The Changing Face of Diplomacy

When I began my diplomatic career, the Cold War was in full force. The Middle East was, as always, volatile. New radical Islamist groups were seizing hostages, and the Syrian regime under Assad, the father, had launched a violent attack on its Sunni population, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Canadians were shocked by the horrifying images of famine in Ethiopia, while the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland launched what was supposed to be a new era of sustainable development. American researchers announced the discovery of the AIDS virus, shedding light on a mysterious and deadly illness spreading across the globe. We also had our first taste of a computer virus, the Elk Cloner, from an enterprising teenager. Sound familiar?

Today, as we watch Iraq imploding and follow the desperate plight of Syrian refugees, the senseless conflict in Ukraine, and the rising death toll from Ebola, it would be easy to conclude that nothing has changed. But while there may be echoes of the 1980s in today’s crises, they are unfolding in a very different context. Just as the world is becoming increasingly complex, more connected and faster paced, so too is diplomacy. As new grass roots organizations seize power from old institutions, the focus of diplomacy is less upon relations between states and more on the struggle for resources, ideas, and influence. Gone are the days of whispering in the ears of governments behind closed doors. Diplomacy in the 21st century has adapted to meet the challenges of globalization, a 24/7 news cycle, the hyper-connectivity that comes with social media, and a whole host of new actors on the foreign policy stage.

A far cry from the old stereotype of an effete profession, today’s diplomacy is edgy, gritty, and often dangerous. Diplomats are far more likely to be talking to armed groups that operate in the shadows, helping evacuate Canadians from a war zone, and dodging bullets than eating canapés in genteel surroundings. This is a world where most wars are no longer fought between states, but between powerful groups with shifting alliances where there are no rules. Equipped with flak jackets, travelling in armoured vehicles, or sleeping in tents as they did after the Haiti earthquake, Canadian diplomats are often on the front line and have been injured, kidnapped, or even killed just for doing their job.

Along with the heightened risk, there is more competition for influence – from new emerging powers, from civil society, even from the media. While this is all to the good, it can be hard to carve out a niche. When I began my career in Warsaw during the 1980s, the challenge was communications – just getting reliable information and sharing it. Today, you can be as connected in Nairobi as in New York, with countless sources and services providing instant news and connectivity. The media often has more resources, better technology, and fewer constraints on what they do and to whom they talk. Journalists (professional and amateur) are not just reporting but rather shaping stories in ways that force governments to respond, sometimes before the facts are clear. Social media is a powerful tool that mobilizes communities and resources, and it can change the way we think about issues overnight. But when the crisis is over and the cameras move on, it is the diplomat’s job to think about the longer term.

Social media is a powerful tool that mobilizes communities and resources, and it can change the way we think about issues overnight. But when the crisis is over and the cameras move on, it is the diplomat’s job to think about the longer term.

In response to the new realities, diplomats have adopted a whole new toolkit that can take them from the corporate boardroom to remote villages. They leverage resources and work with a range of new partners including NGOs, multi-national corporations and private foundations, all of whom have international interests and influence. Tackling global issues like energy, environment, health and cybersecurity requires greater technical knowledge and more collaboration with experts. Diplomats are also increasingly using social media to connect with new audiences and advocate their country’s views directly with citizens. This can be especially effective in places where freedom of expression is limited and human rights are under threat. Yet many of the fundamentals of the diplomat’s role remain the same. Diplomacy is all about relationships – building networks of those who share your objectives, and working to influence, persuade, and call out those who don’t. It is these so-called soft skills that are more important than ever in a complex multi-polar world.

Whether monitoring an election in Ukraine or Afghanistan, or negotiating an agreement banning the use of child soldiers or early forced marriage, diplomats report what they see, push governments to respect their international obligations, and find the opening needed to move forward. Still, most important, is the human dimension – making the connection between politics and the impact on individuals. Ultimately, a lasting solution to almost any problem must take into account the ordinary people who are just trying to make a better, safer life for themselves and their neighbours.

Diplomacy requires extraordinary patience, so-called “strategic patience,” an instinct and willingness to let issues play out, and a sixth sense of when to step in with the elements of a solution. I have spent hours in what seemed like endless negotiations on the role of the international community in resolving conflicts, discussing human rights, the protection of refugees, or the prosecution of war criminals. I have advocated Canadian views and, in return, listened to the sometimes deeply critical views of others.

It is easy to dismiss such meetings as just talkfests, and it is true that diplomacy can be painfully slow. How many negotiations on climate change will it take before we reach agreement on the way ahead? Sixty years after the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, atrocities abound and there is still no consensus on what constitutes legitimate involvement in another country’s domestic affairs. But, however painstaking this sort of negotiation may be, it is part of the give and take, and an essential piece of the framework of international obligations and universal rights that provides a compass, an ideal, and a degree of predictability in an uncertain world.

Despite all the challenges there have been important success stories: bringing peace to the Balkans; destruction of chemical weapons; significant improvements in global health; a reduction in global poverty; and the breaking down of barriers to trade. Working in Brussels 15 years after my first posting to Warsaw, I witnessed Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary join NATO and the EU, a triumph for democracy and diplomacy. In the dark days of the Cold War, I would not have thought such a thing was possible. All these achievements were the result of concerted diplomatic efforts – finding the common ground, finessing the legal basis, and occasionally resorting to a constructive ambiguity to move forward.

I witnessed Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary join NATO and the EU, a triumph for democracy and diplomacy. In the dark days of the Cold War, I would not have thought such a thing was possible.

Jillian Stirk en route to visit a Canadian led development project in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Stirk en route to a Canadian-led development project in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Sometimes the task is less clear, or there are difficult compromises to be made. While the international community’s objectives in Afghanistan, for example, were often laudable, this was no place for the faint of heart. Hundreds of diplomats have passed through Kabul, each of them hoping to make a difference. The scale of the task – bringing peace and something resembling democracy and the rule of law to this war-torn land – was enormous, the ethical considerations profound, and the goals perhaps unrealistic. It is still too soon to say what the legacy will be, but there is no doubt that without the diplomatic effort there would be no elections, no immunization against polio, no schools for girls, and little hope for the future.

In today’s interconnected world all politics really are local. What happens in China, in India, or in the Middle East has implications for Canada, for our security, our economy, and the nature of our society. We can and must learn from others’ innovation if we are to remain competitive. But it is not enough to advance one’s own economic or security interests. The ability to influence and open doors depends on what one brings to the table, on finding shared interests, and on relationships built on mutual respect. Diplomacy is the face you show to the world. It says something about who you are, about your values and your vision for the future and it means listening to others’ views even when you don’t agree.

Diplomacy is no longer just for politicians and diplomats. They are only part of a network of business leaders, scientists, aid workers, cultural icons, and politically aware, informed citizens. In this globalised, connected world, our backyard is everywhere. We are all global citizens with a stake in the future.


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