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New diplomacy: where do we want to go?

Published on 24 January 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

What is diplomacy? Who is a diplomat? And what is it that diplomats do? The answers to these questions will always be contingent. We can only ever give them from the vantage point of a particular place and time. We tend to forget this when we debate these questions. We also tend to forget that things could be otherwise and that by raising these questions we not only debate what is but also have a chance to rethink how things could or even should be.

In a recent blog post, Philip Conway takes up and renews the debate on ‘new diplomacies’ which (re-)emerged in a series of blog posts last year (here, here, and here). He makes a strong call for bringing the ways in which diplomacy is conducted, in particular who counts as a legitimate participant, into sharper focus. He argues that we should not focus so much on debating the new kinds of diplomacy as denoted by shiny new prefixes or ‘x diplomacies’. Rather, we should be concerned with (historical) marginalisation, existential recognition, and legitimate practices.

Scholar-practitioners like Shaun Riordan have a point when they urge us to question the theoretical and practical value of declaring new kinds of diplomacies such as sport diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and business diplomacy to name but a few. This is an important debate to have. However, I very much agree with Philip that to end the debate on new diplomacy here, is to miss a much larger point. Who is excluded? Whose practices are discounted?

New diplomacy… anyone?

It is useful to return to the current use of the term ‘new diplomacy’. In its recent incarnation, it describes the emergence of individuals and organisations hitherto not visible at the international level, and the inclusion of topics that have so far not been considered relevant for international relations. Depending on who you ask, this is considered an empirical fact, a functional necessity, or a normative imperative.

In practical terms, we have seen glimpses of this new diplomacy emerge in the form of calls for multistakeholderism – the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders –  and the establishment of multistakeholder models of global governance. This is strongly articulated in debates about Internet governance (IG) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in particular. Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been praised for the inclusive consultation process that led to their adoption.

However, in both cases, observers are concerned about the depth and width of this new diplomacy and whether the term really delivers on its promise of greater opportunities for participation. Concerns have emerged that multistakeholder Internet governance is dying. Similarly, consultations as part of the SDGs have warned against ‘token forms of participation’, which are ‘obstacles to genuine forms of empowerment and involvement’.

In this vein, but focused on a different set of examples, Geoff Berridge finds evidence of the ‘counter-revolution in diplomacy’, understood as a turn away from the promises of new diplomacy, towards an increased reliance on secret negotiations and power politics. In other words, one of the conclusions one might draw is that the state is back and new diplomacy is all but a myth. But much like the focus on prefix diplomacy and ‘x diplomacies’, we cannot end our discussion here.

From widening our perspective to pluriversal views

If we take the long-term view and understand diplomacy as a practice that is historically contingent, another perspective emerges. We find a long history, in which the diplomatic system of modern Europe with its focus on the nation state, adopted as the global standard in the early 20th century, is only one of the more recent incarnations. In other words, however one might describe the current system, it is simply one of several incarnations of a diverse practice. From this perspective, attempts to solidify one particular model of diplomacy, by for example only declaring representatives of (European style nation-) states as legitimate participants, are not only unhelpful but also complicit in the marginalisation of practices that do not fit the established mold.

Diplomacy is plural, as Costas Constantinou, Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp highlighted in their introductory chapter to The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy. However, in the traditional understanding of diplomacy, this plurality is circumscribed by the state. Who and what are we missing when we only count official representatives of states as legitimate actors?

If we take the idea that diplomacy is to be plural seriously, this plurality cannot be circumscribed by preemptively narrowing down the range of participants and topics or by narrowly pre-defining the process through which deliberations should take place. But what is the yardstick then?

This is where the pluriverse can offer a way of rethinking current practices. As Philip puts it, the term pluriverse describes a way of ‘recognising that there are indefinitely many more ways of existing in the world, indeed of conceiving and making worlds, than has been admitted by the imperial proclivities of modernist Eurocentrism’. In the words of post-development scholar, Arturo Escobar, it is ‘a different way of imagining life’ and ‘another mode of existence’. In this sense, the pluriverse is more than simply a plurality of views that could easily be condensed together through compromise.

Where do we go from here?

As a starting point, a diplomacy which aims to pay respect to different ways of imagining life needs to hold space for recognising other modes of existence as legitimate. There needs to be space for raising views and discussing issues related to these different ways of imagining life through an appropriate process of deliberation.

It seems that this is the point where our current diplomatic system is failing. For example, processes such as the SDG consultations that promise greater inclusiveness, struggle with this. As have I begun to argue elsewhere, the SDGs, though global in ambition, could do better in reflecting a plurality of imagining life. For example, looking at the way the SDG indicator framework defines quality education, it seems that we encounter one particular way of viewing the world and one particular way of defining what good education looks like and what it is supposed to accomplish in society. Despite broad consultations, we do not find broad views reflected in the outcomes. There is a very real danger that a global goal simply does not reflect the pluriverse with its different ways of imagining life and other modes of existence. 

This raises questions beyond new prefix-diplomacies and ‘x diplomacies’ that we urgently need to tackle.

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