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Diplomacy between sprint and marathon

Published on 25 May 2016
Updated on 19 March 2024

Athletic metaphors describe diplomacy well. Diplomacy involves both ‘marathons’ of long negotiations, taking months or even years; and fast ‘sprints’ when country leaders make deals in a matter of hours. Diplomats have always had to be able to run both sprints and marathons, as both the long-term processes of generating trust and building relationships, and the short-term need to respond to emergency situations have always been part of diplomacy. Yet, the changing modern context in which diplomats operate affects the pace of diplomacy and requires to revisit the interplay between marathon and sprint aspects of diplomacy.

Today, marathon diplomacy has become more and more related to bureaucratic processes. Often, these processes are put in place to strengthen inclusivity and accountability. Although these values are important to protect, they also risk slowing down diplomacy to such an extent that it can harm its effectiveness, as diplomats may become unable to timely respond to the challenges at hand. The key question is: how to ensure inclusivity and accountability while preserving the effectiveness and efficiency of diplomacy?

The marathon aspect of diplomacy has been strengthened through the ‘project management approach’ to global affairs. The project management approach is part of a broader shift towards an ‘audit culture’ inspired by the importance and need for transparency and accountability. More ‘eyes’ in policy making inevitably requires more procedures. More procedures create more bureaucracy.

Today, the ongoing project management and reporting has become an important part of a diplomats’ activities, who spend a lot of time reporting to human rights, trade, environmental, bilateral and multilateral bodies to name a few. Typically, every new conference, treaty or diplomatic visit adds a new layer of reporting. The next major add-on to the reporting and monitoring portfolio will come with the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

In an era of increasingly formalised global governance, the sprint aspect of diplomacy is not as effective as it was historically, when a phone call or quick chat among leaders could change world history. One would expect that today, instant communication would make ‘sprint diplomacy’ easier. However, this is not necessarily the case.  Whatever is currently agreed on by top leaders has to fit into legal and policy frameworks.

It was possible for Angela Merkel to reach a ‘refugee deal’ with Recep Erdogan, but the actual activation of the deal depends on whether it fits in the international legal framework and, later on, is transformed into ‘projects’. As one Guardian article puts it, ‘the deal has yet to be fleshed out, but full-scale implementation could take months – or may never happen.’ Diplomats, in particular from democratic countries with a strong rule of law, have less and less space for diplomatic improvisation and sprint diplomacy.  Although it is important to recognise that the institutionalisation of an accountable and inclusive diplomacy signifies an important move towards democratic governance, it is also important to consider its risks.

The first risk relates to the dangers of slowing down diplomacy too much. One of the main dangers of stifling sprint diplomacy is to not have the agility to react rapidly to fast developments, such as the recent refugee crisis and the Greek debt crisis. The stiffness of current institutions might have hampered the necessary flexibility and creativity to find solutions to these complex crises.

The second risk is that – paradoxically speaking – by creating accountability institutions we may also endanger accountability itself. The ‘audit culture’ tends to shift responsibility from concrete people and organisations to opaque procedures.  The emphasis on accountability might lead to a false ‘pretension of accountability’, as its processes – especially when they are complex – can give rise to loopholes and prevent individual actors to be held responsible for their actions.

Making diplomacy both effective and inclusive will be one of the main challenges in global public policy in the coming years. There is no ready-made recipe or blueprint. It requires us to take a critical look at our existing institutions, and assess whether they are truly enhancing inclusivity and accountability, and do not obstruct flexibility.

But, one aspect is certain. Human judgment must not disappear in favour of abstract procedures. Human judgment may take the form of a few taking responsibility to negotiate a delicate peace deal behind closed doors; or of many discussing matters of direct concern to larger populations, such as climate change, via ‘crowdsourcing’ diplomacy. Human judgment is essential for the development of creative solutions to complex problems, and is the only way to achieve the optimum interplay between marathon and sprint diplomacy.

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