Why Diplomacy Needs to Catch Up with the World

Few of us would put diplomacy in the same category as climate issues or global pandemics as something that affects our daily lives. It is, after all, something that the world has done for centuries, largely away from the glare of international public opinion. So why does diplomacy need now to catch up with the world?


A new book  – The Palgrave Handbook of Diplomatic Reform and Innovation – argues that diplomacy is a neglected global issue and needs to be readdressed to make it fit for the tasks of the 2020s. The practice of diplomacy is the system of norms, methods, and institutions that states use to settle international disputes. They use it to foster friendly relations and respond to collective threats such as climate change and pandemics. It determines what it means to have diplomatic relations, the boundaries that are agreed against interference in the affairs of other states, and respect for the sovereignty of all states that are members of the United Nations. The book discusses key areas where diplomacy can make reforms that will enhance its capabilities for the mutual benefit of all countries. It has authors from some 30 countries.


The topic of diplomatic reform has seldom received collective attention since the 1960s. Indeed few global issues have been neglected to such a degree. Imagine if international air traffic control practice was stuck in the 1960s—the world now networks and plots often without states’ involvement. States now regularly promote false information about other states to damage their reputations. Incendiary language abounds in international platforms, undermining modern diplomacy’s peacemaking capacity. States seldom think about the practice of diplomacy. They may argue about which countries should be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. But few are concerned that diplomacy is becoming a divisive influence rather than a consensus-building vehicle. How we conduct international relations is vital for the future of the planet. But currently, there is no Greenpeace for better diplomacy.


Neither the United Nations Charter nor the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations – the main legally-binding treaties of modern diplomacy – have been revised or updated since the 1960s. They reflect diplomacy from the era of the Cold War, and they don’t take the internet into account. In 1950 there were only some 60 independent countries. In 1960, there were 99 countries. Now there are 193.


Much of diplomacy now depends on platforms run by the world’s BigTech companies. They themselves have prospered hugely in a multipolar world where economic interdependence and supply chains should promote common interests. Still, they have not been integrated into establishing new norms for international relations – a new global digital pact. For example, digitalized and borderless diplomacy operations permit citizens in one country to use their platforms to directly threaten the security of another state or its citizens. Examples include ransomware demands or cyberattacks on power grids or water treatment plants. Chatbots may soon mean that Artificial Intelligence is one of the prime disrupters of diplomacy. Moreover, the political rivalry between states reflected in a multipolar world means that diplomacy is now often used to exploit differences rather than recognize the common interest in solving them. National leaders transmit personal insults as  ‘wolf warrior’ aggression, and trolling on social media spills into exchanges between states.


The international authors of the new Handbook hope to promote a debate about what can be done to improve diplomacy’s chance of responding to the challenges of the 2020s and beyond. They note that previous norms, which are its foundations, are being flouted, and all nations and international organizations face collective damage. The book was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but many have since recognized the failures of diplomacy in these contexts.


In September 2022, António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, and the world’s top diplomat were blunt in his gloomy assessment.  “We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction,” he said, noting the international community “is not ready or willing to tackle” the challenges it faces — including climate change, poverty and war. ‘The United Nations Charter and the ideals it represents are in jeopardy and we have a duty to act,” Earlier this month he appealed again to the international community to live up to the principles of the United Nations, coming together to solve common issues and recognizing the sovereignty of all member states. “The international community has an obligation to act, “this is not a time for tinkering” but, rather, “a time for transformation.”   Many world leaders recognize that current diplomatic institutions and methods are not effective. In 2020, before being elected President,  Joe Biden wrote  that’‘ The international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams.”


The Charter of the United Nations cannot be amended without the express consent of all the Permanent Five members, so it is unrealistic to contemplate any such revision in the immediate future. But the book’s authors recognize that it is not enough to continue to wring our hands at diplomacy’s dysfunction. So they propose some steps that do not promise the impossible but would mean states need to readdress the benefits of good diplomatic practice. We believe some practical reforms can be set in motion which would reaffirm the mutual benefit of diplomatic relations, place more responsibility on states to control harmful acts by their citizens such as cyber hacking, and reaffirm the fundamental values of the UN Charter.


How might steps be taken for reform and innovation? We discuss specialized areas of diplomacy such as climate, health, and humanitarian relief. Our book recognizes that a coalition of states is necessary to re-address diplomatic norms and methods. And those states must include not just the major developed economies. Our authors come from a wide range of countries, including China and Russia. Most national leaders will see no domestic political benefit in promoting such a rethink. Past seismic changes in diplomatic practice have been in the aftermath of World Wars.


One small step would be for a coalition of like-minded states to call for new negotiations on revising the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations. The UN Secretary General would be an indispensable ally. Antonio Guterres has been an outstanding campaigner for better diplomacy and has the power to convene states. Non-State actors like the Davos World Economic Forum and the Nobel Foundation have long been supporters of new thinking and actions for diplomacy. Diplomacy needs some further attention. We cannot afford to take its benefits for granted.


Paul Webster Hare

Paul Webster Hare was a British diplomat for 30 years and the British ambassador to Cuba from 2001-04. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

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