Charting power shifts in a new world for diplomats



by Daryl Copeland

The Hill Times
August 10, 2016

The Liberal government has launched defence and development reviews, but little is known of its intentions regarding diplomacy. This is the second of a series meant to offer thoughts on Canada’s role in a changing world.

In the last instalment, I argued that during the Cold War, whatever its many hazards, Canadians were able to find ample room for diplomatic manoeuvreing.

Are opportunities still available today?

Perhaps, but navigation is tough. World order has given way to a whirled order, with many of the old distinctions and assumptions blurred or erased. There is less political or ideological conviction, and more volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In the 25 years since the Soviet Union imploded and the icy grip of Cold War constraint melted away, much has changed. The Great Thaw has transformed the operating environment, freeing up virulent strains of ethno-nationalism, nourishing religious fundamentalism, and gestating a new threat set.

Defining features

1. Intensified globalization: With more trade, investment, travel, and migration, globalization speeds up time while compressing and deterritorializing political space. Driven by the revolution in information and communication technologies, globalization is the defining historical process of our times.

The globalization age came into its own at the end of the Cold War and has survived many crises since, including the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Globalization’s flagship is the internet, and its transnational tides have eroded sovereignty and reduced the importance of borders.

But globalization is not a neutral force. It is linked to deregulation, privatization, free trade, and austerity—all parts of a laissez-faire package intended to reduce government’s size and scope, and enlarge the private sector’s role.

Globalization creates wealth, but not for all. Its tendency towards the socialization of costs and privatization of gains exacerbates inequality. Whatever its virtues—not least the efficient allocation of productive resources—the greater connectivity that is a hallmark of globalization has also engendered mass anxiety, resentment, and alienation.

On globalization’s underside—in the world’s banlieues, barrios, and export processing zones—underdevelopment and insecurity flourish. The erstwhile global village looks increasingly like a modern-day Dickensian dystopia: a smattering of gated “green zones” engulfed by a seething sea of shantytowns. Brexit, Donald Trump, populism, plutocracy…cosmopolitan, but unrepresentative elites are in trouble most everywhere as the tribes rise and the demons multiply.

2. Power shift: Since leaving behind the comparative stability of the Cold War, power at all levels is now on the move. Much has been made of emergence of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and migration of the global political economy’s centre of gravity from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific. Also significant is the end of state centricity in international relations and the emergence of new actors. Foreign ministries have lost much of their turf to cabinet offices, executive bodies, and other government departments.

Power is shifting up (to central agencies and supra-national institutions), out (to multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, and private philanthropic foundations,) and down (to sub-national players such as states, provinces, cities, and even wealthy celebrities).

Both rising and declining power require careful handling. Given the stakes associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we must do a better job of managing the shift than was the case during previous centuries, when war served as the ultimate arbiter.

In this very fluid environment, traditional diplomatic methods and tools will need to be supplemented by less conventional, more innovative approaches.

3. Heteropolis rising: The model of world order now under construction can be described as heteropolar. During the multi- and bi-polar eras of the past few centuries, the sources and vectors of power and influence among countries with generally equivalent levels of development were mostly similar and easy to measure: military might, population size, national wealth, etc.

Today those sources and vectors are characterized by difference (heterogeneity) rather than similarity (homogeneity), so they’re harder to compare or balance.

Great statesmen with longstanding interpersonal familiarity, each with a slightly different hand but playing from the same deck, no longer gather regularly to negotiate over green felt tables. Unlike the clubby days of the Congress of Vienna, in the 21st century the United States, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and Japan have little in common.

Moreover, many poles are not states; they may be multinational corporations, groups of states (European Union), NGOs (Amnesty International), or even individuals (Bill Gates). In the emerging heteropolis, balancing power is becoming more complex.

The effective management of global issues will require evidence-based decision-making and knowledge-based, technologically-enabled problem-solving. As there are no military solutions to the most pressing challenges facing humanity, these functions must depend primarily on diplomacy rather than defence.

I will assess the implications for Canada in the final instalment.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst, and consultant; the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy; a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a policy fellow at the University of Montreal’s Centre for International Studies (CERIUM). Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

Image credit: PMO - Adam Scotti

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