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March 27, 2023

A recent collective handbook of diplomacy

By  Ioan Voicu*

The Palgrave Handbook of Diplomatic Reform and Innovation, London ,Palgrave Macmillan,  2023, 758 pages is a collective work co-authored  by  a group of 40 scholars and practitioners from some 30 countries. It offers a critical look at the contemporary practice of diplomacy involving  state and non-state actors who are described as   powerless to make significant changes. Moreover, diplomacy appears to be  now considered as  a neglected global field. The COVID-19 pandemic  and the invasion of Ukraine have strongly highlighted some of the problems of the current diplomatic dysfunction. What are  the  practical options for reform and innovation in order to overcome this dysfunction ?Are there  new norms of diplomatic behavior able to function  successfully in a multipolar, digital world where diplomacy is seen as less and less effective?

This  Handbook tries to answer such fundamental questions  in an introduction, in 35 specific chapters written by different authors and followed by  detailed conclusions.

We cannot provide in the limited space of this article a general presentation of this comprehensive book, but we wish to inform the readers that they may read/consult

The Palgrave Handbook selectively, having in mind that  by doing so they would  be able to  become more familiar with some interesting topics related to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy which are not treated in classical textbooks published  in this field or in general monographies on international relations. Even the titles of some chapters of the handbook may generate spontaneous curiosity, as they are self-explanatory by their own formulations.

Here is a short  selected list of titles :

 Diplomacy the Neglected Global Issue: Why Diplomacy Needs to Catch Up with the World ;  A Diplomatic Taxonomy for the New World Disorder ;  Diplomats and Politicization;  Digital Diplomacy and International Society in the Age of Populism; Digital Diplomacy in the Time of the Coronavirus Pandemic: Lessons and Recommendations ; Disinformation and Diplomacy; Toward a More Credible Multilateralism at the United Nations: A Few Practical Steps; New Logic of Multilateralism on Demand ;  About Spheres of Influence; Regional Diplomacy and Its Variations: Change and Innovation; Small States: From Intuitive to Smart Diplomacy. The last chapter (35) is entitled  Global Diplomacy and Multi- stakeholderism: Does the Promise of the 2030 Agenda Hold?

It is common knowledge that principles and values are an integral part of diplomacy  and foreign policy  and thus they are  core elements  helping  to understand their own functioning. According to the United Nations Millennium Declaration (2000), there are  six fundamental values : freedom, equality,  solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, shared responsibility. On February 14, 2023 Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General,  in a message addressed to the World Government Summit  asserted inter alia  : “We have a duty to act .We must forge a path towards greater cooperation, rooted in solidarity.”

Diplomats’ responses to fundamental values, including solidarity, are unsurprisingly multifaceted , but not always sufficiently visible. In part their responses derive from the contexts in which they operate and under what leadership they are working.

In more expansive  defini­tions, diplomacy also involves relationships between groups of people, often within the whole  international community, associating in  the process of representing,  communicating, negotiating their own interests and values. Over its longue durée diplomacy was and continues to be  in a visible way   context-dependent and context-making and is  requested now to be  strongly focused on multilateralism.

The United Nations (UN) delegates’ regular practice consists of a multitude of meetings,  debates, consultations, discussions and negotiations, both formal and informal. This permanent exposure to dif­ferent viewpoints and exchanges with colleagues from a number of different countries is, without a doubt, one of the most enriching experiences, both at the personal and at the professional levels. However, the UN context has also produced, over the years, a particular brand of “experts,” who specialize, each in his or her area of work, in the drafting of texts and the elaboration of com­promise formulations incorporated in many resolutions.. This is, of course, a welcome and necessary skill at the UN which has to deal every year with an agenda of nearly 180 items at every session of the UN General Assembly.

“We need more innovation, more inclusion and more foresight, investing in the global public goods that sustain us all,” emphasized Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General in his landmark report Our Common Agenda (2021) in which he  underlined the UN Charter’s focus  on “collective efforts” to achieve a better world, stressing that “cooperation and solidarity are the only solutions, within societies and between nations”.

Practice shows  that perhaps one of the most important ways in which diplomacy can be reinforced is through moments of express­ing solidarity, sorrow, and commemoration . But unless such statements are expressed in the active voice or specifically addressed to  persons, audiences or situations, expressions of solidarity risk to remain  neutral  due to their  simple pro­cedural nature.

During COVID-19 pandemic, while the EU was not poised to change existing crisis communications sys­tem, its members soon improvised new means of digital crisis management. The case of German MFA digital diplo­macy is particularly illustrative. If  in the first weeks of March 2020, most digital communications stressed Germany’s engagement in collaborative sense-making exercises with the broader international community, these mes­sages were later adjusted to focus on communicating details of the response.

More multilateral approaches to promoting international collaboration can again be found in the EU communications process throughout the COVID-19 period. In addition to their institutional commitments to funding the WHO and the COVID-19 global response pledging conference, the EU signaled regional solidarity by highlighting multiple countries’ aid and gift-giving simultaneously. By the end of March 2020, the EU tweeted an infographic listing the forms of aid that several EU countries had dispatched to Italy, complete with the caption: “In the face of adversity, the people of Europe are showing how strong we can be together”.

It is widely recognized that more than Europe or Asia, Africa “engenders a strong sense of unity and solidarity among Africans molded by a history of humiliation and exploitation by others”. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president, spoke for every African’s aspira­tions when he observed, “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me”.

Intergovernmental organizations (EU, ASEAN,  African Union and others) are becoming the coordinators of what is happening in each geographical region, while they are also  increasingly including a humanitarian component in their activities guided by solidarity. Regional cooperation in the sphere of health diplomacy  is based on two main components: first, an open, inclusive dialogue between governments, civil society, including academia, international and regional organizations; and secondly, the ability of regional actors to generate innovative ideas and effec­tive own solutions based on the principles of regional solidarity and responsi­bility. All this turns the process of health diplomacy into a dynamic situation of interaction—with the aim of finding solutions to complex problems.

The Handbook, quite shortly and selectively presented above,  ends with specific conclusions recommended by the editors to all potential readers.

Some recommendations are far-reaching. We will mention just one of them. The editors of the Handbook recommend revision of the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations which have  not been revised since their adoption in  the 1960s. The importance of these Conventions goes far beyond the central issues of diplomatic immunities and privileges. They  were negotiated  only by less than a third in number of present UN member states (193). These legal instruments were also negotiated in the context of the Cold War and bear the obvious  imprints of a Western model of diplomacy.

The editors   believe that their conclusions  “would give bilateral and multilateral diplomacy an opportunity for a new start. We hope those who read this book will contrib­ute other ideas for its reform and innovation. All those interested in the cause of diplomacy will recognize that its benefits cannot be taken for granted”.

This topical appeal for reform and innovation deserves full attention.

*Dr. Ioan Voicu was  Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok (2000-2019).


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