Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Is diplomacy dying?

The era of gentle persuasion, finding understanding and preventing conflict seems to be coming to an end. Can it be revived?

Image: The New European

This is an era of hostility and chaos. Ukrainian and Russian forces are locked in violent battles in a war with no endgame in sight. In the shadows, more conflicts than ever simmer in countries from Ethiopia to Azerbaijan, the Balkans are becoming restive, trade wars loom and even normally friendly European countries have been trading barbs.

Yet just when it is most needed, the global system for united diplomacy “has been vandalised by the big powers that should be protecting and sustaining it,” says Tom Fletcher, author of The Naked Diplomat.  

“Look at the UN security council,” says Fletcher, a former ambassador and foreign policy adviser to three British prime ministers. “In the last few years we’ve had (Donald) Trump’s America, (Vladimir) Putin’s Russia, China, Britain and France having their own existential crises. It should be no surprise that the UN has been so underwhelming in response to this crisis.”

But it’s not just the five members of the security council in deadlock. Many across the UN’s 193-member general assembly have been questioning the existing world order, and have been reluctant to unequivocally take sides in a war that Russia began last year by invading, unprovoked, its sovereign neighbour in as clear-cut a breach of global rules as they come. 

Where once the world looked to diplomats to help smooth over problems and bring people together, showy political leaders have been diving in where the experts used to tread, playing their own games, sidelining foreign affairs experts and devaluing the skills and tools of the profession. Their quickfire actions have stirred an undercurrent of blame over missed opportunities, misread cues, underestimated grievances, ignored pleas and decades of misunderstanding that led up to Russia’s invasion. 

If the Ukraine war ever does reach the point of closure, who will help them to reach a just and peaceful end? Is the international diplomatic ecosystem up to the task of preventing the 21st century from becoming a dangerous tinderbox?

“Crises and problems rarely erupt suddenly. They may appear on the horizon suddenly, but they have bubbled up for many years, sometimes decades,” says Catherine Ashton, Europe’s former top diplomat. Here, she pinpoints one of the problems that beset foreign affairs today – a fatal tendency for politician-style short-termism, which, coupled with a certain lack of curiosity and nuance, has dictated how western leaders see the rest of the world.

Vladimir Putin signalled his belligerent intentions when he invaded Georgia in 2008, seized Crimea less than a decade later, and brutally waded into Syria, to an ineffective international response. But the seeds were sown earlier still, when the fall of the USSR unleashed a frenzy of capitalism and complacency. Russia programmes were shelved, Russian language learning downgraded. It was the era of the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, liberal democracy had “won”. We were all the same now.

Except we weren’t. The careless humiliation of a touchy, proud nation has come back to haunt us.

“I think with the Russians, where we got it wrong was in the 1989 mindset that the world is moving in one direction, history has ended, everywhere including Russia will look more like Sweden and less like North Korea,” Fletcher says. “I think that was almost a religion to my generation of diplomats and the previous one that progress was moving only in one direction – we just have to find ways to make it move faster. Clearly Putin took a different lesson from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the rest of us… and we are living the consequences of that.”

Diplomatic caution was thrown to the wind. Margaret Thatcher had reassured Mikhail Gorbachev that “you have as much right to feel secure as we do”, but it was ignored by an international community unable or unwilling to believe that Russians really felt threatened by their first contact with western capitalism and its military alliances.

“The US in particular saw this as a great enemy out of the way that could be safely ignored for ever, and stoped paying attention to Russian security,” says Tony Brenton, former British ambassador to Moscow. 

Russia’s security establishment continued to believe that the west was ganging up against their country and to see Nato expansion as the US might consider the extension of the Warsaw Pact alliance to Mexico and Canada. Yet Bill Clinton’s 1990s “partnership for peace”, an idea aimed at calming such Russian fears, was abandoned and, in 2008, George W Bush ignored the US ambassador and European leaders to secure an unequivocal Nato declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would join – even though there was no mechanism then and there is still no prospect for this to happen. Soon after, Russia invaded Georgia.

There’s no guarantee a softer approach would have stopped Russia. Chatham House’s Keir Giles, author of Russia’s War on Everybody, argues that Russia is provoked not by strength but by weakness and division – which characterised the US and Europe before the Ukraine invasion. But there’s a difference between a timely show of strength ahead of an invasion and an uninformed disregard of another country’s sensitivities in times of stability. With closer attention to diplomatic expertise, today’s political leaders might have known the difference and changed their priorities, avoiding what Alexander Vindman, of the US National Security Council, called a “tragic war” that was “inevitable after decades of failed policy”.

Former UK defence attaché Carl Scott, who left Moscow in 2016, has written that warnings of war delivered “with the despair of Cassandra” were ignored by British politicians. It was not until he returned home on the eve of Brexit – “a manoeuvre that greatly emboldened those in Moscow” – that he understood how much Britain had come to depend on Russian money, serving “the interests of our lucrative status as a safe haven for corrupt, and corrupting, wealth”. 

None of this is a surprise when you consider that all this took place as prime ministers and presidents increasingly decided they knew best.

Flanked by a rival court of foreign policy aides, they increasingly instigate bilateral meetings, phone and video calls, summits and interventions, dragging what should be patient relationship-building and slow-burning diplomatic poker away from backroom experts and into the unsuitable, frenetic sphere of 24/7 media attention and a changing cast of politicians.

Just ask Ivan Rogers – who resigned as British ambassador to the EU as the Brexiteer Conservatives ignored and belittled him during Brexit negotiations – how he thinks those talks  panned out.

In France, too, the “people at Elysée Palace, and especially Emmanuel Macron and his advisers” don’t seem to be taking the foreign experts at the Quai d’Orsay into consideration over Russia, says Christian Lequesne, professor of political science at the Sciences Po in Paris and author of Ministries of Foreign Affairs in the World: Actors of State Diplomacy.

In this era of strongmen, it’s even worse – authoritarians and populists have no time for negotiation, diplomacy or an atmosphere of understanding, he says. “I’m not just talking about Putin. Trump thought diplomacy was a sign of weakness. You have many people who believe diplomats are not necessary any more.”

This disdain extends to other experts such as think tanks, researchers and academics who might offer more subtlety. Instead, Liz Truss, when UK prime minister, hopelessly railed against the EU over Northern Ireland, Trump pointlessly threatened “fire and fury like never before” on North Korea, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tastelessly called German authorities “Nazis” for cancelling his political rallies in their towns.

And it’s in this context that I found myself discussing what we called a trend for “bull in a china shop” diplomacy with former Chatham House director Robin Niblett. It involves seemingly out-of-control blustering to cow opponents into compliance. Boris Johnson’s entire domestic rise to the premiership was predicated on this kind of recklessness, but his impotence in international spats shows that even this tactic needs some method to it.

“You can’t just do it and hope. The other side needs to know that you are credible because otherwise you are going to be undermined,” Niblett says. “‘Bulls’ are sovereign and feared, if not respected – you look and say ‘oh my God! Stand still’.”

Ruthless leaders with no concern about a backlash are better suited to this kind of “diplomacy”, but “small actors that are committed can outmanoeuvre larger groups that don’t have skin in the game,” he adds. Trump had some success with his tantrums over defence funding by his Nato allies and heavy-handedness in the Middle East, which sent some countries racing to bury the hatchet. 

On the whole, though, it’s an admission of weakness and lack of influence. This proliferation of angry, red-faced men with command of nuclear buttons is redolent of President Nixon’s Madman Theory, where he wanted to appear unhinged in the hope of pushing China or the Soviets into complying with his wishes for fear of escalation. He also used this with Vietnam but, according to his chief of staff, it meant peace talks took longer and the North Vietnamese got the better deal. So much for scary bulls.

Long-time EU official Stefano Manservisi, now special adviser to EU commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, says that this penchant for breaking rules, bluffing and a sense of entitlement changes little.  

The worry, though, is that today’s more radical language of “megaphone diplomacy” damages the credibility of institutions and leaders in the face of ordinary citizens – which has already created dangerous social polarisation and risks violence.

“In the cold war there was a behavioural code that was accepted and (today’s) language could have led to terrible consequences then,” Manservisi points out. “It’s important this doesn’t reach a point of no return in very critical hotspots, for instance in the South China Sea.”

Even with a more common-or-garden kind of politician, the unfortunate fact is that diplomacy isn’t what they’re good at. Truss, who once said foreign affairs were “boring”, exposed her ignorance in the crucial pre-war period in front of Russia’s wily foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Or how about Dominic Raab, deciding to go on holiday during the messy and dangerous Afghanistan evacuation? Both shunned diplomatic advice, yet even respected foreign ministers such as Robin Cook or William Hague would have acknowledged that they could not successfully do the job alone. 

One reason politicians increasingly encroach on diplomats’ territory is that, in the words of the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, foreign policy has “gone domestic”, with issues such as energy, climate and migration central to internal political debates. This means it’s also misused by politicians to whip up righteous public anger in pursuit of electoral goals.

The flipside of this is that when foreign secretaries do take a genuine, informed interest in the wider world and connect, they’re accused of “taking the other side”, of “going native”.  This isn’t new. Lord Carrington said people often formed the opinion that “you shouldn’t really have much to do with foreigners, foreigners are thoroughly unreliable, you don’t want to get on with the foreigners, and if you do get on with them, you’re selling out to them. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that surely it is better to get on with people than to quarrel with them.”

With that mindset, it’s easy to ignore diplomats working in international capitals and danger zones across the world. On the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, the link between disastrous foreign adventures and a failure to listen to those in the field is clear.

Former ambassador Roderic Lyne, a member of the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq, said that the “failure that led us into that mess was that we didn’t pay attention to local knowledge”. 

Brenton, who at the time of that war was in Washington, recounts: “It was very weird indeed. The policy was run by a bunch of very intelligent men, very concerned men, who had a cartoonish view of the region. As with Afghanistan, once the issue moves to the centre of the political stage, politicians stop listening for as long as it suits them.”

The Afghanistan withdrawal was planned mainly for domestic purposes after Trump decided he didn’t want any more opprobrium and military deaths. The hasty pullout included scenes reminiscent of the swift US exit from Vietnam – they didn’t even understand the conditions on the ground enough to plan a more orderly departure, leaving Afghan helpers to choose between becoming Taliban targets or fleeing for their lives. Some drowned trying to cross the Channel.

Bruno Maçães, the former Europe minister of Portugal and writer – and a rare European familiar with Asia – called the whole retreat a massive failure of intelligence and policymaking. After a week in Afghanistan socialising with locals, he told the historian Peter Frankopan, it was clear to everyone – apparently apart from American intelligence – that the Taliban would quickly take the capital, Kabul.

Despite America’s long occupation and power base in Afghanistan, “there were no Americans walking on the street”, Maçães said. “If you are occupying a country militarily and trying to transform it ,and your own citizens cannot meet Afghans on the street, that project is never going to work.”

The debacle of the withdrawal represented a “seismic” shift, a failure of western ideas, of intellectual understanding of cultural and civilisational differences. Afghanistan was not seen “as it really exists”, as a network of regional powers, but in an image projected from the west, resulting in the propping up of an unpopular central leader who disrespected everyone else, Maçães said. This led to a tragic failure to understand that Afghanistan could become a tolerant and liberal democratic country and regime without becoming a western regime.

On a French chatshow soon after the Ukraine invasion, contributors criticised a similar “intellectual laziness”. “This (Russian) regime is founded on an ideology – and it’s unknown to our elites because they don’t study it,” said Christian Makarian, international relations commentator, editor and foreign relations columnist. Yet all was evident in publicly available documents, including the essay on “Putin’s Lasting State” by Vladislav Surkov, described as a forefather of Putinism, in which he says that Russia needed to confront the rest of the world and accept it would lead to conflict. “This was the absolute determination behind the generation – young lawyers, intellectuals and film-makers – around Putin and the readiness to accept conflict,” Makarian said. Yet few tasked with helping to contain Russia had read it or understood it.

This failure isn’t unique to the west, which should be no comfort to anyone. In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Russian defector Boris Bondarev explained the gradual retreat from reality in the Russian foreign office as centrally declared bombastic views were adopted in the face of all evidence until diplomats were not just fooling foreigners but also their own hubristic leaders over Russia’s supposed invincibility against Ukraine.

A similar trend has beset and hampered China’s foreign service, resulting in aggressive central messaging that overrides reality and the promotion of confrontational “wolf warrior” figures such as Zhao Lijian, which worries saner Chinese diplomats about the potential effect on Beijing’s ability to integrate into the world economy – something Beijing values more than Moscow does.

If diplomacy is overshadowed, then legations become trading posts subject to streamlining and cost-cutting. The UK Foreign Office has long been reducing funds and staff, and shedding buildings. In the austerity era, the UK and Canada announced they would share embassies abroad – a decision Canadian foreign policy experts slammed at the time as “penny-wise, pound-foolish diplomacy” that could compromise the country’s image abroad.

Former diplomat Rory Stewart, who served in Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, and who is a regular critic of diplomatic cuts, complained when he was chair of parliament’s defence select committee in 2015 that the sacking of Ukrainian staff, and the lack of people on the ground in Poland, compromised decision-making, sometimes dangerously. He also said that the UK lacked “intelligence and information at every level, from the strategic level all the way down to the Istar level of watching Russian kit moving around.”

The beancounters also targeted language-learning, closing down the Foreign Office language school in the early 2000s. It had offered security services personnel, diplomats and MPs individual, specialised lessons in 41 languages, including Farsi and Arabic, as well as most European languages. 

This was incredibly shortsighted, given that language learning in UK schools has been shrinking for a long time. Even more so when you consider Lady Ashton’s description of her job: “When the European meetings happen, you’ve got 23 languages, and it has to work in all of them.” During the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, it was even trickier: “You’ve got Russian, Mandarin Chinese, French, German – and you’ve got American and British English. Don’t forget there are differences in how those work, too.”

In 2015, the Commons foreign affairs committee said that there was an alarming shortfall in UK diplomatic staff fluent in Arabic or Russian – skills that make the difference between following the diplomatic herd mentality in the Middle East or Moscow and gaining proper insight through the ability to hold revealing one-to-one conversations.

This sort of inward-looking politics and funding reduction is not unique to one country, according to Lequesne. “Foreign ministries – and not just in France but in England, even in China – have relatively small budgets compared to defence ministries. You’ve had a fall everywhere in the western world in the last 20 years.”

Over the past two years the French foreign office budget diminished by a fifth, which was one reason why 500 French diplomats went on strike in June. The main flashpoint was Macron’s decision to abolish the diplomats’ usual training school – the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) – in favour of a supposedly less elitist general civil servants’ education, in theory turning diplomats into interchangeable civil servants. In practice, there will be a diplomatic career track, especially for those serving in places such as Azerbaijan or Arusha. 

At least this has led to a period in which diplomats’ concerns were aired and heard, and sparked a rare decision to create 100 new permanent diplomatic posts, but the whole affair was seen as symbolic of political indifference to a highly specialised, internationalist, multilingual role. A huge insult in the country of the legendary 19th-century diplomat Talleyrand, whose skills of persuasion and cunning helped him serve multiple French masters, survive the French revolution, work for at least five different regimes outside France and crash the Congress of Vienna, where Europe was being redrawn, securing his country a good deal despite being the defeated party.

Most problems associated with underfunding and underestimating diplomacy are clear to see, but who would have thought there would be an issue with too much peace? 

Yet that’s the assertion of veteran US diplomat Charles Freeman. Seven decades of relative stability during the cold war and the subsequent US primacy that followed meant that the art of real, difficult persuasion was not needed for so long that it has led to a kind of diplomatic amnesia, he maintains.

It was a case of “you’re with us or against us”, he tells me, and “what passes for diplomacy was a sort of imperial administration – like the patronising relationship between the Foreign Office in London and ‘the savages’.” 

Freeman, who was ambassador to Riyadh and a critic of the “chauvinistic” US response to 9/11, had a widely varied career in India, Taiwan and Thailand, with stints as a lead translator to Nixon in China, president of the Middle East Policy Council, and co-chair of the US-China Policy Foundation. He also authored several books, including Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy, his anecdotes stretch back decades, his stories of diplomatic history to at least Roman times. But he suggests new diplomats look to one of his more niche works for inspiration – the diplomacy entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica

“We’ve lost the vocabulary that we need to analyse, understand, deal with the complex world,” Freeman says. “We’re left with a legacy in which we cannot distinguish between alliances, an entente, the idea of protected states, client states, and the varieties of rivalry, which included adversarial antagonism when you try to win by tripping the other fellow – like we have been doing with the Chinese – and enmity, where basically you are among for annihilation of the other, like Rome versus Carthage.” 

The right vocabulary crucially helps clear thinking, he says. “We have in the past decades lost the capacity to reason in the way that Palmerston or Talleyrand, or the great figures of 19th-century European diplomacy did.” Without this, “you can’t immediately understand that Erdoğan… has moved from an alliance with the rest of Europe to a fading entente and a very client state transactional relationship with other neighbours, whether they’re Russia or Ukraine.”

If the west is not going to dominate the world any more as we move to a multipolar state, a new mindset is needed in diplomacy and the politics that governs it.

“The model we have developed for 70 years, based on negotiation, symbolised by the experience of the EU, of being able to have peace and conflict settlement though negotiation – this isn’t the one in the minds of all the leaders of state around the world,” says Lequesne. With Putin we had a coming back of the very old 19th-century geopolitics.”

Putin thinks in terms of sphere of influence, the rule of force, of military power, something that doesn’t correspond with Europeans’ idea of influence through negotiation. With fewer certainties, more mutually hostile powers and transactional alliances, diplomacy is going to be even harder, and understanding of complex and different cultures more important. The wide and fast reach of technology will add another layer of complexity and danger.

Yet while the Ukraine war has brought in a big change in thinking over military policy in many countries, there has not yet been a corresponding rethink in diplomacy.

This is a mistake. Many countries are diverging from the western position on Ukraine amid increased belligerence on many issues, including ill-fated adventures such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There is a growing rejection of past colonialism and colonial overlords, even if the new poles of power are no improvement – those waving pro-Russian flags in countries such as Mali are not so much supporters of Putin as protesting against past domination by countries who have long portrayed themselves as the “good guys”. There is a danger that the idea of a rules-based world – always an illusion to a certain extent, given the selective way in which they’re enforced by the economically and militarily dominant west – could be fading if not defended.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, diplomats and analysts tell me that soft power is a vital tool in this era of boastful hard power. What a shame that the UK’s soft power tools, such as foreign aid and the British Council, have been diminished, and many of the BBC World Service’s language services, including the oldest, Arabic, are being cut. Although the soft power needed isn’t simply to take French, British or American culture to other continents, but is a strong, genuine interest in the culture and history of others that is vital to build relationships and gain respect.

And, as the world returns to a kind of 19th-century-style, messier geopolitics, there’s an urgent need to get back to the diplomatic toolbox, training manuals and language schools, and for leaders to invest in and take notice of their diplomatic corps once more. 

The aim is no longer to dominate but to create partnerships. To survive the 21st century, the art of empathy and persuasion with difficult counterparts is more important than ever.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.