Need for reassessing
diplomatic perceptions



April 30, 2022

M Ali Siddiqi brings out the dichotomy prevailing in exercise of diplomatic


Diplomacy and its aspects are currently hotly debated in Pakistan and this frenzied debate has given rise to amazingly naïve interpretation of diplomacy and its practices. The intense polarisation revolving around a diplomatic cable is taking place completely without context and has absolutely nothing to do with what diplomacy actually implies and stands for. It has now become a fashion to challenge earlier assumptions of diplomacy on the pretext that practicing diplomats have moved on from traditional inter-state relations and are now considered part of the actual battleground. It is also frequently pointed out that the diplomats now project and seek to influence across a broad front. This impression is widely prevalent in the developing world as the developed world still adheres to the traditional notions of diplomacy and diplomats there are held accountable to the elected institutions.

What has essentially changed is that the current diplomatic practices involve dealing with any part of human existence ranging from the size of plugs to carbon emissions to the single form of payment and the emergence of complicated financial phenomena but they are certainly not the policy setters or final decision makers. It should therefore be kept in view that despite alteration of emphasis, diplomacy represents a crucial cultural context as well as being a key tool beyond ideologies of facile optimism to the real and necessary complexities and compromises of power and authority. Diplomatic activity may foster differences of perception but more commonly it is designed to help highlight them as part of a process of resolution; although the latter is not always easy to obtain. Partially, this difficulty arises because a coherent policy is desirable for any process of effective bargaining but such coherence requires a domestic stability that is difficult to secure or maintain.
The picture painted of the changing pattern of diplomacy is the obvious outcome of the intense polarisation witnessed the Cold War that slowly degenerated into emergence of resilient forces that often try not to be precisely defined and described. This hidden shape and forms of such forces have not only created problems for diplomatic culture and practice in particular junctions but has also led to a querying of the conventional theories of change. Instead, this resilience led to renewed interest in more pessimistic theories, including cyclical ones furthering complicating the diplomatic parlance and practice. In this context it is pointed out that the rise of unconventional forces cautioned the political agenda of many states particularly in respect of the domestic capability of government but there also emerged a conviction that international order should be created and enforced by liberal tenets and motivated by humanitarian and environmental considerations. This brought into play mutually conflicting views of exercising constraint and taking bold actions and this linkage has assuredly posed a serious challenge to the developed as well as the developing world.

The activity since the end of the Cold War is a reflection of the need for diplomacy as the means of reconciling international issues along with aligning domestic agenda. Diplomacy does not entail idealism as opposed to realism but instead is an aspect of both currents of international analysis and activity. Realism demands an understanding of the complex pluralism of international relations and this understanding has become more important as grand narratives of human development have been qualified, forcing an understanding of global order in terms of pluralism and of globalisation as a product of compromise.
While the proponents of hard power are trained for diplomatic role alongside their more martial conceptions but they generally fail to understand the political character of the domestic circumstances of other states: a result of, and also producing, strategy not appropriately luminated by diplomacy as it veers down to related aspects of governance. In actual fact the current-day diplomacy is not different from the classic traditions of foreign policy and strategy and from that perspective it is a messy, untidy, media-mediated world of external relations that does not appeal to starchy-driven solutions offered by proponents of hard power.
The challenge predominantly faced by diplomatic practice in the developing countries is the relationship between Western and non-Western practices. This relationship has changed significantly over the last two centuries and there are no signs that this situation of continued change will cease. Given the shift in relative power within the world, the extent to which the diplomatic practice of Pakistan and other prominent western nations will conform to established conventions will probably be the most important question over the next few decades. In the evolving circumstances the diplomatic activity may well make the customary account of diplomatic history seem quite limited opening innovative ways for the diplomatic maneuvers.
This is precisely the reason that the current vying for diplomatic role witnessed in PTI’s government may be viewed. Correspondingly the target now for embassies will not be the government of accreditation but as much public opinion as has become evident by public gatherings organised by the political leaderships of Pakistan in the US. As another instance of the responsiveness to a domestic agenda, foreign offices have become a platform for a variety of different interests. The challenge to international diplomacy from state power is matched by that from political and religious forces that reject the practice as well as the conventions of compromise resulting in weakening political management. This lopsided development has become quite a source of concern and is now consuming plenty of time of diplomatic offices.
In an explicit quest for accessibility, diplomats have to be open to domestic as well as foreign audiences and to adapt to changing media. It is already witnessed that foreign diplomatic missions seek assistance of social media tools reflecting a strong commitment to public policy outreach that is now considered an important postulate of diplomatic conduct. It is also getting clear that the important part played by the news media in the making of policy is well understood by traditional policy making institutions. The modern day diplomacy requires the employment of open-source information and analysis to proceed ahead. The influx of ideas and information is compelling the diplomatic preserves to utilise the private sector through management consultants to gain an edge. Some countries even outsource their lobbying and media campaigns to well-established lobbying groups. Diplomacy is there to stay as it is pragmatic enough to sustain the rigours of changing times.
In the context of Pakistan diplomacy can be conveniently located in terms of pressing domestic as well as international political issues, issues which relate not only to specific concerns but also to the culture of international relations. In this matter, however, as a conventional governmental activity, diplomacy faces criticisms from those advocating different, more liberal, if not radical, forms of international engagement. In countries like Pakistan where diplomatic practice is always under attack from exponents of the value of hard power the governmental action is usually found to be at variance with calls for multilateral compliance with a rule-based international system. In Pakistan diplomacy represents soft power and therefore stays at variance with hard power. Proponents of hard power sometimes feel it convenient to use diplomatic tools but they never believe in the efficacy of diplomacy. It is therefore observed that most of the times they look down upon diplomatic efforts and consider them as conveying weakness shunning them to the maximum possible extent. This is precisely what has given rise to the current diplomatic furore and is required to be understood and interpreted in this context. TW

M Ali Siddiqi is a writer who contributes to leading periodicals


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