March 1, 2011


The Diplomacy of the Blind (Dominique Moisi, 2/28/11, Project Syndicate)

The United States managed to get it right, albeit very slowly, whereas many European countries erred on the side of the status quo for a much longer time, if not systematically, as they refused to see that the region could be evolving in a direction contrary to what they deemed to be in their strategic interest. Historical and geographic proximity, together with energy dependency and fear of massive immigration, paralyzed European diplomats.

But there is something more fundamental underlying diplomats’ natural diffidence. They are very often right in their readings of a given situation – the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, for example, include a slew of masterful and penetrating analyses. But it is as if, owing to an excess of prudence, they cannot bring themselves to pursue their own arguments to their logical conclusions.

Revolutionary ruptures upset diplomats’ familiar habits, both in terms of their personal contacts and, more importantly, in terms of their thinking. A fast-forward thrust into the unknown can be exhilarating, but it is also deeply frightening. In the name of “realism,” diplomats and foreign-policy strategists are naturally conservative.

Indeed, it is no accident that Henry Kissinger’s masterpiece, A World Restored, was devoted to the study of the recreation of the world order by the Vienna Congress after the rupture of the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic adventures. Is it more difficult to predict, and adjust to, the coming of a fundamental change, than to defend the present order, under the motto of “the devil you know is always preferable to the devil you don’t know!”

But, beyond these mental habits lie more structural reasons for the conservatism of foreign policymakers and diplomats. By emphasizing the relations between states and governments over contacts with the opposition or civil societies (when they exist in an identifiable form), traditional diplomacy has created for itself a handicap that is difficult to overcome.

By requiring their diplomats to limit their contacts with “alternative” sources of information in a country, in order to avoid antagonizing despotic regimes, governments irremediably limit diplomats’ ability to see change coming, even when it is so close that nothing can be done.

When regimes lose legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens, it is not reasonable to derive one’s information mainly from that regime’s servants and sycophants. In such cases, diplomats will too often merely report the regime’s reassuring yet biased analysis.

Diplomats, instead, should be judged by their ability to enter into a dialogue with all social actors: government representatives and business leaders, of course, but also representatives of civil society (even if it exists only in embryonic form). With proper training and incentives, diplomats would be better equipped to anticipate change.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2011 7:13 AM
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