Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Diplomacy and the revenge of globalization (Part II)

Published on 06 August 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a world where information moves with the speed of a click, much has changed. Not long ago many of us were touched by the plight of several hundred young girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria. A Twitter campaign, #save our girls, was launched. Michele Obama participated, no doubt seeing her own daughters in the faces in the YouTube made by their captors. There was speculation about a special forces raid by the United States to free the children. In the end, the USA sent a large ‘interagency’ team to advise the Nigerian government. Several months later the girls remain in captivity, hostages somewhere in the vast expanses of Northern Nigeria, and the American ambassador toasts ‘Nigeria’s greatness’ at the July 4 national day reception in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

The town of Chibok in Northern Nigeria where the girls were abducted is about 800 kilometres from Abuja. The last miles have to be negotiated on a dirt track. Not so long ago it was part of the Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu, and a major source of that kingdom’s revenues were derived from the slave trade. Today the sovereign state of Nigeria has some $50 billion annual revenues from oil sales. Last year the governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi wrote that of $65.3 billion from crude oil sales between January 2012 and July 2013, $50 billion had gone missing somewhere on the way to the Nigerian treasury. He was fired, but on June 8 he was installed as the Emir of Kano, the capital of Northern Nigeria. He is named for the Sanusiyya order islamic missionaries whose influence spread throughout the area in the nineteenth century, and he is descended from the Fulani invaders who overthrew the original Kanuri lords of Bornu — after whom the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shehu, is named.  It is a patronizing fantasy to imagine that a Twitter campaign can eradicate the weight of all this history.

More optimistic than Guéhenno, the American political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter envisioned a twenty-first century utopia in which American officials in Washington would ‘receive instant updates on events occurring around the world, networked to counterparts abroad, able to coordinate preventive and problem-solving actions with a vast range of private and civic actors’. [1] Installed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in  George Kennan’s old position as director of policy planning at the State Department, she presided over an effort to reform the conduct of American diplomacy, announced with great fanfare in January of 2012. [2] It quickly sank without a trace.  An opening ‘vignette’ illustrates its core principles. ‘Somewhere in the world today’, two officials, one from USAID, the American development agency which is mainly a contracting operation these days, and the other from the State Department, are driving what we are told is a jeep, a means of conveyance American government officials haven’t used since the heroic days of Point Four and the Marshall Plan, ‘winding their way’ to a village in a ‘remote valley’ somewhere.  Among their modest objectives is said to be to ‘elevate the role of women in the local community’, as well as to eradicate poverty.  Why this particular village has been so fortunate as to draw the attention of the Unites States government is not explained, nor is it clear that it is part of a state, though ‘local councils’ are said to exists there.  One hopes the American reformers brought bedrolls in the jeep.

While Secretaries of State negotiate in the world of states, the contemporary American State Department as an institution is mostly left to the pursuit of such chimera. Its functions usurped by the White House staff, it consoles itself with a trendy refuge in social media, like many another thoroughly modern foreign ministry. This invites a conflict between the official and the personal. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like are individual expressions by their nature; diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state. American ambassadors are nevertheless encouraged to make YouTube videos, and these days very senior officials have their own personal Tweeters to help them make the most effective use of the 140 characters available. 

Cyberspace is not all benign by any means. According to budget documents made public by Edward Snowden, the United States carried out 231 offensive operations in cyberspace in 2011. Reciprocity being the iron law of nations, other states are likely to follow suit, — indeed they already are, and unless someone attends to the work of creating international norms to regulate such warfare, we may come to look back on the present as a golden age, before the internet became a global battlefield.

In the information age the Leviathan nation-state is still the fundamental fact of international life. Nationalism shows no sign of weakening even in a United Europe, where Lombards, Scots, Catalans, and others, all seek to reinvent themselves as sovereigns, tensions grow between rich and poor states, and frustration grows with Eurocrats in Brussels. Since Jean-Marie Guéhenno predicted the end of the nation-state, new ones have been created by the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the former Yugoslavia, rediscovering nationalisms which had never really disappeared. Guéhenno’s own France, the classic nation-state, agonizes over an identity threatened by immigration, and seeks to reconcile a heroic self image with the reality of its diminished status. The 300-year-old United Kingdom is threatened as Scotland prepares for a referendum on independence.

In a world governed by the rational forces of a benign globalization, Russia would be drawn closer to the Western European model of development and liberal governance. Instead, under Vladimir Putin whose popularity rating approaches 85%, Russia embarks on a self-defeating nationalist crusade to subvert Ukraine, and reaps the consequences of its criminal folly. In the name of nationalism China throws its weight around in the South China Sea, invoking an anti-Chinese coalition of Asian states the United States would find it impossible to bring into being on its own. In the Middle East, the contest of rival nationalisms rages on, complicated by religious passions. As we are drawn closer together into an embryonic global consciousness, the forces that preserve our distinctiveness resist with even greater force.

It is the revenge of globalization, and it is a witches’ brew. There are worse things than a world of sovereign states — as we may all find out, as the twenty-first century unfolds its mysteries, and as the diplomats who attend to the affairs of those states would know if they weren’t so busy Tweeting past the grave.


Ambassador Laurence Pope is a 31-year veteran of the US Foreign Service. He is recipient of the highest award given by the Defense Department to a civilian, the Secretary of Defense Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service. A consultant to the Defense Department and other national security agencies, he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. His latest book – The Demilitarization of American Diplomacy: Two cheers for striped pants published earlier this year (Palgrave, 2014).

[1] A-M Slaughter (2009) America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century, Foreign Affairs, January/February Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/63722/anne-marie-slaughter/americas-edge [accessed 1 August 2014].

[2] The ‘Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review’ may still be seen, frozen in amber, on the State Department’s website, but soon another such reform effort launched by Clinton’s successor will arrive to sweep it away.


Related events

Load more

Related resources

Load more

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog