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Diplomacy as an instrument of good governance

Date: 1998
The functioning of diplomacy is influenced by a complicated combination of different interrelated factors. This paper briefly analyses their impact on the evolution of diplomacy and discusses how diplomacy as an instrument of good governance should adjust itself to meet the new challenges, to become more relevant, open and agile, to modify its methods and to fully utilise opportunities offered by the technological revolution.


I wish to begin my statement be expressing my deep gratitude to the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic studies for convening this Conference on Modern Diplomacy. For the first time top specialists from different countries are gathered to discuss, in all aspects, diplomacy as an instrument of international communication and negotiation. It is not by chance that Malta has initiated this meeting. For all who are involved in international politics, this country has been associated with very successful diplomacy since the first days of its independence in 1964. The handwriting of Maltese diplomacy can be clearly seen in the activities of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in promoting regional co-operation in the Mediterranean.

Our conference is a most timely event. Each time a major transformation in the international system occurs, the role of diplomacy in world politics is revised. This issue was on the international agenda at the beginning of the twentieth century, and now, on the threshold of the new millennium, the debate reoccurs. The exchange of views among the participants will help to better understand what should be the purpose and the method of diplomacy in the age of global transformation.

The efforts of the international community to find diplomatic solutions to the present Iraqi crisis adjoin a supplementary flavour to our conference.

New Challenges

One hundred years ago the question of the future of diplomacy was raised as a result of technological progress – the invention of the radio and telegraph and the intervention of public into the domain of foreign policy. The first factor brought the apprehension that diplomats would become “honorary mailmen” and the second raised the issue of open diplomacy. However, the role of diplomacy in the twentieth century has not been restricted by these two factors.

The functioning of diplomacy is influenced by a complicated combination of different interrelated factors and I would like to start with a brief analysis of their impact on the evolution of diplomacy.

To begin with, there is a set of political factors. During most of the twentieth century, two world wars, the Cold War, the rivalry of two super powers, the ideologization of international affairs and military confrontation have made diplomacy a subsidiary instrument of power politics and ideology. As a result, diplomacy has very often executed the “dance of death.” The end of the Cold War has radically changed the international political scene. Moreover, today we are facing the shift of the civilizational paradigm, which affects not only the major units of world polities – the states – but which also brings new actors into the forefront of international relations.

The major political factor influencing diplomacy is the relative decline of the role of the national governments. Today governments are facing stern competition from other actors. Private sector, religious groups, immigrants, media and other entities of the civil society are demanding from the government that their interests be taken into consideration and that they have a say in making and implementing foreign policy. People want to travel freely, to conduct business abroad or to be involved in various types of cultural exchange.

Perhaps the most active “intruders” into the modern diplomacy from outside are non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This is particularly well seen from the UN viewpoint. For example, in Geneva there are currently about 1,400 NGOs officially registered with the UN Office. All of them are international, and have branches in at least two or more countries. Although their status is different from that of the diplomats, in practice they often participate in the diplomatic process, in particular in the promotion and discussion of such issues as human rights and environmental protection. Nowadays, international decisions are more often shaped according to the opinions of the NGOs. Gradually they are expanding the sphere of their influence. Last year NGOs prevented the adoption of the Convention on the Copyright Law in Electronic Media which was prepared by the International Telecommunications Union. Perhaps the most vivid example of their influence is the world-wide campaign to ban anti-personnel land-mines which led to the signature in Ottawa last December of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines.

Curiously, not only NGOs but legislative branches of the states themselves are contributing to this diplomatic process. The parliamentarians of the world have successfully set up a structure of global and regional interaction and are now claiming a role in diplomatic meetings which was traditionally reserved for the executive branch.

An important aspect of the “degovernmentalization” of foreign affairs is the growing involvement in the international interactions of local or provincial authorities. I had an opportunity to observe this phenomenon on numerous occasions. For example, it is not uncommon for the heads of a local government to visit a UN agency because they wish to participate in its programmes directly rather than through the national government. A few years ago this was difficult to imagine. During the conference of the mayors of the Mediterranean cities in Barcelona, many recognised that they often have more close economic or cultural ties with their partners across the sea than with their national capitals. Many big cities and provinces have enough resources not just to influence the national governments but also to actually maintain their own “diplomatic” agencies.

The immediate implication of this development for the diplomatic practitioners is that now, in addition to their colleagues representing formally recognised states, they also have to deal with numerous other non-state counterparts who conduct their own “foreign policy.”

On the macro level, one of the major developments is the proliferation of multinational institutions and regional and subregional organisations. The EU, APEC, ASEAN, CIS, NAFTA, – this is just a short list of the most well known transnational structures which claim part of their member’s sovereignty. The major motive behind their creation is the same as in the case of the increased activity of the local authorities – to facilitate cross-border co-operation and to weaken or eliminate restrictions imposed by the national states, such as customs tariffs.

The second set of factors that makes the life of a modern diplomat increasingly difficult is of an economic nature. In general I would say that economic diplomacy is gradually taking over the traditional politics-oriented diplomacy. A lot has been written in recent years about the phenomenal growth of transnational economic interactions. Indeed, with the huge expansion of international trade, the power of private companies and the electronic transfer of money, private entrepreneurs and fund managers are eclipsing central bankers and finance ministers.

Meanwhile the international economy is becoming more and more competitive. With the rapid development of the Pacific Rim countries, and the opening to the outside world of the economies of such huge states as China and Russia, the world market has expanded dramatically, but so has the number of economic actors. Governments everywhere are primarily concerned with maintaining the competitiveness of their economies. Accordingly, private economic decisions are now largely controlling political choices of the governments, and diplomats have to devote more time and energy than ever before to the creation of a favourable environment for trade and commerce.

Last but not least, an important factor influencing modern diplomacy is the revolution in telecommunications. This is a big issue that deserves special attention. Of particular relevance to the diplomatic services are two technological developments – satellite broadcasting and digital networks including the Internet. I will not go into detail on the technological problem, as this afternoon we will have a special session on this issue. I would like just to give you a few examples of the use of modern technology at the United Nations.

One of the functions of the diplomatic missions accredited to UNOG is to collect UN documents and send them to their Foreign Ministries or other government agencies in their capitals. A few years ago UNOG introduced an electronic system of document distribution. It is no longer necessary for the missions’ staff to collect documents from the Palais des Nations – they can obtain them via computer connection without leaving their offices. Now we are about to introduce another innovation. Soon the documents database will be connected to the Internet. Accordingly, the Foreign Ministries will be able to retrieve the documents they need, directly bypassing the missions. In fact, some Foreign Ministries have already subscribed to this new service and we have started to receive requests for particular documents. This could mean in particular that the missions are losing one of their functions.

To take a further example, currently the senior managers at the UN are being provided with video-conferencing equipment. This technology is already widely used in many large companies. The cabinet meetings of the Secretary-General are held with the participation of Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi senior managers using video equipment. I understand that national foreign services are also experimenting with this kind of facility. In future we could easily imagine a situation where presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers would be able to hold direct instantaneous face-to-face communication with each other, in addition to simultaneous data transfer. The consequences of this technological development for the diplomatic services could be quite significant. How should the role of the embassies or the missions change in this environment?

All this testifies to the increasing interdependence in the world. Now, problems which affect one part of the world’s population can spread very rapidly to the entire planet. Like passengers of Leonardo da Vinci’s ship, all of us – rich and poor, women and men, young and old, white and black – share a common destiny. In the words of Albert Einstein “the world is one or nothing.”

The process of globalisation, which strengthens the “oneness” of the world is, at the same time, accompanied by the fragmentation and localisation by the growing gap between rich and poor nations. Moreover, this process is characterised by the acceleration of the pace of events. Time has become “compressed.”

All these transformations bring new challenges for diplomacy on a global level: the maintenance of positive peace and comprehensive security, democratisation, the promotion of human rights, economic co-operation and sustainable development, facilitation of humanitarian actions, prevention of terrorism and criminal activity.

Today diplomacy is called upon to help political and economic leaders to channel the global changes in an evolutionary, non-violent, democratic rule-based manner. One of its top priorities is facilitation of good governance, both on national and international levels. The prospect of good governance provides an opportunity for the renaissance of diplomacy which, throughout the centuries, played the role of an intermediary between governments and acquired a unique experience in this field. Now it has a chance to become an instrument of international governance. How can diplomacy cope with this new challenge?

Diplomacy as an Instrument of Good Governance

To begin with I should like to stress that for modern diplomacy, whose only asset is the software, it is important to maintain a balance between traditional innovations. Despite all the changes in the international environment the past experience of diplomacy is of great value and it is ultimately important to keep links in time. The classical texts on diplomacy of François De Calliers, Harold Nicolson, Ernest Sato and Jules Cambon are as useful reading for a diplomat today as they were a century ago.

One of the major lessons in the history of diplomacy is that the personal factors continue to play a key role. As far back as in seventeenth century, a great Frenchman in diplomacy, François De Calliers wrote: “The good diplomat must have an observant mind, a gift of application which rejects being diverted by pleasures or frivolous amusements, a sound judgement which takes the measure of things as they are and which goes straight to the goal by the shortest and most natural paths without wandering into meaningless and endless refinements and subtleties. The diplomat must be quick, resourceful, a good listener, courteous and agreeable. Above all, the good negotiator must possess enough self-control to resist the longing to speak before he has thought out what he actually intends to say. He must have a calm nature, be able to suffer fools gladly, which is not always easy, and should not be given to drinking, gambling or any other fantasies. He should also have some knowledge of literature, science, mathematics, and law.”

At the threshold of the twentieth century, another famous author, the British diplomat Ernest Sato, described diplomacy as an application of intellect and tact to conduct foreign affairs. In my view, a modern diplomat is discreet, practical, careful, and with a sense of responsibility. I also think that in modern diplomacy the feeling of momentum is of crucial importance. As a whole, diplomats are very good at preserving the traditions of their profession. However, there is a lot in the legacy of the past that diplomacy has to abandon. Unfortunately, despite changes of huge significance to diplomacy that have taken place in recent years, the mechanisms of traditional diplomacy have barely begun to adjust. The Cold War has gone out of diplomacy, but in many cases diplomatic behaviour remains loyal to it. This includes, among other things, thinking only in terms of power equilibrium. Methods of diplomacy are still strongly influenced by military thinking – diplomacy as the war by other means, or as a zero-sum game.

To become an efficient tool of good global governance diplomacy needs first to overcome the stereotypes of ideology and military confrontation. Its task today is to search not for the balance of power, but for the balance of interest. The top priority today is to reinvigorate in full scope traditional methods of diplomacy – the search for compromise solutions. The all or nothing mentality no longer works. A partial and balanced approach is an answer to the new geopolitical and economic realities.

According to the political stereotypes of the Cold War, diplomats of different countries are considered to be opponents, each trying to reach his goal at the expense of the other. No doubt, the primary mission of a diplomat is to protect the national interests of his country. However, we all have a common aim – good governance both on global and national levels. We all strive for a better world, a world without violence and poverty, a world that provides security and justice for all. Thus, diplomats must learn to co-operate without sacrificing the national interests of their countries. In many other professions one can witness the existence of a corporate spirit. Unfortunately it does not happen often among diplomats. However, such club relations could be of great help to each and all of them.

The corporate spirit of the diplomatic community does not mean that corporatism should prevail over the national interest of the country which a diplomat represents. By articulating the national interests of his country the diplomat provides the possibility to better understand its position. This makes the country predictable in its international behaviour which is of supreme importance in our time of change. Attempts to please both a foreign government and his own government renders disservice to the diplomat.

The international diplomatic partnership is now more feasible than before, in particular because of the gradual unification of the national styles of diplomacy. International organisations and multilateral diplomacy are effective “melting pots” of cultural differences. Diplomatic methods are becoming universal. However, national styles still exist and should be studied and taken into consideration in the practical diplomatic work. National style is difficult to define though it is an important ingredient of the art of diplomacy. But of course a national style should not be mixed up with an inappropriate behaviour when a so-called diplomat disregards local cultural, religious and specific features of other nations.

Another stereotype concerns confidentiality in diplomacy. Diplomacy is often accused of too much secrecy and indeed, for centuries diplomacy was conducted entirely in private. The Cold War has tremendously strengthened this pattern of behaviour. However, in the world of openness and free information flows, the cult of diplomatic confidentiality looks rather archaic. Though every professional diplomat knows that in certain situations confidentiality is unavoidable, it does not mean that the profession requires him to keep quiet. Lack of openness and in particular misconstruing the truth is incompatible with modern diplomacy. This leads to the important problem of interaction between diplomacy and mass media which deserves particular attention nowadays.

Multilateral Diplomacy

All these observations are applicable to both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. However, the latter has some specific problems. For me multilateral diplomacy is of particular interest and concern since I am involved in it on a daily basis. I would like to share with you some of these concerns and ideas on how multilateral diplomatic interaction can be improved. Multilateral diplomacy is often considered to be a type of superstructure over bilateral diplomacy. I think these are two sides of the same coin and none excludes the other. Interaction between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy creates a new pattern of political behaviour. A good example is the negotiation of a nuclear test ban. In the past test ban treaties were the result of bilateral Soviet-American negotiations. Only CTBT has been worked out at the Conference on Disarmament. Multilateralism has not excluded bilateralism or other types of negotiation. To use a modern technical analogy, I would say that bilateral negotiations are similar to using a mobile telephone, whilst multilateral negotiations resemble using the Internet. They can naturally complement each other.

More than that, multilateral negotiations, despite their being time-consuming, are a very effective safeguard against hegemonistic and similar intentions. This has become more evident at the dawn of multilateral diplomacy. When the series of congresses which followed the treaty of Vienna of 1815 at last came to an end, the British Foreign Secretary, Canning, returning from conferences, was said to have praised a state of normal bilateral diplomacy which he summed up as “each for himself and God for us all.” Undoubtedly multilateral diplomacy drastically limits the egoistical aspirations of the states.

Although multilateral negotiations are basically similar to bilateral, a number of sophisticated methods and techniques have been developed in multilateralism to cope with extensive diplomatic interactions. In the United Nations and other multilateral fora there is an official hierarchy of committees and sub-committees and a semi-official system of groups of states formed on the basis of geographic or economic proximity. For example, there are the groups of African, Latin American and Arab States, the EU States or the Group of 77 developing countries which actually comprises more than one hundred states.

Perhaps, the major peculiarity of the multilateral talks is the importance of the rules of procedure. When, as in the case of the United Nations, 185 delegations have to communicate with each other at the same time, there must be some rather clear and strict rules to maintain orderly interactions. As the well-known British historian, Harold Nicolson, once noted during a large international conference – the matters of organisation and procedure become no less important than the political issues. If poorly handled they can become a major disintegrating factor.

The post-Cold War multilateralism is characterised by more complex agendas of conferences and negotiations with larger numbers of issues and the growing involvement of experts, citizens groups and NGOs. Multilateral diplomacy is trying to adapt to these new conditions. However, this process is painfully slow, Many aspects of multilateral diplomacy still need to be revised, starting with procedural and methodological issues.

First of all there should be a clear line of distinction between negotiations and treaty-making. The process of multilateral negotiations consists of two stages: exploratory, as the initial stage, and treaty-making as the highest stage. The latter could be subdivided into the definition of parameters of a future agreement and the working out of it. Of course, the division is conditional. There is no Berlin Wall between the different stages. Bearing in mind this simple structure, it is not difficult to build the negotiations process in such a way that the result is achieved quickly and minimal resources are used. Unfortunately in some negotiation fora, the participants confuse the different stages and throw the whole process into disorder. Such negotiations may last for years and consist of endless positional statements.

One of the favourite negotiation methods during the Cold War was the linkage of unrelated issues. This was a rough way of forcing the counterpart to make concessions. Though the international environment has drastically changed, this method is still in use today. Modern diplomacy needs the opposite approach. Compromise requires what I call constructive parallelism in all areas of negotiation, which presupposes that progress in one area creates the opportunity for advancement in other directions. Compromise is neither a capitulation nor a sign of weakness. The art of compromise is a concession in secondary matters, not in principles. It should be noted, however, that not everything depends on the negotiators. If there is no political will even the best negotiator cannot do much.

There are a lot of debates on the expansion of the conferences. In my view, the principal failures come not so much from the enlargement of fora, which sometimes provides positive results in the creation of open-ended structures, as from the nature of issues themselves and the absence of political will to find compromise solutions.

In the field of structured multilateral diplomacy there is surprising resistance to innovation. The lack of flexibility on the part of the member states is a major problem with the UN reform. The reform programme announced recently by the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, is quite radical and includes significant changes in the structure of the organisation, its functions and priorities. However, the changes adopted by the General Assembly concern only one UN body – the Secretariat. As far as the restructuring of other major bodies is concerned, the proposals of the Secretary-General are still under consideration.

Meanwhile, changes in the major United Nations bodies are of critical importance. Multilateral fora, including the UN, are frequently criticised for being too slow, in particular when dealing with conflict situations. When one speaks of a multifaceted, multidimensional, broad approach to security, conflict threats, and the need for preventive actions, one implies that diplomacy comes cheaper than infantry battalions. Diplomats can be more effective, not in stopping aggression once it has occurred, but earlier, in coping with civil combat, frontier disputes and the danger which we see when people who are condemned by geography to live together are instructed by their leaders that it is their duty to hate and kill others. But it is true, if there is a role for international diplomacy, it has to move earlier and be better organised for preventive actions which undoubtedly strengthen the new role of multilateral institutions as a safety net for crisis and conflict.

As for the role of multilateral institutions with regard to consensus building on policy issues, and setting norms and standards, it should be strengthened through increased attention to monitoring in all fields. Take for example, human rights. The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration needs a greater emphasis on practical implementation, which requires us all to be even more penetrating about the legal obligations.

At the same time, diplomacy should not monopolise conflict prevention and solution. For example, the legal tools could be used more extensively. The International Court of Justice which was created precisely to help to resolve conflict situations is currently considering only nine cases, mainly territorial or commercial disputes. However, the court has a considerable potential in conflict settlement. Let’s take for example, the settlement by the court of the dispute between Hungary and Slovakia concerning the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Project. At the beginning the conflict had obvious and dangerous ethnic overtones with heated polemic in the media. After the involvement of the court it was quickly transformed into a purely technical matter.

My last observation concerns the interaction between global and regional structures. When international organisations are mushrooming and multilateralism is invading all walks of life, there is a need to set up a mutually supportive and reinforcing system of international organisation to develop complementarily among them. The UN can and should play a more active role as a facilitator among the regional structures; the time has come for the Security Council to read anew Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, written when only two regional structures, the OAS and the LAS existed.

The United States Deputy Secretary of State, S. Talbott, was absolutely right when he stated that “regional co-operation is a positive force if and only if it enhances the positive aspect of global interdependence and combats the negative ones.”

The UN is doing a lot to achieve this aim. The annual meeting of the Secretary-General with heads of regional organisations, tripartite meetings between the Director-General of UNOG, the Secretary-General of the OSCE and the Council of Europe are good examples. The United Nations has developed several forms of co-operation with regional structures. However, it is not enough. Everyone would agree that we are only at the beginning of the process. We have some way to go before establishing a coherent pattern of mutually beneficial co-operation between the United Nations and the panoply of institutions involved with regional affairs.


A few conclusions can be drawn from this overview. Firstly, since diplomacy is an instrument of good governance it should adjust itself to meet the new challenges, to become more relevant, open and agile, to modify its methods and to fully utilise opportunities offered by the technological revolution. So far the pace of its transformation has not always been adequate.

Nevertheless, modern diplomacy, which requires a variety of skills, in particular familiarity with the art and science of negotiations, proves its ability to work in a new multicultural environment with different actors, including the civil society.

I deeply believe that the flexibility, which was always the trademark of diplomacy, provides the hope that diplomacy will not only adapt to new challenges but will also be helpful both for states and other new actors on the international scene, in their efforts to create a better world for the twenty-first century.

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