Moral Outrage is no Substitute for Foreign Policy

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Expressions of moral outrage have replaced foreign policy in the west. It is most notable in the anguished, and ahistorical, outpourings of David Cameron, but other leaders such as Obama and Hollande seem equally vulnerable. Even Angela Merkel sometimes indulges. Instead of developing foreign policy strategies aimed at identifying national interests, setting objectives, linking the objectives to the means of securing them and setting out acceptable end-games, they prefer the instant gratification of the moral high ground.

It is not the best basis for creating coherent foreign policy, but also creates other more specific problems. Other states, not prone to the same ethical considerations, find Western policy hard to understand (they usually mistake the ethical aspect for hypocritical posturing) and so Western actions hard to forecast. This can lead to dangerous miscalculations and policy errors (think of the damage done by British ambiguities a century ago). The lack of a clear foreign policy leaves political leaders vulnerable to the dictates of the media and the fickleness of public opinion. This leads to politicians’ logic: something outrageous has happened, therefore something must be done; this is something, therefore it must be done. Political leaders also open themselves up to manipulation by terrorists and non-state actors through skilful use of social media. Finally moral outrage is a short-term emotion, fixing on one outrage only until the next one comes along. In a world of conflict and instability, political leaders flit from one crisis to another as new horrors arrive through the normal or social media. They seem incapable of maintaining moral outrage, and thus foreign policy focus, on two issues at a time.

The growth of Islamic State (IS) and the western reaction is a case in point. It is a crisis that has been building over time. Its origins lie in the arbitrary borders drawn up by Sykes and Picot nearly a hundred years ago, and more recently the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony following the US/UK invasion of Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam upset the regional power balance and threatened to create a Shia crescent from Iran through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon. It was the decision by the Saudis and other Sunni states to fund and arm the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria, and then the Sunni insurgents against the Al Maliki government in Iraq, that has led to the growth of IS. It is a situation that analysts have been aware of for months. But for most of that time the West paid little attention, focused instead on the Ukraine.

Only when IS made serious gains in Iraq, especially seizing Mosul, did the West start to pay attention. Even then it amounted only to limited support for the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia. Two events radically changed the situation. Firstly, Obama admitted, reasonably enough, that he had no strategy for dealing with IS, provoking the contempt of US armchair strategists. Secondly, IS began beheading US and British hostages. Political leaders immediately sought to get ahead of public opinion in their expressions of moral outrage. Politicians’ logic then kicked in. The “something to be done” in this case was airstrikes. Obama still does not have a strategy for dealing with IS (nor do Cameron or Hollande) but now they are at war. It is a war without clear objectives, without any clear idea of how any objectives might be achieved or what an endgame might look like. At the same time, the political leaders seem unaware of how they may have been manipulated by IS. IS will have been well aware of the reaction videos of beheadings would provoke and the likely response of western governments. They may have calculated that a strategy-free western military intervention would play into their hands.

This failure to articulate clear foreign policies is not new. The same almost knee-jerk reactions to moral outrage can be seen in western reactions to the Ukraine crisis. In the latest Foreign Affairs, Mearsheimer argues that the crisis is much of the West’s making: I would argue that it is of Europe’s making, but that is for another blog. The point here is that instead of reacting to the annexation of the Crimea, the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine and the downing of MH17 with a coherent strategy that set clear (and realistic) objectives, linked them to the means of achieving them and outlined acceptable endgames, Western political leaders again preferred to indulge in expressions of moral outrage, almost competing with each other in emotional intensity. Once again, politicians’ logic kicked in, this time in the form of Russia’s suspension from the G7/8 and economic sanctions. It is not clear what these measures seek to achieve, or how. Suspending Russia from the G7/8 seems only to have reinforced the growing importance of the G20. One can speculate on its influence on the decision by the BRICS summit to begin setting up their own alternative international financial institutions. So far it remains unclear who will suffer most from the sanctions tit-for-tat, Russian oligarchs or European farmers. Even if sanctions did eventually lead to Putin’s downfall, it would be likely to be only a short-term gain as a new Putin-like figure emerged (as Putin himself emerged after Yeltsin). No Russian government could now return the Crimea to the Ukraine and survive the nationalist backlash in Moscow. Seeking to isolate Russia overestimates the West’s influence and ignores the extent to which the West may need Russian cooperation in the future (eg in the withdrawal from Afghanistan or even as an interlocutor with the Iranian and Syrian regimes in the fight against IS).

With airstrikes and beheadings in Iraq and Syria, the Ukraine has in any case slipped down the media agenda, and thus out of the focus of western political leaders. Ukrainian President Poroshenko already senses the falling away of western support, and Putin the opportunity of securing a favourable deal without further fighting (or sanctions). Poroshenko may have to settle for what he can get: a secure gas supply for the winter and a federalised Ukraine without the Crimea and with limited ties to the EU. Western expressions of moral outrage will have done him little good. More importantly they will have left western relations with Russia in a mess: can sanctions be maintained if Moscow and Kiev have reached an agreement? Will Russia be re-admitted to the G7/8? Will Russia want to be? How can the West re-engage with Moscow on the broad agenda of geopolitical issues where they share common interests?

In a multi-polar world where US hegemony is declining and western-inspired global rule-sets are fragmenting, the West cannot afford to reduce its foreign policy-making to expressions of moral outrage. The other regional powers seem more capable of developing coherent foreign policy built around calculations of national interest and assessments of the means of securing them. They may make mistakes, or adopt means we find morally distasteful, but it is a better and more stable basis for the management of international relations. As Hal Brands writes of grand strategy in his new book (“What Good is Grand Strategy”) foreign policy should “represent an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources and policies … that guides leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world”; it avoids that “policy will wander according to the crisis or fashion of the moment”.

Diplomacy as a Life Form

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Much time in diplomatic studies is devoted to what diplomats do, the contents of their daily intrays and the skills they need to tackle them. In the new area of Business Diplomacy, we agonize about what it is that diplomats do that distinguishes them from lobbyists, public affairs staff, political analysts or others who try to plough similar furrows. I suspect we may all be missing the point. It is not what diplomats do that makes them different, and gives them unique value, but how they are. Those who wish to replicate diplomatic skills in firms or other domains need to focus on how diplomats interact with the world, and with each other, and how that shapes how they think.

Many years ago, when still serving as a British diplomat, I read a book about diplomats by two journalists in which they described a virtual country called Diplomacia. Sadly I cannot remember the title of the book, or the names of the authors, and my efforts to find it through Google have proved unavailing (if any reader can identify it, I would be eternally grateful). The thesis of the two journalists is that all diplomats live in this country called “Diplomacia”. Once a diplomat has served overseas, she belongs neither to her home country, nor to the country to which she is posted, and can feel truly at home in neither. I can vouch for this feeling of being the outsider, both when serving abroad but also when visiting family at home, or even on home postings. It doesn’t go away (a warning to would-be diplomats!). The authors argue that this alienation not only identifies diplomats, but also binds them together in a way that marks them out as citizens of this virtual country “Diplomacia”. As I recall the authors are critical of these diplomatic sociopaths, suggesting that their alienation undermines their ability to promote the interests of their country.

My Clingendael colleague Paul Sharp puts a more positive spin on the same phenomenon in his wonderful book “A Diplomatic Theory of International Relations”. Paul argues that diplomacy should be seen as a Wittgensteinian lebensform or life form (Heidegger would have said way of being in the world). Neither belonging wholly to one country or another, diplomats share certain ways of thinking about the world that allows them to engage with each other regardless of nationality, or possible hostility between their countries. This shared diplomatic life form is the glue which holds the international system. Politicians, whether heads of government or foreign ministers, cannot escape the constraints imposed by formal relations between countries or public opinion. If one country is angry with another, the foreign ministers must be angry with each other. That is the politicians life form. Diplomats are not so constrained, and can ensure that the conversation can continue at times of tension and hostility, even sometimes conflict.

I have had my own experiences of the functioning of the shared diplomatic life form, whether conversations with Soviet diplomats during the Cold War, Chinese diplomats during difficult passages in the Hong Kong negotations or exchanges with Spanish diplomats over the oddities of the Treaty of Utrecht. Perhaps most memorable were the indirect negotiations with the Argentinian Mission to the UN in 1984 about the visit of a Welsh Nationalist politician who thought he could negotiate a resolution to the Falklands conflict (apparently they speak Welsh in Patagonia). The negotiations were indirect in as far as a Swiss diplomat had to be present as intermediary. He swiftly withdrew to a nearby bar, while we resolutely referred to the Malvinas while our Argentinian colleagues spoke of the Falklands. It is these kinds of exchanges that convince both politicians and publics that they cannot trust diplomats to defend their interests (“the diplomats only promote the interests of the foreigner”). But they miss the point. Without this kind of interaction, international relations would be condemned to many more unnecesary conflicts.

What then are the elements of the diplomatic life form and how can you train it in non-diplomats? To some extent you cannot. Partly it is acquired by being a diplomat. But also, as another colleague once commented, the key to diplomatic training is the selection process. If you select the right kind of people, they train themselves on the job (which may explain why in the past the British Diplomatic Service devoted considerable resources to the selection process, but little to training – apart from languages).

But this is not good enough if we want to offer a distinctive “diplomatic approach” to, for example, the management of geopolitical risk. If we want to show what Business Diplomacy can offer as opposed to existing approaches such as public affairs, political lobbying or CSR, then we must at least be able to identify key elements of the diplomatic life form. Therefore, in no particular order, I offer the following suggestions:

  • A 4-Dimensional vision, across time and space, that instinctively relates disparate events into broader historical and geographical patterns and understands the impact of events in one region in another;
  • An inbuilt preference for negotiation over conflict and a belief that problems can be solved through correct linguistic forms (sometimes an excessive confdence);
  • An understanding of the importance of forms of behaviour and conversation – including the role of protocol;
  • An instinct for developing networks of contacts, that go beyond just being contacts, regardless of nationality or ideology;
  • A preference for indirect approaches to problems, constructing strategies to secure objectives through the use of differing approaches and networks – perhaps just summed up as strategic;
  • A marked tendency to talk, even when the talk is of little content or immediate relevance.

I make no great claims for this list – it is a first shot and I hope others will chip in with other ideas. It inevitably fails to satisfy because it is an attempt to define the intangible. It is not a list of “diplomatic skills” but rather the attempt to catch what it is that makes a “diplomat” rather than someone carrying out diplomatic functions. That is why there is a lot of instinct here. But perhaps that is the point.

Why Scotland May Have a New Referendum Sooner Than You Think

flags_sevenScottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that there will not be another referendum on independence for another generation. They may both be wrong. There are two reasons to think they may be wrong and that the Scots may be voting again within a few years. And both reasons lie in England rather than Scotland.

Firstly, the British government may have problems in delivering on its devolution promises. The three main British party leaders, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, came together to promise further devolution to Scotland in taxation and welfare. The promises were reinforced in the last days by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who sought to bind the government firmly to promises of further devolution and a timetable for their delivery. Following the vote, Brown has promised to keep his Polyphemic gaze on implementation.

But there are signs that Cameron will have problems in delivering on his pledges in ways acceptable to Miliband. The promises were made in a moment of panic when Westminster party leaders first contemplated the possibility of defeat. The polls were getting tighter, with a couple even showing the yes vote ahead. Cameron was accused of complacency, and faced the prospect of political Armageddon as the man who presided over the break up of the Union. Significant gestures were needed to dent the momentum of the yes campaign. A pledge by all three party leaders to further devolution if Scots agreed not to break up the Union met the bill. But little thought was given to how these pledges were to be met, or the reaction among Conservative MPs.

That reaction has been rapid and negative. Many Conservative MPs are appalled by further concessions to the Scots, which they seen as obtained by blackmail. Conscious of the challenge from the right of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), they urge the needs and rights of the English. They are particularly concerned by the worsening of the so-called West-Lothian issue, whereby Scottish MPs vote in Westminster on issues affecting only England but English MPs do not vote on the same issues in Scotland. Cameron has sought to square this circle by promising that further devolution to Scotland will be accompanied by measures to tackle “the English issue”. This will include devolution of powers to English cities and regions. More controversially, he proposes that Scottish MPs at Westminster will be barred from voting on issues that have been devolved to the Scottish government. In effect this will create an “English parliament” within the Westminster parliament.

This is unacceptable to Miliband and the Labour Party. Without its 40 Scottish MPs, Labour would be condemned to be a permanent minority in this “English parliament” with significantly reduced influence over English politics. With the Scottish nationalists likely to build on their “near miss” in the referendum, this could leave Labour excluded from national politics in England and Scotland for a generation. Given that this will be the level of education, health and welfare policies, the policies that lie at the heart of the Labour Party’s identity, Labour risks irrelevance and terminal decline.

If Cameron is forced to link further Scottish devolution to the “English issue”, both will become embroiled in a fight over constitutional reform with the Labour Party. Gordon Brown’s vaunted timetable for further devolution will be out the window. The consequences for Scotland’s relations with England will be grave. The promises of further devolution seem to have been crucial to solidifying the no-vote and halting the separatist momentum. If the promises are not fulfilled, or become bogged down in English political wrangling, the accusations of bad faith will be rapid and bitter. Scottish nationalists are already claiming that Cameron will not be able to keep his word. Scots who voted no because of Cameron’s (and Clegg’s, Miliband’s and Brown’s) promises will feel cheated – with some reason. Cameron risks demands for a new referendum on independence, but this time in a bitter and less collaborative climate.

The second reason again comes from Cameron’s inability to think strategically, this time on Europe. Instead of confronting his more extreme Eurosceptic MPs, Cameron has sort to appease them and UKIP voters by promising a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Initially the promise was of a referendum if Cameron was unable to secure significant reforms of the EU. But as pressure from UKIP and his own backbenchers has grown, the terms of the promise have got tougher. Currently it would appear that there will be a referendum in 2017 (if not earlier) if the conservatives win the 2016 election, pretty much regardless of any reforms Cameron has secured in Europe in the meantime. Given Cameron’s tactical ineptitude over the election of Juncker as Commission President, there are good causes for scepticism about how much reform Cameron will be able to secure over the next two years. Some Conservative MPs, feeling the hot breathe of UKIP on their necks, are pressing for an even earlier referendum, giving up all pretence of attempting to reform the EU. As Cameron struggles with the fall-out of his promises to Scotland, he may have to make concessions to his hard liners over Europe to secure their acquiescence over Scotland.

The problem is that, according to evidence from polling, while Scotland would vote with an overwhelming majority in favour of staying in Europe, England may well vote to leave. If this were to happen in a referendum in 2017 or earlier, the issues of Scottish independence would inevitably be raised again. Not just Scottish nationalists would argue that in these circumstances, the Scots should be given the right to stay in Europe, whatever the English decided (similar arguments might arise in Wales and Northern Ireland). In fact, it is surprising that this argument was not a more prominent part of the vote-yes campaign over the last few months: vote yes to stop the English voting you out of Scotland. In two years time it could be even more powerful: independence from England to stay in Europe. This time the Scots would probably have the European and business elites on their side. Scotland could even argue that it was the successor state to the departing United Kingdom.

If Cameron is unable to control his own bank-benchers and reach a compromise with Miliband over   English governance, he may have to face the Scottish independence debate again, but in circumstances far more favourable to Scottish Nationalists. The short term promises he made to appease Scottish UK-sceptics and English Eurosceptics could ironically combine to destroy the very Union he though he was defending.