183 – Wanted: Diplomats without borders! – (II)

Posted on October 19, 2012 by

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The Peace of Augsburg 1555, and then the Peace of Westphalia (1648) marked the end of common rules that would apply across emergent national states in Europe. Henceforth each state was autocratic within and autonomous without. The border was the boundary delimitating the internal and external fields of power – and by implication potential “friend” from “foe”. This boundary was physically protected by the army, and administered by diplomacy (diplomacy is war by other means – said von CLAUSEWITZ). The diplomat was busy seeking “friends” and identifying “foes” across the border. In areas other than power he was “peace-time keeper of the gate” who would determine which, and under what conditions, external “interferences” would be allowed to constrain the state (mostly on strict reciprocity).

Borders were the bulwark of the autocratic state’s absolute autonomy and the diplomat its agent. Yet even then absolute state autonomy was an illusion – it transmogrified into orthodoxy[1] just as the discovery of America and its integration into the Eurasian world allowed a global society to emerge. Since then the process of globalization has intensified and become irreversible.

The question then is whether “absolute autonomy” of the state – and the corollary view of the “foe” beyond the border – is still a viable construct and guide as states go about “making the social world”[2] under today’s globalized conditions. My conjecture is that this worldview has become seriously maladaptive.

Empire-formation by conquest – Genghis Khan creating a world-size empire on horseback – belongs to the past. Totalitarian ideologies underpinning world domination have faded away. Even the imposition of regime change from outside through military means has proven elusive. On the other hand state formation has been completed: nationas are now reasonably secure in their borders and the defense of the state’s “vital interests”[3] – its territorial integrity and political autonomy – has become perfunctory if no less busy (a path-dependent process). In the process the “foe” has lost some of its war paint.

Autocratic power and later nationalism used the border to support state-formation by defining themselves in opposition to the “other” or “foe”. This may have been a feasible approximation in a pre-industrial or agrarian state, where land was the main source of sustenance and where the social reality was mainly local and comparatively simple. Legitimacy may have rested uneasily on it, for it relied on the border to separate “us” from “them” “friend” from “foe”[4], at best a simple if not simplistic heuristic.

In the long term, however, the heuristic proved reductive and arbitrary. For with complexification of modern social systems it began to yield false positives and hinder cross-border cooperation. We face infinite pairs of choices, and todays “friends” are tomorrow’s “foes”. Boiling such multi-dimensional reality down to just one dimension – space resp. its surrounding border – becomes more and more difficult to handle. Its legitimacy is queried. As the process of state-sustenance loses legitimacy, phenomena like “narcissism of small difference” emerge – with subaltern identities vying for autonomy.

Borders no longer fit the complexity of social reality. The simplistic separation into “friend” and foe” yields to pragmatic “for” and “against”. What occupies a social group and a state is mostly “policy preferences”, whose realm does not stop at the border. States need to coordinate policies across borders in order to improve citizens’ welfare. Far from being a threat, neighboring states have become opportunities. At the same time borders are no longer bulwarks, they have become administrative boundaries.

The lesson of the European Union here is telling. After WWII its member states abandoned their struggle for mastery in Europe[5] – the struggle about autonomy and borders – and moved to a stance of integration. External borders no longer were an object; over time the original core of six countries expanded to include 19 other states, and counting. “Diplomats without borders” built this new construct. Though it is made of “crooked timber”[6] as all human[7] undertakings, the result is remarkable. The EU is witness to the power of cooperation over competition in human affairs. Proximity facilitated the change in paradigm away from the defense of the border to the dismantlement of it.

In the EU citizens have moved away from the defense of “negative” liberty to sharing “positive” liberty in the sense of pragmatic cooperation on socio-economic improvement of all. Identity no longer is tied to territory, fixed and unchanging. The living group, as it evolves over time, continuously defines its identity anew. Identity is a living “thing” and is not anchored in territory.

We need more of this.

What could be the profile of a “diplomat without borders”?

It is funny: economic mercantilism is no longer a policy. Political mercantilism, however, still seems to hold sway. International relations are often perceived and theorized as a zero-sum game. Win-win is for weak-need idealists, it seems. So the first quality of a “diplomat without borders”, I’d venture, is to have a sense of the border not as absolute and transcendent value, but as useful approximation that allows a group to address issues in a pragmatic and reasonable manner. No longer an instrument to identify the “foe” and ultimate bearer of identity it has become an instrument of administration (henceforth identity resides in the living group, not in space delineated by the border).

Abandoning the concept of border implies discounting the duality of “friend” or “foe”. The “other” is not necessarily “foe” – even if he holds a different opinion[8]. At this point one can focus on creating coalitions across borders, and multiple communities of purpose. The concept of “community” has often been misused as an instrument of exclusion – tribalism or nationalism. Positive Deviance (see my 175 and 176) is but an example of how community strength can be harnessed for inclusive and constructive policies[9]. Empowerment need not be based on hate of the excluded “other” – in fact, she is welcome to join.

This implies, however, a Copernican revolution for diplomats. They should not worry unduly. It’s all for a good purpose: so that everything can remain the same (see my 29).


[1]          This process may be linked to a shift from deliberative and conscious intentionality (and rational justification) to an unconscious. This is a permanent and pervasive process of “social forgetting”. A feeble analogy: as the hippo over time evolves into whale it loses the sense of “water” in which it swims as strange – it has become self-evident. This process is far from studied. See: Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2006): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[2]          See: John SEARLE (2010): making the social world. The structure of human civilization. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[3]          Robert COOPER (2003): The breaking of nations.Order and chaos in the twenty-first century. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

[4]          Carl SCHMITT (1996): The concept of the political. Chicago University Press, Chicago. Please note the transformation of the reality of choice (“for or against”) into a value judgment (“friend or foe”).

[5]          See e. g. A. J. P. TAYLOR (1971): The struggle for mastery in Europe 1848 – 1918. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[6]          Isaiah BERLIN (1990): The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. London: John Murray.

[7]          This criticism is actually rather unwarranted – its origins lie in materiality rather than human frailty. An analogy from biology may help understand the point. A plurality of genes needs somehow to act “in concert” in creating just one phenotype, the individual, on which Darwinian selection acts. Pluralism may not be reduced to monism – the overarching master plan – so the outcome is by necessity rather cacophonous. Not only do we have jury-rigged compromises, but we also have unintended and novel constructs- the basis for evolution. See Stephen J. GOULD – Robert C. LEWONTIN (1979): The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, VOL. 205, NO. 1161 (1979), PP. 581-598.

[8]          See Tariq RAMADAN(2009): L’autre en nous. Pour une philosophie du pluralisme. Presses du Châtelet, Paris.

[9]          See e.g. Henry TAM (1998): Communitarism. A new agenda for politics and citizenship. MacMillan, London.