Diplomacy: Don't forget the deity

The recent Iraq crisis underlines the extent to which diplomacy cannot but be largely concerned with the immediate, the empirical and the practical. But, as the avalanche of comment on that drama makes no less clear, the surrounding issues, long term even more than short term, are of immense complexity. Urgency confers on the makers of policy no immunity from the discipline of analytical rigour. It is vital to think hard and long about what is at issue.

The World Today Published 1 April 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 3 minute READ

We live in a world of nation states which are both immortal and incompetent’. These stark opening words in the introduction to Douglas Hurd’s marvellous book The Search for Peace which accompanies his no less admirable television series at the end of 1997, sums up the central dilemma of the management of international relations today. Nation states are immortal, Lord Hurd goes on to say, because most of them continue to act as a focus for the loyalty of the citizen. They are incompetent because not one of them can adequately provide for the needs that its citizens now articulate.

No one suggests that this mismatch is likely to diminish as time goes by. Rather the general expectation is that it will become more glaring in the future. It is accepted that the implications for the wise conduct of international relations are profound, both as regards the substance of the issues and the process by which, and by whom, they are handled.

The word ‘system’ is of service in international relations theory as elsewhere because of the connotation of an aggregate of interacting parts, with at least some element of regularity to that interaction, and hence of predictability and stability. It is customary to use the term ‘nation state system’ to describe the international arrangements in Europe from the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and the collapse of the ‘Old Diplomacy’.

At the end of the Great War President Wilson brought a new approach to international relations with his message of self-determination and collective security. However the US Senate, by its rejection of the League of Nations, undermined the chances that his prescriptions would produce a new predictability or a new stability.

At the turn of the century, after twenty years of interwar crisis, a second World War even more destructive than the first, and forty years of Cold War on the debit side, as well as fifty years of United Nations activity on the credit side, we can see both the fundamental soundness of the prescriptions and their validity in a world which has undergone so many profound and complex changes. Whether it is realistic to speak as yet of a successor to the nation state system is another matter.

The onset of interdependence

Since the end of the Cold War we have been offered a number of propositions to describe our situation. Politically, Francis Fukuyama spoke of the ‘the end of history’. Professor Huntington foresaw a ‘clash of civilisations’. After the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait by an American-led coalition under the aegis of the United Nations, President Bush hailed a ‘new world order’. On the economic side, Lord Lawson espied a ‘Darwinian’ victory of market forces. The reality has been less straight forward. Almost everything is interdependent. Interdependence does not add our problems together: it multiplies them by one another. ‘Globalisation’ is on every lip, and means something different on each one. We accept the end of geography, if not of history, in the sense of the ‘Death of Distance’. There has been a similar shrinkage of time. We now ‘deal’ in Virtual Reality or Real Time. We recognise that in the management of interdependence today the relevant powers of decision are very widely dispersed. ‘Governance’ is used as a more comprehensive concept than ‘government’. It was admirably defined by the Commission on Global Governance as ‘the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs…. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest’. The organisational difficulties in expressing adequately the realities of this comprehensive yet realistic definition of interdependence need no emphasis.

One of the most stimulating contributions has come from Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who describes in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs the emergence of ‘a new, transgovernmental order’: the state is disaggregating into its separate, functionally distinct parts, which network with their counterparts abroad, creating a dense web of relations. The elements of any such order cannot but be highly nuance.

An incisive essay written in 1996 by Robert Cooper of the British Diplomatic Service propounds the thesis that there are today three categories of states: ‘pre-modern’, characterised by disorder rather than order; ‘modern’, where the traditional concepts are still largely in evidence; and ‘post-modern’ in which concerns about sovereignty have yielded to recognition of mutual vulnerability and a willingness to contemplate substantial mutual inspection and intervention. The great majority of those in the third category are in Europe.

This categorisation implies that the post-modern states would be well advised to adopt different criteria in dealing with states in the other two classes from those which they apply among themselves. The realism of this approach cannot be gainsaid. Its implications for the construction of a ‘post Cold War system’ are less easy to assess. They would seem inevitably to involve an element of moral judgment.

Morality and interdepence

The twentieth century has witnessed a fundamental shift in the central priorities of foreign policy. A world of fiercely independent sovereigns playing a zero-sum power game, in which those sovereigns’ subjects were the pawns, has yielded under the pressures of successive disasters to an international community where the legitimacy of governments is a function of their capacity to meet the demands of their respective electorates.

This fundamental shift in the central priorities of foreign policy is encapsulated in the limpid brevity of the preamble to the UN Charter. ‘We the peoples’ of the United Nations came together in a determination to avoid the scourge of war; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women,and of nations large and small; to establish conditions for the maintenance of justice and respect for obligations; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

The nation state system was technically amoral. Its imperatives were Realpolitik or les raisons d’etat. As Dr Henry Kissinger put it, ‘if the end does not justify the means, what does?’ The United Nations, on the other hand, is a profoundly moral concept. The establishment and operations of the United Nations family of organisations have given rise to a host of agreements covering the fundamental responsibilities of governments and governance for human rights and welfare. These have been almost universally accepted. What is required is not a new system per se but rather respect for international obligations freely accepted and reiterated on occasions without number.

What is wanted, in other words, is not so much political prescription as the political will to implement undertakings already given. The summoning of political will is not easy. Some experts pin their faith on the operation of a virtuous circle, whereby political will may be strengthened by efficiency and vigour of international bodies, and improved performance by the latter may in turn inspire greater confi- dence generally in the efficacy of collective action, and so help evoke the political will to pursue it. But at the end of the day, political will is dependent upon the moral determination of governments – and others concerned – collectively to carry out obligations which are moral in origin. It is no accident that international law is sometimes regarded as a branch of ethics.