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Diplomats – who needs them?

Political Theory

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Illustration — Saman Sarheng

In a world where the US President freely admits that he doesn’t do background detail and ‘knows’ whether he can do a deal within a few minutes of meeting a ruthless dictator, is there still a case for traditional diplomacy?

Are those hours spent understanding tribal dynamics a worthwhile investment?

Spare a thought for the Canadian diplomats who spent months preparing for the G7 summit only to falter on the rocks of petulant world leaders ignoring the hard work. G7 paraphernalia with Sherpa meetings and endless draft communiqués has often seemed out of touch with the reality of those living in the world they dominate. Yet, summit verbosity aside, traditional diplomacy at its best is imaginative because it does focus on the detail, and it is the knowledge of the detail that permits creativity and offers the opportunity to prevent conflict or stop fighting once it has started.

Take the situation in Yemen today. While the conflict is often portrayed in the media as being between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition, after more than three years of outright hostilities there are now myriad different armed groups involved in local and national battles – all of whom have some stake in local peace and many of whom will need to be included in any wider national settlement if it is to hold.

But knowledge is limited: there are no longer any foreign embassies in Sana’a – the Russians were the last to leave in December 2017. One of the reasons Saudi Arabia has become embroiled in a conflict is that the generation of Saudis who knew Yemen, who took the time to understand tribal dynamics, have moved on. Yes, they used that knowledge to create instability under then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they also supported him when they had to, and ensured that Yemenis did not starve as that was not – and is still not – in the interest of Saudi Arabia.

Assuming peace in Yemen is in the long-term interests of all, including those intervening directly on the ground, no outside power now has the necessary credibility to initiate talks or encourage grassroots dialogue. Can a new UN envoy who has spent little time in Yemen compensate by surrounding himself with people who understand Yemeni tribal politics but who are not partisan? Even making that judgement requires some local knowledge, and the battle for the port of Hodeidah in June this year demonstrates that even when great efforts are made to listen to all sides, painstaking diplomacy can be undermined by external actions. But there is still value in nurturing those contacts: in the long run they will be the basis of any agreement which might last beyond a few months.

Preventive diplomacy

The practice of sending envoys abroad to represent your sovereign interests is long established. More recent is the idea that diplomats are involved in preventive diplomacy – seeking to prevent conflicts from breaking out. That was the aim of both the League of Nations and the United Nations: an understanding that co-operation between military powers could prevent war.

The evolution of the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ following the genocide in Rwanda seemed to offer a new rights-based standard for preventive military intervention. The invasion of Iraq, without prior UN Security Council approval, effectively ended that rights-based era before it had started. The little credibility left for UN-approved intervention was scuppered in Libya in 2011 when a resolution that authorized the use of ‘all necessary means’ to protect civilians was stretched to cover military intervention.

The cases of Iraq and Libya demonstrate the failure of ill-prepared inter­ventions insufficiently based on knowledge and diplomacy. Bush famously ignored State Department advice in Iraq. In Britain the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was often sidelined from discussions carried out by the prime minister’s office or the Ministry of Defence. Few diplomats knew Libya well enough to understand the repercussions of military intervention, and the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron were both criticized for their limited political consultation.

Yet the efforts of preventive diplomacy continue. Consider the number of UN Special Envoys in the Middle East alone: in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Lebanon. It is easy to criticize their efforts and accuse them of being hamstrung by the limits of mandates set by the UN Security Council. But consider the options: historically, some national diplomats have been willing and able to take personal initiatives to foster relations and offer solutions on the ground and overstep assigned roles. For example, Edward Spears encouraged Lebanese independence in 1943 before the French were willing to grant it, and it was never clear to either the British or the French whose side Spears was really on – ostensibly a British envoy, he was a friend of De Gaulle.

 Traditional diplomacy at its best is imaginative because it does focus on the detail, and it is the knowledge of the detail that permits creativity and offers the opportunity to prevent conflict or stop fighting once it has started

Such a scenario is almost impossible to imagine today, where the room for manoeuvre of national diplomats is limited by the ability – and demand – to immediately defer to capitals for decisions. So instead of a patchwork of national diplomats working together but always with their national interests in mind, we have a system of supposedly neutral UN envoys mandated by a degree of consensus but vetoed if they are likely to overstep some national red line. They do persevere and try to bring warring factions together as in Libya and Yemen, picking up the pieces of the consequences of less informed decisions. Equally important, they carry on the day-to-day work of diplomacy in, say, Lebanon, helping to preserve the fragile, negative peace that has prevailed there since 1989.

The value of in-depth understanding and shrewd action was demonstrated last November by the French inviting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Paris when it appeared that he had been ‘kidnapped’ by the Saudis and forced to resign. French intervention, understanding the real danger in a situation that seemed to undermine the only potential candidate for prime minister in Lebanon, prevented potential conflict and allowed all actors to save face. Behind the scenes, the UN Special Envoy carries out endless meetings with all political factions, including the leadership of Hizbullah. On the border with Israel, the UN brokers regular contact between representatives of the Israeli army and the Lebanese army. All of these meetings and dialogues help lessen the chances of conflict or at least the chances of conflict breaking out through error and misunderstanding.

A certain daring

It doesn’t mean that opportunities are not missed or that mistakes are not made, and nor is quiet diplomacy a panacea for inaction in the face of atrocities. In 2012, when the Iraqi women’s peace movement was offering to help mediate with the uprising Sunni population of Hawija, it felt like an opportunity missed when the predominantly male envoys and male politicians refused to engage. Maybe the political divides were bigger than the women believed, maybe the regional powers had prohibitive red lines and it would have been difficult for a Shi’a-dominated government to reach out to the Sunni groups. But it wasn’t tested, and the world quickly learned the consequences of failure to respond to Sunni demands through the Iraqi protests and consequent escalating sectarian violence of 2012-13.

In complex negotiations, success can hinge on a certain individual daring to test the limits of the possible. But having the confidence to test those limits depends not on an ability to make instant character judgements but on a sound understanding of the situation on the ground in all its complexities. The danger today is that neither national governments nor UN envoys have the knowledge or the freedom of movement necessary for innovative solutions – and the current batch of political leaders do not have the patience or inclination to let them try.

The war that never was: Three conflicts averted by smart diplomacy

2016 – The Gambia


The brutal 22-year rule of President Yahya Jammeh came to an end in 2016, when he was defeated in a shock election result by the main opposition candidate, Adama Barrow. Swift mediation by neighbouring West African countries – backed by the credible threat of armed intervention – forced Jammeh to step down and enabled the peaceful transfer of power.

2015 – Iran


The deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme that the Trump administration is trying so hard to bring down was negotiated three years ago by the US, Britain, China, France and Germany. According to Ali Vaez from International Crisis Group: ‘if the deal collapses, we would be left with no option other than confrontation.’

2007 – Kenya


Violence spiralled in the aftermath of elections in Kenya, leading to the deaths of 2,000 people and displacement of up to 600,000. The African Union, with UN support, intervened quickly, sending a mediation team led by Kofi Annan that pushed President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger Raila Odinga into a mediation process that ultimately halted the bloodshed. The success of the team, which included the former president of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa and Graça Machel-Mandela, was partly credited to engagement with women’s civil-society groups and business leaders that ensured any final agreement would be acceptable to the majority of Kenyans.

New Internationalist issue 515 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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