from citizen engagement to counter-terrorism.

Resource allocation: In diplomacy there is a dialectic relationship between results and resources. Because a vital connection to place provides the basis for the foreign ministry’s competitive advantage, re-investment in expanded representation and personnel deployment abroad is the sine qua non.

Refined manners, book learning and Ivy League education still have a place in diplomacy, but so do the qualities of resilience and self-sufficiency more easily acquired through grassroots volunteer work and independent world travel. Foreign ministries still tend to attract — and advance — individuals with a greater interest in protocol and privilege than the causes of poverty or the abuses of power. But in the rough and tumble precincts which prevail, CD plates and fancy titles can be as much of a hindrance as a help.

Being an effective diplomat involves much more than acting as an international policy bureaucrat, delivering programs and services, writing reports, organizing visits and talking with others who look, talk and act alike about what might be going on outside the compound. Genuine diplomacy — and the generation of invaluable human intelligence — is about finding out first-hand, and being at ease with the task.

In the barrio, favela or conflict zone, flopping around like a fish out of water just won’t do. Better leadership, deep administrative, management and structural reforms, strategic thinking and working smarter undoubtedly will be required if the diplomatic deficit is to be covered.

Similarly, getting more of the right kind of people out into the field will be necessary, as will experiments with innovative tools such as crowd-sourced problem-solving and open policy development. But not one of the measures listed above — or all of them together — will be enough to do the job. Before a compelling bid for the provision of new resources can be made, governments, opinion leaders and citizens must first be convinced that foreign ministries and diplomats are prepared to do the necessary.

In short, the world’s second-oldest profession must not only change, but be seen to be changing. In Canada, as elsewhere, evidence of that commitment has so far been scarce, but it is urgently needed if humanity is to realize its potential.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacyand a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.  Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo. The full text of the policy paper summarized above is available here.


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