Diplomacy matters

By Y. Annie Cheung


Indeed we are living in very interesting times! News headlines are often more sensational and violent than movie scripts.  Both new and continuing conflicts are heating up between and among great powers and their proxies, civic protest and unrest have become widespread, taking on a regional character. There are global health pandemics and other natural and man-made disasters, and the global financial crisis continues to play out and change the dynamics of global order.

Our world leaders have been busy, with no lack of international engagements and actions. Alas, the western allies have just emerged from over a decade of military engagements in the Middle East and are now beginning to withdraw cautiously, albeit with the same heavy heart as when the military escalation first began. Although ‘the war’ was not lost, neither could it be declared a win either! In war, regrettably, heroism comes at a cost for the soldiers who, along with their loved ones and families, pay the heaviest price. Human casualties are the sobering reminders of the limits of war; at the ‘tipping-point’ of every conflict, the frightening images of human suffering  force the hands of every accountable government to act, or react (by increasing or drawing down the engagement).  Moreover, for a wide swath of global problems – such as earthquakes, flooding, food crises, etc. – these cannot be dealt with by arms, and nor should any popular protest for human rights causes and civil liberties be stifled by the brute use of force.

In such turbulent times, de-escalation of stress and consensus building towards international cooperation need to be the preferred strategy for problem-solving, especially for addressing political differences and social tension. Now is the season for diplomacy. Unfortunately, diplomatic engagement can be suspended when political tempers flare in places where diplomacy is most needed. In these challenging times, diplomats need to be firmly committed to a process of meetings and deliberations, committed to sorting out the stumbling blocks, in the service of international peace and security. This is the diplomatic craft! Like-mindedness among allies and partners and even those less like-minded, needs to be recognized as an outcome, rather than a prerequisite for diplomatic engagement. The like-minded state of international relations needs to be nurtured and continually maintained.

The power of diplomacy lies in its potential for de-escalating tension, averting crises and keeping the peace.  By employing reasoning and persuasion, the professional diplomat seeks to bring opposing views to the table, and eke out a common position, that can be endorsed by politicians on all sides. In this way, the marshalling of ideas takes place in the conference rooms, not on the battle fields, and all within the parameters and guidelines of time-tested international rules and law, as well as standards and ethics. Nevertheless diplomacy, as an effective tool of engagement, needs the underpinning and credibility of international institutions and regimes, as well as the minimum military guarantees that may be required to support the observance of basic universal values and respect for the rule of law.

While this may be obvious to most people, the importance of diplomacy needs to be conveyed and reconfirmed.

With the end of the Cold War, much of the world, especially on the business and financial side, has benefited greatly from a period of growth and development as relations between countries have generally become somewhat more conducive to economic engagement. While the “end of history” has not occurred as speculated, universal values and international law are being adopted more widely as yardsticks for political analysis and assessment, as well as in arbitration, and will surely support more democratic reforms in the future.  The proliferation of bilateral, pluri-lateral, regional and cross-regional agreements and regimes (e.g., free trade and protection for foreign investors, codes of conduct governing space and cyber-space, continuing efforts towards universalizing arms control obligations) serve as proof of achievements from diplomatic efforts. Foreign Ministries and their missions abroad also cultivate important networks of local knowledge and relationships with civil society, which are increasingly important when managing complex transnational issues. But the resources required to sustain these traditional and emerging roles have to compete with other functions expected of a modern diplomatic corps, including consular services for Canadians abroad that are becoming more prominent and necessary in an age of globalization. It is important, however, that such functions at the embassy level do not come at the expense of investing in the more traditional diplomatic skillset when budgets are small, and getting smaller, in a climate of fiscal austerity and public indifference towards the diplomatic corps.

These days, the withdrawal of ambassadors and the closing of embassies are common gestures of protest against host governments. Quite often politicians stand in, displacing diplomats in the aftermath. I would argue, though, that apart from explicit threats to the safety of diplomats as antecedent to the closing of embassies, diplomatic functions should not be abandoned until the matter at hand is resolved, and or when that matter is taken up by other authorities, regional or international. Diplomats are protected by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and these protections must continue to be respected and upheld by individual countries hosting our global diplomatic networks – protections which in turn will be reciprocated to our mutual benefit.

We need to recognize diplomacy as a unique profession that safeguards global order and prosperity from the ability to operate freely in the global commons.  This is in spite of politics, which will (rightly) in a democratic system condition the policies and strategies within which diplomacy operates.

World leaders will, from time to time, indulge in disquieting rhetoric arising from parochial concerns, which can unfortunately inflame tensions far from national borders. And among a growing range of cross-border concerns and incidents, there are provocations that are perplexing and sometimes just attention-seeking.  In this kind of world, one must keep the faith in the basic tenets of charters and conventions which diplomats around the world work to uphold, through the relationships they manage and cultivate, and the skills they possess. Diplomacy matters!


Y. Annie Cheung, PhD, MCIP, RPP, is a researcher and writer living in Ottawa.

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