Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century


Carl Greenidge


At the softer end of the continuum of foreign policy instruments lie diplomacy and culture. Diplomacy is the human face of protecting interests in international politics, as well as a crucial instrument for building inter-national stability. In these two competing roles lies the source of much of the argument over whether diplomacy is anachronistic and reactionary, or peace-building and indispensable. The confusion is compounded because of the fact that most diplomatic agency is still the preserve of states, with the UN Secretary-General and other international civil servants outnumbered and limited by their dependence on the major powers (Barston, 2013; Berridge, 2010; Berridge and James, 2003; R. Cohen, 1987; Hamilton and Langhorne; 1994; Watson, 1982).

Professional diplomats do not have a monopoly on diplomacy. As we saw in Chapter 4, many parts of the state machinery, apart from the ministry of foreign affairs, now engage in international relations. As such, they are effectively required to practise diplomacy in their dealings with foreign counterparts. In this respect all agents of the state should in principle liaise with their diplomat colleagues. If Sierra Leone had had an effective diplomatic cadre, for example, its 27-year-old president would probably not have come within an ace of expelling the ambassador of its biggest aid donor (Germany) in 1993. For their part, the specialists are fighting a losing battle if they seek to preserve a monopoly over diplomacy. They need to work with their ‘domestic’ colleagues, not least because of the increasingly important domestic dimension of foreign policy (R. Cohen, 1998; Kennan, 1997).

As a means of implementing policy, weak states rely on diplomacy. With few resources they have no choice but to play a poor hand as skilfully as possible. Yet they are also the states with the smallest and least experienced diplomatic services. Major powers ensure that they possess large and effective foreign services and rely on diplomacy for the bulk of their external activity. Radical governments may start with Trotsky’s aim of ‘issuing some revolutionary proclamations to the people before shutting the shop’, but they soon turn to conventional methods in the attempt to come to terms with an insistent outside world. For in practice, diplomacy is always central to any kind of action, from crisis management through long-drawn-out negotiations to routine but sensitive matters such as diplomatic exemptions from parking fines. Only unsophisticated regimes rely on bluster and the delusions of power.

There are four functions which diplomacy performs for the contemporary international actor: communication, negotiation, participation in multilateral institutions and the promotion of economic goods. The four are related to those managed in home capitals by the foreign ministry (see Chapter 6: Implementation Chapter 4) but focus more on activity in the field, and therefore on the still critical role of embassies (Berridge, 2011, pp. 1-15).

The key function of communication is often assumed to mean, in practice, miscommunication. To be sure, any independent actor has to keep some information private. Key judgements on the timing of initiatives and concessions are simply not possible in conditions of publicity. But this produces ambiguity more frequently than deliberate deception, which does not make for good diplomacy. Routine foreign relations could not be sustained without a fair degree of trust. Harold Nicolson pointed out over 70 years ago that policy should be in the open even if negotiation required confidentiality (Nicolson, 1963). Indeed, if longterm intentions are not communicated clearly to both friends and adversaries the consequences can be disastrous. Robert Jervis (1970, pp. 18-40) has shown how actors read each other’s intentions from a combination of signals (deliberate) and indices (inherent characteristics such as monthly trade figures). Unfortu-nately both are easy to misread even when not manipulated. Because ambiguity is inevitable across cultures, westerners need to be highly self-conscious about the signals they wish to send on matters of importance. The Austra-lian Prime Minister Paul Keating got into a major row through what was for him normal plain speaking, but for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, showed a disgraceful lack of respect (Cohen, 1997, pp. 38-43).

Sometimes it is not clear whether the signal is deliberate or accidental. Did the United Kingdom, for example, intend to distance itself so significantly from the original six members of the forerunner to the European Economic Community when it sent only a junior official to the Messina Conference of 1955? When six years later the Macmillan government decided to apply for entry to the community it had an uphill struggle in part because of the negative messages conveyed by such oblique gestures. Conversely, when General de Gaulle shouted ‘vive le Quebec libre’ from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall in 1967, he intended to demonstrate support for French Canada but had probably not envisaged provoking the diplomatic crisis with Ottawa which ensued (R. Cohen, 1987, p. 21). Even more seriously, one can narrate the onset of the two world wars quite plausibly in terms of signals wrongly calibrated and misunderstood. Certainly the nature and timing of the outbreak of both conflicts owed much to failures of diplomatic communication (Joll, 1984; Weinberg, 1994, pp. 6-47).

As an instrument of policy, diplomacy represents the instinct for caution and sophistication in the face of the strong forces of nationalism and power politics. It provides ways of breaking log-jams and avoiding the costs of violence, so long as not everything is wagered on its success. Only patient diplomacy by Nixon and Kissinger was able finally to put Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century an end to the damaging rupture between the United States and China, which in lasting from 1949 to 1971 had long outlived its original rationale (Kissinger, 1994, pp. 719-30). Without skilful diplomacy the Federal Republic of Germany would not have been able to launch Ostpolitik in the late 1960s and thus prepare the ground for eventual reunification – itself a triumph of imaginative negotiation. Through similar patience, key individuals, particularly in vulnerable locations, have been able to preserve their countries from potentially catastrophic consequences. It is easy to think what might have happened to Jordan, caught as it is between Israel, Iraq and Syria, without the ability of King Hussein to balance the impossible pressures on him in the region (Ashton, 2008, pp. 1-12). An Israeli intelligence report of 1980 described him as a man trapped on a bridge burning at both ends, with crocodiles in the river beneath (Shlaim, 2007, p. 609). In the wider international system, statesmen like Tito and Nehru had managed to loosen the structure of the Cold War and to give a voice to many smaller states by their creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Diplomatic communication in this sense is a political activity of the highest importance.

The second function of diplomacy is the capacity to conduct technical negotiations, often of extreme complexity. Where a great deal hangs on the outcome, as with the Paris peace talks at the end of the Vietnam War, or the Dayton Accords of 1995 ending the Bosnian war, the identity of individual diplomats, and their degree of experience, may turn out to be crucial. In other negotiations, such as those between Britain and China over Hong Kong between 1982 and 1984, and again in the 1990s, considerable stamina is required, together with a deep understanding of the culture of the interlocutor (Cradock, 1994,1997, pp. 203-5; Yahuda, 1996). Success is far from guaranteed, and often simply consists in preventing discussions from collapsing into violence, as in the long-running dispute over Cyprus. Even where success can be assumed, as in the EU’s negotiations with future members, the range of detailed issues to be settled requires the coordination of a large number of complex dossiers.

What is more, diplomacy is often physically dangerous. Diplomats have been held hostage and sometimes killed through their representation of a country’s foreign policy – and through being the most obvious point of national vulnerability. The murder of the British ambassador by the IRA in Dublin in 1976, the four-month siege in the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1997, the killing of the US ambassador in Libya in 2012, and the regular bomb attacks on Western personnel in Afghanistan are vivid examples. Even in times of war and revolution, diplomacy continues as long as it is possible to maintain the physical integrity of the embassy building, even if the ambassadors of the direct combatants get withdrawn. This presents serious challenges to those diplomats acting as mediators or conduits, and to the embassies of the belligerents in third-party capitals (Berridge, 2012). Nego-tiation in the international environment, in other words, is now less than ever a game for the gifted amateur.

Diplomacy in multilateral institutions is an important part of any foreign policy. States, and the non-state actors which also increasingly participate, have to manage an environment which requires balancing their own concerns with the purposes for which the IGO exists in the first place. Part of this means coalition-building and fostering diplomatic solidarity among like-minded states. Another part involves balancing private negotiation with the public posturing intended to win over hearts and minds, often across national boundaries. The large number of specialized multi-partner dialogues, such as the 107-member network linking the European Union and states from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, or the 57-member Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe, cut across each other and represent a special challenge. From the viewpoint of the individual actor the aim is to achieve collective goals, such as the transfer of resources to the poorest LDCs (lesser-developed countries), or agreement on confidence-building measures, without compromising particular national interests. Success can require political as well as technical flair, as the Italian ambassador to the United Nations Paolo Fulci demonstrated with his effective coalition-building at the UN in the 1990s to derail the big powers’ ‘quick fix’ plan to reform the Security Council by adding only Germany and Japan as permanent members (Pedrazzi, 2000).

Economic diplomacy is ever more important. It is conceptually distinct from the use of economic instruments for foreign policy goals discussed above. It derives from the particular need to promote national prosperity and to conduct a foreign economic policy to that end. Much of it operates through organizations like the OECD, G20, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, WTO and EU, and is subject to the conditions of all multilateral working. But in this context, states also face the hegemony problem, or how to deal with the preponderant influence of key states, markets and courts. In extremis this means negotiating from a position of weakness in the pursuit of loans or the rescheduling of debts, as Argentina has discovered on several occasions. The dilemma is how to preserve sovereign independence without forgoing the desired help – a recipe for internal upheaval. The self-help system created by the states of western Europe has helped to buffer them against the Washington institutions and the vagaries of the world economy, but it still creates dilemmas. Since the onset of the major financial crisis in 2008 Greece has swung between following the rules of the eurozone and protesting against German dominance

within it. Other regions have not got even this far in regional economic integration. Still, states such as Japan, India, Singapore and South Korea have had success in trade and industrial diplomacy through developing expert national cadres and through avoiding the high costs of adventurism in foreign and security policy (Narlikar, 2003).

Most economic diplomacy focuses on the concrete objectives of boost¬ing the export efforts of the country’s enterprises and attracting the inward investment which will produce jobs. Japan was the most effective state in the post-war period at forging a public-private partnership in export promotion, but successive German governments have had outstanding success in striking the balance between liberal capitalism and the promo¬tion of national enterprises. Britain under Thatcher and her successors was able to attract a surprising flow of inward investment, helped by a limited, but strategically important, number of interventions in areas such as aero¬space, nuclear power, pharmaceuticals and the car industry, in all of which the international dimension is crucial. Furthermore, in order to get contracts abroad governments often resort to under-the-counter promises of development or military assistance – of greater or less subtlety, which risk legal and political embarrassment if the news becomes public – and thus work against transparency in decision-making.

For its part the private sector welcomes help from the state whenever it can be obtained, despite the rhetoric of free enterprise. Export credit support is effectively a form of subsidy, and diplomats often have valu¬able local contacts. Thus British firms successfully protested against cutbacks in embassy staff in the Gulf in 1993, knowing they would have support from arms exporters. Conversely, French commercial relations with Turkey were damaged by the bill which went through the Assemblee Nationale in 1998 recognising the Armenian genocide of 1915, and Danish trade in Muslim countries was hit by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in 2005, and the government’s perceived support for the cartoonists. For their part multinational enterprises have to engage in complex and often costly diplomacy in order to secure rights to build bridges, drill for oil, beam in satellite programmes and buy up parts of the economy deemed strategically important. It is no wonder that political consultancy, or risk analysis, has been one of the fastest-growing corporate sectors in the past 20 years. TNEs, like states, cannot do their business without engaging in politics – with each other, with regions and cities, and with states.


Culture is entwined with propaganda as an instrument of foreign policy, but the two are not identical. Propaganda has minimal cultural value,

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