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June 21, 2021

What can be the future of diplomacy ?

This question is a most topical one if we take seriously the frequent appeals launched by  the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who vigorously  advocated for a new surge in diplomacy.

In his recent  remarks to the World Government Summit in Dubai  the Secretary -General said  inter alia that we live today in a world that is no longer bipolar, no longer unipolar but it is not yet multipolar.It’s really chaotic. Unpredictability and impunity  tend to proliferate everywhere. There is a deep mistrust between countries and groups of countries that, of course, facilitate the multiplication of conflicts and the difficulty to solve them. “We need a surge of diplomacy for peace”, he said.

Giving a new impetus to diplomacy for peace  is not an easy task for the 193 members of the United Nations who are now involved in complicated and difficult negotiations on global issues.

Learning diplomacy and adapting diplomatic activities to the complex requirements of today’s international relations is an objective which cannot be reached without a strong educational process in which specialized books have an important role to play.

Such a useful book is “The Future of Diplomacy” signed by Philip Seib (photo) and published simultaneously in 2016 by Polity Press in the USA and in the United Kingdom.

Philip Seib is professor of public diplomacy and international relations at the University of Southern California.

In only 154 pages the author manages to introduce the readers, through five chapters, to some fundamental issues related to open diplomacy, the rise of public diplomacy, to states and non-states,to the  capacity of staying on track in the diplomatic field  and on  ways and means for shaping diplomacy’s future.

The introductory remarks of the book  summarize the place of diplomacy in contemporary world.

Indeed, “For centuries diplomacy was the domain of an insular elite. The protagonists worked quietly, often secretly, until ready to unveil their accomplishments or lack thereof. Diplomats were comfortable in this closed environment, speaking just to one another and paying little heed to those publics whose future might be shaped by their work”.(p.1)

Times have changed. In the present world characterized by global vulnerabilities, perplexities and discontinuities, diplomats “must cope with the unprecedented speed at which  information- driven events move. A fast- spreading rumor can cause a bloody crisis. A world leader maybe compelled to decide whether  to take time to respond thoughtfully or act immediately. Ideally, the two could both happen, but to expect that in every case is wishful thinking”.(p.5)

The author is perfectly right in asserting that in the future diplomats aspiring to being viewed as major players in world affairs will need to work with publics that their professional predecessors could ignore.

In a realistic approach, it should be recognized that diplomacy operating as a closed club is not yet obsolete, but the old diplomatic methods may prove more and more to be ineffective in many situations.

The  world community is hyper-connected to such an extent that the work of diplomats has to be adapted in a radical way to the new realities.

It is estimated that by 2018 there will be 21 billion networked devices globally up from 12 billion in 2013.Moreover, in 2018 people will upload more than 350 million photographs to social media sites each day.

Under such circumstances, it is obvious that diplomats will have a difficult tasks to put new technologies to work in shaping public opinion and governmental initiatives in a predetermined  direction.

The author of the book pays a lot of attention to the development of public diplomacy which is media-centric, encompasses a lot of personalized efforts, and all nations wishing to have a real global influence have no choice but to seriously engage in public diplomacy.

At the same time, the author is quite realistic and asserts that public diplomacy is pointless if it is free- standing, separate from defined foreign policy objectives.

In a  chapter dedicated to states and non-states, the author reminds that the rise of China and regional economic powers, such as the European Union plus emerging “tigers” in Asia, Latin America and Africa contributed to a more horizontal array of influential players. Beyond these transformations, diplomacy managed to retain much of its traditional road and at present became more robust.

Among the non-state actors the author mentions non- governmental organizations, major cities and international corporations. These  non-state entities develop their own diplomatic competence. There are delicate aspects to be considered in this respect.

Should Japanese diplomats negotiating for climate change deal with diplomats from China’s foreign  ministry or with  relevant officials from the city of Shanghai?

International corporations have a great influence on world arena,  but they are avoiding the scrutiny they deserve and their interaction with diplomats is frequently indirect. However,as globalization accelerates, interaction between business organizations and diplomacy will become more intense.

It is anticipated that multinational corporate giants such as Google will develop increasingly sophisticated “foreign policies” of their own.

With the participation of non-state actors, diplomacy will cover new areas which are  largely dependent on online capabilities and the practice of diplomacy will be more diversified, receiving new and important dimensions.

In a chapter symbolically entitled “Staying on track”, the author correctly reminds that diplomats are not usually in a position to push back against domestic political pressure, especially when that pressure is amplified by  well- organized interest groups.(p.105)The author anticipates that in the future diplomats are likely to feel the heat of partisanship as they go about their work.

Another useful reservation expressed by the author has  to be evoked. In order to be effective, diplomacy must design and adapt to the  new structural and technological realities. But in the same context it is emphasized that diplomacy must not become overextended.

There is no doubt that it  is difficult to modernize a profession steeped in tradition. Diplomacy demands specialized preparation, including solid academic instruction and on-the-job professional training, as well as learning fundamental technological skills. Continuous training is imperative because the art of diplomacy can not be static and in order to be effective it must  sufficiently develop to be able to meet new needs and unprecedented challenges and adequately respond to new opportunities in international life.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to “Shaping diplomacy’s future”.

An essential  idea of this chapter is that traditional diplomacy is alive and will remain healthy, but it will share the stage with a new more public- oriented diplomacy. In addition, the dispersion of global power among an  increasing number of states after the Cold War makes diplomatic calculations much more complex and difficult to be put into practice.

In parallel, as a result of the  extraordinary development of new communication technologies, involving more people in diplomatic conversations and increasing the velocity of the diplomatic process, the scope of the diplomatic activities  will considerably expand.

In this regard, it is anticipated  that diplomats will continue to have an essential role in delivering their own  countries narratives and in countering those that are contrary to their nations interests. From this perspective, “Narratives that are intrinsically manipulative  will not endure. When false, they will be undermined by truth; when hateful, they will be conquered by decency. This might take a while; a well-constructed narrative can sustain attacks, but none is impregnable. More and more, diplomats will find themselves engaged in this process: presenting narratives for their own country, and attacking those from hostile sources.” (p.131)

While dealing with the functioning of  diplomacy in the new global community, the author is quite realistic by asserting that the diplomacy of major powers receives the most attention which is fitting because they can do the most good or create the most havoc on the international arena.

However, the landscape of power is gradually flattening, as many emerging countries have greater interest in interacting with other states. It becomes more and more visible that the doors to what used to be a closed club have been pushed at least partly open by the forces of globalization in which developing countries feel the impact of marginalization.

Therefore, we can speak now  about the existence of a  kind of global diplomacy. If this is true, we can welcome the conclusion of the author  according to which “the future of diplomacy will be increasingly democratized.”(p.141)Moreover, we can also  agree with his final optimistic assessment about the role of diplomacy during the current century.

In his opinion, “In this new era, diplomacy will not become obsolete.

It will be essential in building a peaceful, prosperous, healthy world.

Its traditions  will be enhanced by new practices. For diplomacy, a promising future awaits.”(p.141)

Yet, the realities  of our world today compel 193 countries  to work together to promote multilateralism and adherence to international law, for peace, cooperation and sustainable development. This is   an aspect insufficiently  treated by the author in his book.

Indeed ,multilateralism must be strengthened and the role  of multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, must be increased in order to find workable solutions to complex  global issues. To what extent  multilateral diplomacy is prepared  to contribute to this  process is a question to be answered on the basis of the political consensus for action-oriented measures  to be formulated  through  robust negotiations in the years to come.

Professor Philip Seib’s volume can be recommended for study and consultation to students, professors, policy makers, diplomats, journalists and to all persons interested in world affairs.


  • Dr. Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University of Thailand in Bangkok.

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