The True Lessons of the G20 Summit

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The immediate reactions to last week’s G20 summit focused on the isolation of Donald Trump and particularly the 19+1 communique. But they have missed the deeper points: the bifurcation of international relations and who, if anyone, can fill the shoes of the US. The actual G20 communique is, of course, of little importance in itself. These documents are confected in such a way as to include everyone’s pet themes, but in such a way as to cause no offence. Countries sign them with little if any intention to carry through the commitments (e.g. Russia on climate change, China on education). The document’s shelf life is so short that no-one notices. Which makes it all the more surprising Trump couldn’t find a meaningless form of words to sign up to.

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Turning to more the more significant aspects, there were two very different kinds of activities going on at the summit. On the one hand, there was the summit itself. The G20 met to tackle a broad range of global issues such as climate change. I have argued elsewhere that this amounts to the New International Security Agenda (https://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20041100_cli_paper_dip_issue95.pdf): key issues include climate change, poverty, pandemic disease, financial stability etc. Although governments remain key players in this agenda, they cannot resolve these issues on their own. Collaboration must extend beyond governments to a broad range of state and non-state actors, including international organisations, NGOs and companies. This is the Networked world of multi-stakeholder diplomacy. This agenda provided the issues for the G20 communique (although, as suggested above, getting your pet issue name-checked in the communique doesn’t amount to much, unless you use it as a pretext for pushing on hard).

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The second kind of activity were the series of bilateral meetings held in the margins of the G20, for example the much touted meeting between Trump and Putin. Although global issues may have been name checked (“please, President Trump, think again about Paris”), these meetings focused on more traditional geopolitical issues: N Korea, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, interference in US elections. These are issues diplomats a hundred years ago would recognise. These are also issues where states remain the main players, in large part because they still deploy the greatest capacity to apply violence. Interestingly, the cyber world, and in particular cybersecurity, looks to reinforce rather than undermine the role of the state.

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Ironically, and not altogether politically correctly, the geopolitical bilaterals were more significant than the G20 plenaries (perhaps symbolised by the presence of Ivanka Trump in the US seat in the plenary). This is not to say that the global issues of the New International Security Agenda are not important. They are existential for human kind. But they exist in an almost parallel universe from the geopolitical agenda. Say whatever they say, most governments give priority to the geopolitical agenda because its issues have the greater short term impact. The multistakeholder and multilevel diplomacy associated with global issues contrasts strongly with the bilateral diplomacy of the geopolitical agenda (and it is bilateral – multilateral approaches emerge from bilateral ground work). Geopolitical issues distract from, and undermine dealing with, the global issues.

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This bifurcation between the two agendas risks tearing diplomacy apart, with the result that neither agenda ultimately is dealt with. The challenge for diplomacy is to evolve structures and techniques that allow both agendas to be tacked together, and in ways that are self-reinforcing. Ironically it may be the Russians that point the way: what is hybrid Warfare but the application and techniques of the Networked Age to the geopolitical agenda?

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The other significant aspect was the vacuum left by the lack of US leadership. I wrote some time ago about the schoolbus whose US driver got off at the last stop (see the home page to this blog). But Trump has accelerated the process. Apart from driving this lesson home, the G20 Summit was an audition for those aspiring to fill the leadership vacuum. None convinced. China has too many enemies and rivals on its borders (see its latest confrontation with India in Bhutan), and is not trusted (even by the Europeans). The EU is more divided than the current bromance between Macron and Merkel suggests (how long will Merkel put up with Macron’s Napoleonic pretensions?). It is any case militarily weak, and talk about a new European defence union will change little in the medium term. Russia, of course, is economically too weak, as is India. Randall Schweller’s prediction (in his excellent “Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple”) of an entropic world system of continual, and increasing, low-level conflict and disorder, looks ever more on the money. Welcome back to the 16th Century.

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Diplomats in a Networked Age

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Tom Fletcher has launched another thought provoking blog on the world (https://blog.oup.com/2017/06/digital-diplomacy-law/). But I wonder, if this time, his enthusiasm for new technology (https://youtu.be/sWtNgVykELY) has got carried away. The networked world he describes, where new technologies undermine the power of the state and empower citizens, for good or bad, to shape their world directly, may be further away than he thinks.

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The blog makes a series of important claims: “technology gives the prospect of the world’s population having an instant, global and unfiltered means of communicating, of consuming information, of forming opinions, preferences and communities”; that this could be a force for global development, but also leave us feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to corporate algorithms; and that as a system based on states and hierarchies weakens, the role of Diplomats becomes more important. Against this background, Tom sets three challenges for diplomacy: using social media in massive campaigns of influence; thinking about the implications of AI, not just for diplomacy itself but more generally for our societies; and digitising service delivery. It is a fun vision, but raises a number of problems.

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Firstly, it exaggerates the extent to which ICT is undermining the authority of the nation state. This was a common position some years ago (Manuel Castells and Parag Khanna have much to answer for). But since then the nation state has made something of a come back. It is not only that authoritarian states like China and Russia increasingly control cyberspace within their sovereign territory, putting the globality of the internet at risk. Developments in cyberspace, and especially cybersecurity, are reinforcing the role of the state. Recent cyberattacks (http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=481) make all too clear the limits of technical perimeter defences, against even relatively unsophisticated attacks. Discovering intruders once they are inside a system is not easy (on average it takes companies over 150 days to realise that their systems have been penetrated). The most effective form of cyber defence in the future may be the penetration of the computers of would be hackers to explore their capabilities and intentions. Governments already do this (Ben Buchanan’s “The Cybersecurity Dilemma” explores some of the IR implications of these defensive penetrations). But companies may lack both the technical capacity and legal cover for hacking potential hackers. They may end up as dependent on government for security in Cyberspace as they are in physical space.

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Secondly, although it does mention the risks of corporate algorithms, it may underestimate the extent to which algorithms already mediate our online interactions. Far from an “unfiltered” means of communication and interaction, our interactions are shaped and limited by the algorithms that drive platforms like Facebook, Google or Twitter. These algorithms reinforce echo chambers, distort the information (news) we receive and insure that our personal networks consist of the like-minded (and similarly prejudiced – Facebook will never suggest I be friends with a Trump supporter). Some lobby groups already know how to manipulate these algorithms (e.g. the Neo-Nazis who gamed Google to give prominence to holocaust denial webpages). We may already have lost this game. Liberal idealists may want to fight against the algorithms to secure the unfiltered communications they yearn after. But it is not clear why diplomats would want to. Algorithms should matter to them, whether using then to analyse big data or understanding how they shape foreign public opinions (even learning how to game them), but as part of broader diplomatic strategies in pursuit of policy objectives.

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This raises the main problem (and one I seem to be banging on about too much at the moment). Nowhere does Tom say what he means by diplomats and diplomacy. At one stage he seems to mean government diplomats. But it is difficult to see why government diplomats are particularly well placed to help us manage the challenges of cyberspace (“shape debates on how to protect our basic human needs in the Networked Age?”), especially if the role of state’s and governments is being undermined. If by “diplomacy” he means something that goes beyond government diplomats, then he needs to say what it is, what it is like to be a diplomat and why this is relevant to meeting the challenges of a “Networked Age” and managing AI in our societies. It is the same point I’ve made on “new diplomacies”: if we want to extend the concepts of diplomat and diplomacy beyond governments without emptying the concept of meaning we need to have some idea of what makes a government employee a “diplomat”.

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I will conclude where I agree with Tom. Cyberspace poses a series of challenges to governments and their diplomats, and so far they have not done very well. It is not just a question of improving services to citizens, although that certainly needs to be done. But it also needs intellectual rigour. We must not confuse the better use of digital tools in pursuit of broader diplomatic strategies with the use of diplomacy to tackle the problems arising in cyberspace. If Tom is right that now we need more diplomacy, it is because the techniques and mindset of diplomats can be successfully adapted to managing the latter.

Gastronomic Diplomacy Without Strategy Is … Lunch

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Katharine Hone (https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/would-real-diplomacy-please-stand) and Charles Crawford (http://charlescrawford.biz/2017/07/01/the-rise-of-faux-diplomacy/) have both responded to my earlier blog on multiplying “new diplomacies” (http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=497). This blog is by way of reply, and of clarifying some issues in my original blog. If I focus more on Katharine it is because I largely agree with Charles.

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Using hyphenated diplomacies is not necessarily unhelpful, provided we don’t turn them into separate diplomacies in their own right. Thus referring to public or digital diplomacy can sometimes be helpful in limiting what we are talking about, provided we understand that both form part of a broader diplomatic strategy to secure policy goals. They are not ends in themselves (sadly too often today that is what they become). Likewise, distinguishing between economic (governments negotiating the frameworks for international trade), commercial (governments promoting their companies) and business (companies acting like diplomats – if they do – see below) diplomacy can be useful. But not, as Charles says, if the terminology becomes too rigid.

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Charles is right that non-governmental actors in international relations are nothing new. Nor are diplomats capable of networking with a broad range of governmental and non-governmental actors (see the diaries of Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador in London in the 1930s). But two developments have increased the importance of such non-governmental actors: new information and communications technologies (ICT), which have enhanced their capacities both to gather information and influence decision-making; and the emergence of a global issues agenda including climate change, internet governance etc. Diplomats do have to interact with non-state actors, whether NGOs or companies, more than in the past. But this does not make such non-state actors diplomats.

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Katharina’s response is thoughtful, but unfortunately repeats much of the confusion I complained of in my original blog. Firstly it confuses different kinds of new diplomacy. I would argue there are three kinds: agency (focused on who is doing the diplomacy, e.g. business or NGO diplomacy), process (tools which can be used to promote broader diplomatic strategies) and substance (areas or issues which diplomacy can/should address). Thus when talking about digital diplomacy, Katharina appears to be talking about diplomacy being used to address issues arising in cyberspace, whereas most scholars talk about digital tools being used to advance broader diplomatic agendas (I addressed this distinction in a CPD blog: https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/cyber-diplomacy-vs-digital-diplomacy-terminological-distinction). A similar confusion arises over “environment diplomacy”, which apparently combines both the subject matter to be addressed (e.g. climate change) and a new kind of diplomacy needed to address it. Apart from this category confusion, it is not at all clear what this new “kind” of diplomacy would be.

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I do agree with Katherina that thinking of diplomacy only in terms of the Vienna Conventions is too limiting (most western diplomats tend to live in breach of Article 41 anyway). I would not exclude the possibility of non-government diplomats. But simply asking what diplomats do, and then assigning the title of diplomat to anyone else doing it (or describing as “diplomacy” anything where people are doing diplomat-like things) won’t wash. Many people gather information, communicate, represent and negotiate (I am not sure what “reproduce international society” means). Some people do all of them, but without being diplomats. For example, private sector lobbying companies do all of these things, but without being diplomats. Most multinational corporations do these things, but without being diplomats. If we want to apply the term “diplomat” to non-government actors without emptying the term of all meaning, we have to start thinking about what it might be like to be a diplomat. It is not just what diplomats do, but the diplomat like way in which they do them, or the diplomat like way in which they see the world while doing them. The key question then becomes not “is a non-governmental actor doing the same things as a diplomat?”, but “is the non-governmental actor doing it in the same way as a diplomat?”. For reasons I will save for another blog, this could one of the key questions in 21st century international relations.

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I suspect that only diplomacy scholars fear diplomacy becoming anachronistic. Real world diplomats are too busy managing the changes in global affairs (they were, after all, crucial to the Paris Climate Change Accords). The greater danger is that Diplomatic studies is losing the link between diplomacy, strategy and policy objectives. Diplomacy as practiced is not some kind moral activity aimed at international peace and understanding. It is an approach to securing policy objectives established by the authorised decision makers. It combines in strategy with other approaches (e.g. warfare, economic or cyber coercion). This will not change if we accept that non-governmental actors are “doing diplomacy”: their authorised decision-makers will similarly set policy objectives which their diplomacy will be deployed to promote. The promotors of the “new diplomacies”, by treating them as ends in themselves, break this link to broader strategies and objectives. Cultural diplomacy does not promote a country’s culture as an end in itself, but to increase that country’s influence and thus its ability to secure its policy objectives. A football match without any broader diplomatic strategy is a football match. Gastronomic diplomacy without any broader policy objectives to promote is lunch. Talking of which ….

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