WikiLeaks is probably the strongest attack on diplomacy as a way of managing global affairs. Paradoxically, it may trigger open and honest discussion about its future role. This is the good news….
We need diplomacy now more than ever before. The contemporary world is so interdependent that its conflicts can no longer be resolved by military force. The geo-strategic landscape has changed. To the old saying ‘more trade – fewer wars’, we can add other reasons for the need for more diplomacy than military might: Internet interdependence, a higher sensitivity to human suffering than 100 years ago, and greater media coverage. Iraq and Afghanistan are the most recent examples demonstrating the limits of the use of military force and the increasing need for diplomacy. Diplomacy is a necessity, not just a choice which is ethically superior to war.
Diplomacy must change … something it hasn’t done in any substantial way since Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu established the first Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in 1626 (the organigram of Richelieu’s ministry is almost the same as the organigram of today’s ministries of foreign affairs). Since 1626, diplomacy has adjusted to all economic, social, and technological developments. It has changed simply in order to remain the same.
So why is it different this time? The Internet has revolutionised information and communication – two pillars of diplomacy. This influence can be seen from the more trivial aspects of WikiLeaks: digitalisation made it possible to have, on a few DVDs, a collection of documents for which huge archives would have been needed in the printed, pre-Internet, era. More substantially, the Internet has empowered millions who want to and, technically, can voice their opinions on international problems. In a way, as campaigns by some NGOs show, it’s possible to have a ministry of foreign affairs ‘in a garage’. With an original idea and a few computers connected to the Internet, a small group of devoted individuals can make huge impacts on society. Diplomacy has to acknowledge this tectonic change and engage with citizens affected by decisions made by diplomats.
While undergoing this change, diplomacy must preserve compromise, its core tool. It may require diplomats to engage in even more discreet diplomacy. Reaching a compromise and maintaining discretion in negotiations are very often closely linked. We should not forget that compromise, the heart of diplomacy, is not popular in many societies, especially when it is contrasted with national pride and glory. Without discretion, negotiations can turn into a media circus for the public back home. Can you imagine either Iranian and US, or Israeli and Palestinian diplomats negotiating in front of web-cams, on issues of their distrust and concern?
There is also a need to change the public’s perception of diplomacy. Many people see diplomacy as an exclusive and mysterious profession. Little, in fact, has changed since Richelieu’s time. Diplomacy is still perceived as an aristocratic profession with glamour and an exclusive life style. While there are still such examples (i.e. focusing on showing off), the reality for the majority of diplomats is significantly different. Diplomacy is a profession like any other. It involves a lot of administrative, routine, and technical work. The glamour is vanishing, and when it is present, it is simply part of the working routine. The low esteem in which diplomacy is held in the global Jungian ‘collective unconsciousness’ can be seen from the fact that very few diplomats are cherished as national heroes, compared to, say, generals. While there are thousands of military museums celebrating victories and national glories, there are no real diplomatic museums. This perception has to change if we want to have solutions to global problems based on diplomacy and compromise.
Let’s hope that ‘CableGate’ crisis won’t be wasted!