Diplomacy is a demanding responsibility of governance because the expectations of it are high and diverse. Its tired stereotyping contrasts with the reality of its challenges. A nation’s diplomacy needs to inform its government about the aspirations, capacities and vulnerabilities of those with whom it interacts. It needs, to the maximum extent it can, to anticipate trends and developments and, where possible, to find ways of shaping them. It needs to be focused on the interests of the nation as well as the security of its citizens.
The practitioners of diplomacy need an elusive combination of attributes that include linear as well as lateral insight, an informed historical and cultural awareness, and personal qualities such as those pithily summarised some years ago by a senior British diplomat as ‘a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a cold eye and a warm smile’.
Those challenges are currently more acute than ever. This is because the focus and practice of diplomacy, as well as the international context in which it’s operating, are evolving so dynamically.
The focus of diplomacy is broadening from its traditional base (geopolitics, trade, bilateralism, regionalism and multilateralism) to new dimensions of power and influence reflected in the role of non-state actors and the proliferation of transnational issues including the impact of climate change, access to resources (particularly food, water and energy) and the impact of ‘soft power’ based on the values and culture underpinning the attractiveness of different societies.
The practice of diplomacy is also changing. There will always be a place for diplomacy’s traditional forms reflected in its conventions, immunities, structured exchanges and confidential reporting to government. But these state-to-state forms of diplomacy are being supplemented in important ways by the ‘new diplomacy’ of direct state-to-citizen and citizen-to-citizen exchanges, aided by mobile digitised technologies and social media platforms.
Diplomacy is no longer the preserve of professional diplomats. In addition to foreign ministries, most agencies of government now have international dimensions to their responsibilities and pursue them accordingly. The role of the private sector is intensely internationalised under the pressures of globalisation while non-government organisations and civil society groups are internationally engaged in a similarly activist way.
In the context of defining changes, in the purposes and practice of diplomacy, there will be a range of relevant benchmarks for diplomatic effectiveness. But in my view, five will be critical.
First, there will be a high and rising premium on what’s been called ‘integrative diplomacy’, namely, the capacity of foreign ministries to coordinate effectively with other agencies across government, with businesses and the private sector generally as well as with civil society groups to advance a nation’s regional and global priorities. This integrative diplomacy will be facilitated by relationships of trust, the identification of shared purposes and technology-enabled interactions. Part of this integrative approach will include an embrace of ‘economic diplomacy’ which is active in its support of trade and investment frameworks, but also respects the proper limits of diplomatic involvement in specific commercial arrangements.
Second, the most effective foreign ministries of the future will be those in which short-term priorities are informed by medium to longer-term strategies based on rigorous and sustained assessments of the range of vulnerabilities, threats, risks and opportunities that could impact on national interests in ways that the nation isn’t adequately equipped to address. In such foreign ministries, this capacity for ‘foresight’ built on medium to longer-term assessments will be used to focus contemporary policy settings directly on new realities, emerging opportunities and discomforting uncertainties that are identified, and will test the breaking points and tipping points of those policy settings.
Third, the future effectiveness of foreign ministries will increasingly be measured by the extent to which they not only strengthen and diversify their skills in traditional government-to-government diplomacy but also utilise the value-adding potential of diplomacy’s new connection technologies and force multipliers that broaden the scope for government-to-citizen advocacy and influence.
A focus on new capacities for collecting, processing and analysing the significance of information and intelligence for the advancement of national interests will be as necessary as ever in the coming period of rising geopolitical tensions and geoeconomic competition among states. Utilising new generations of real-time technologies for communicating directly with the citizenry of other countries will be increasingly indispensable for diplomatic effectiveness—including promoting counter-narratives.
Fourth, the most effective foreign ministries of the future will be those that most productively manage the flow of information to decision-makers and their wider national community. In an era of proliferating open source material, this capacity will entail ensuring the digestibility of information flows for decision-makers but not subjectively filtering that information to reinforce pre-existing or preferred mind-sets. It will also include mining the potential of ‘big data’, recognising the potential in terms of providing insights into what is happening but also the limitations in terms of explaining why it is happening.
The lines of demarcation between public information and confidential government deliberations are shifting perceptibly, and will continue to do so. Cyber security and protecting information that’s genuinely sensitive will continue to be critical benchmarks of effectiveness for foreign ministries into the future.
But another important benchmark will be their responsiveness to the fact that technology is democratising access to information, diversifying the sources and scope of information available to citizens, and requiring governments and their agencies to be more forthcoming in the contextual material they make publicly available and the rationale for their decision-making.
Finally, the most effective foreign ministries of the future will have a constructive openness to new modes of operation. These include a genuine cutting-edge focus on career-long learning; the scope for short-term and longer term secondments to foreign ministries; the balance between structures based on geographical demarcations and those addressing functional priorities; the optimal mix of specialists and generalists; the most productive ratio of locally-engaged staff at posts and nationally-based professional diplomatic officers; the use of ‘hub and spokes’ models and/or non-resident ambassadors in the regional deployment of diplomatic resources; and the capacity for the rapid concentration of necessary resources on crises and emerging priority issues.
Ultimately, the future effectiveness of foreign ministries will be measured by the extent to which they speak truth to power about the elusiveness of conceptual neatness in the international system of the 21st century and their capacity to support national governments in both strengthening international order and managing international change.