Is Diplomacy a Useless Relic of the Romantic Past?

In times of geopolitical reconfiguration, we might imagine the world’s focus would be on the kind of messy problem-solving we associate with the art of diplomacy. Instead, the diplomats seem to have abandoned their art form, preferring to count on violence to sort out the winners and losers.
Congres_van_Wenen, (1)

The Congress of Vienna, 1815. Via Wikimedia Commons.

August 22, 2023 22:41 EDT

Few today would contest the thesis that we are living in a moment of geopolitical tectonic shift. This movement has been going on for some time, but it became shockingly evident in the immediate aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Instead of playing out as a local conflict, the illegal Russian invasion quickly turned into something nearly everyone now recognizes as a proxy war between Russia and the US. But it has also turned into a complex and evolving showdown that has split the entire globe into two somewhat poorly-defined blocs: the liberal West and the Global South.

The reaction that set this deeper logic in motion came from the United States when it mobilized NATO to defend Ukraine’s right to join the military alliance of its choice. On its face, this should have seemed surprising because it stood as a tacit admission that Ukraine was already a de facto member of NATO.

On the day of the fateful invasion, US President Joe Biden called Russia’s “special military operation” an “unprovoked and unjustified attack” on Ukraine and promised that the US and its allies would “hold Russia accountable.” Members of Congress likewise immediately announced that they were “committed to enacting the strongest possible sanctions and export controls to cripple Russia’s ability to make war, punish its barbarity and relegate the Putin regime to the status of an international pariah.”

It soon became clear that NATO was at war with Russia but had found a way to conveniently use Ukrainian forces to wage the battle on the ground. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made this clear when he explained that the massive financial, material and logistical support the US was offering Ukraine had as its objective the “weakening” of Russia. Biden himself promised to reduce the Russian “ruble into rubble” and evoked the ouster of Putin in these terms: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The nations of the world immediately understood that what they were witnessing was a moment of history in which the global order was about to be redefined. This became even clearer as, despite NATO’s commitment to achieve its objectives in an effort that may last “as long as it takes,” Ukraine was being dismantled as a nation and depopulated as a society.

But should we think of February 2022 as the moment when everything began to change, or did that critical moment appear 30 years earlier in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union? The West has framed this drama as a challenge to the normative “rules-based order” that has been in place since the end of World War II. But the real change may have occurred earlier when the way of handling the world’s business in the Western power centers underwent a radical change.

Harper’s Magazine’s June cover story, “Why are we in Ukraine?” was authored by two distinguished authorities on international relations, Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne. Both authors have had a strong relationship, during their careers, with the national security community.

In their detailed analysis covering 30 years of history up to the outbreak of hostilities last year, they point to a phenomenon of great historical significance. “Normal diplomacy among great powers, distinguished by the recognition and accommodation of clashing interests—the approach that had defined the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during even the most intense stretches of the Cold War—was obsolete. Russia was expected to acquiesce to a new world order created and dominated by the United States.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Normal diplomacy:

A historical relic belonging to a period that began in 1815, with the resolution of the Napoleonic wars, and ended in 1991—the moment when a single nation felt definitively empowered to adjudicate every type of conflict across the globe as well as enforce its judgment with a panoply of means including economic sanctions, military intervention or clandestine operations aimed at installing leaders capable of applying normative policies.

Contextual note

We have become conditioned to think of contemporary history as a series of successively redefined “world orders.” In such reflection, we tend to focus on who is empowered to make decisions but not on how decisions are made. Throughout human history, two factors have alternated, though with no observable regularity: war and diplomacy.

When Americans evoke their own historical mythology, they think of what they call the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 as a heartwarming moment of diplomacy between the English settlers and the native tribes. Historical reality was very different from the myth. And in the ensuing centuries, war became the defining reality and genocide its outcome. US history has created a taste for exploiting unequal relations. The culture itself has encapsulated it in the ideal of “the competitive spirit”—which can lead to a mentality of “winner takes all.”

Diplomacy finally did become a norm in Europe in the 19th century, as the imperial ambitions of Napoleon, finally resolved at Waterloo, helped the European nations to appreciate the risks that arose when any single power became too dominant. Retired French diplomat Gérard Araud, describing 19th-century European diplomatic culture in his book, Histoires diplomatiques, notes that diplomats “often have the thankless task of focusing on reality, analyzing the balance of power and demonstrating that what is desirable rarely corresponds to what is possible.” This sounds very much like the thinking of Schwartz and Layne when they write: “Historically, great powers tend to focus pragmatically on reducing conflict among themselves. By frankly recognizing the realities of power and acknowledging each other’s interests, they can usually relate to one another on a businesslike basis.”

When the same authors, analyzing US policy in Ukraine, tell us that this culture of “normal diplomacy” is “obsolete,” we should take this as a wake-up call. Can humanity afford to declare diplomacy obsolete? The new “coalition of the willing” built around NATO appears to have reached this conclusion. The rest of humanity appears to be resisting. History will tell us whether diplomacy may one day be revived.

Historical note

The logic of the original Cold War was based on two ideas. The first consisted in affirming that a certain political and economic model—the liberal, capitalist, free market order—was not just a historical reality but should be conceived of as both a norm and an ideal to be aspired to. The second consisted in affirming that there were a number of simple rules that could be conceptualized as the basis of a “rules-based order.”

In such a perspective, the Soviet Union needed to be fended off because it had a declared revolutionary mission. According to the Western understanding of Marxist thought, communists across the globe, from Italy to Vietnam, inspired if not led by the Soviet Union, were actively seeking to overthrow not just national governments but the entire liberal economic system and replace it with a global dictatorship of the proletariat.

Schwartz and Layne detect another powerful nation with a “revolutionary” mission: the US. “Convinced that its national security depended on the domestic political and economic arrangements of ostensibly sovereign states—and therefore defining as a legitimate goal the alteration or eradication of those arrangements if they were not in accord with its professed ideals and values—the post-Cold War United States became a revolutionary force in world politics.”

Recounting the saga of the US- and French-led overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, they describe the evolution of NATO under US leadership in the following terms: “The alliance had been transformed from a supposedly mutual defense pact designed to repel an attack on its members into the preeminent military instrument of American power in the post-Cold War world.”

Defense pacts are one of the typical results of diplomatic consultation. That is exactly how diplomacy played out in 19th-century Europe. Defense pacts were designed to contain overweening ambition and excessive power. But when a defense pact such as NATO becomes the “military instrument of American power” and when the alliance seeks to extend its geographical reach further and further beyond the North Atlantic, the problem Napoleon posed for Europe becomes the problem of humanity itself.

Is the US preparing its own Waterloo?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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