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The VUCA world and diplomacy

Published on 23 October 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Disruption is today’s norm. International affairs are not exempt. Ability to handle disruption is needed in all professions. Disruption does not only come via technology, and can affect any area of activity. By its nature, it is unpredictable.

We live in a VUCA world, whose key elements are: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. This situation permeated almost all sectors of activity, in the same manner as disruption in technology, business environment, and even international affairs compels us to re-examine assumptions and re-formulate our responses to what has become a global phenomenon.

Example: Each of these elements was evident in a 73-day India-China crisis over Doklam pasture in the Himalayas, located at the border tri-junction between Bhutan, China, and India. The way the elements were manifest: Volatility in suddenness of the crisis. Uncertainty in that it represented a risk of a first armed clash along a long-disputed border that is unsettled, but has not seen an armed clash for over 30 years. Complexity in that it involved Bhutan, because the disputed pasture area right on that tri-junction is disputed between Bhutan and China. India entered the picture as closely tied to Bhutan, and indirectly the issue also involved all elements in India’s relations with Bhutan, including bilateral economic ties. Ambiguity in terms of the Chinese intent because the immediate provocation was the building of a permanent road, leading right into that small disputed pasture area – the timing of that action remained unclear.

The dispute was resolved with Indian and Chinese troops that had been in an eyeball confrontation pulling back, through a formula that was hammered out through the night at Beijing on the night of 27-28 August. China had insisted that the Indian troops must be pulled back first; the compromise was that the Indian troops would pull back on the morning of 28 August, while the Chinese troops would pull back that same afternoon, and that the road construction would be halted. Other details of that deal are not yet disclosed.

The VUCA world and diplomacy

Challenge: A key question that is to be examined at the DiploFoundation’s 15th Anniversary Conference in Malta on 17-18 November 2017 is how this VUCA world and our Age of Disruption affects diplomacy, the modes and practices through which countries deal with one another across an engagement front that becomes more diverse and multifaceted all the time. Some of these disruptive elements are:

Technology: My comments here focus on its downside in a diplomacy environment; of course, there exist in parallel many positive elements. But the negatives should also inform our assessment.

  • Entire populations are enabled to participate; home publics have gained influence, in some situations becoming determinants of foreign policy, bringing their short-horizon understanding. Prejudice of and antipathy towards The Other becomes ingrained. Consequently, technology, mainly viewed as the enabler of horizontal global access, becomes allied with prejudice and inward-looking anti-foreigner sentiment.
  • Access to global information, plus the every-consumer-a-broadcaster phenomenon generates information overload. Consequences include reduced attention spans, over-simplification that is especially dangerous in a VUCA world.
  • Can we say that universally accessible information, and active ‘broadcasting’ roles played by citizens have deepened international understanding? That is clearly not the case. Prejudice and narrow thinking are more rampant than before.
  • Governments universally find that their room for maneuver on foreign affairs issues has narrowed. The media, especially TV news, focus on the ephemeral.

Technology application is neither a panacea nor a magic bullet. It essentially adds new complex elements to the mix in managing diplomacy.

Home actors: How should states work with the new actors at home, actively soliciting their participation in world affairs? A key dichotomy is that states remain the principal formal actors, but are compelled to enlist the support of the new players, who are increasingly vocal and discordant in their external actions. Countries grope to find effective solutions, while realising that they have no choice but to mobilise these non-state actors. At the same time, ensuring the delivery of a single, consistent ‘whole of government’ message on external affairs also becomes a challenge; multiple state actors seldom speak with one voice, and foreign ministries struggle to harmonise the actions of different ministries and state entities. Can MFAs retain their centrality? Some doubt this.

Foreign engagement: Dissimilarities between countries are now sharper than ever before, the more so as political, economic, societal, and other characteristics are etched differently in a plurilateral, individualised age. Regional, thematic, and global diplomatic engagement ensures that countries need to work closely on a huge range of issues. Apart from the EU, countries in other regions do not actively share experiences in diplomacy management, despite potential mutual benefit.

Representations forms: Resident embassies are the best interpreters of the features of foreign partners, thanks to the application of ICT that enables them to be ‘virtually’ embedded into their foreign ministries, where they play a larger role in policy formulation. A contrary trend is to thin out the embassy network, for reasons of economy, and sometimes shift to ‘non-resident envoys’, joint embassies, and even make greater use of honorary consuls. Whatever the measures adopted, international and regional engagement is on an intensifying curve.

Systemic responses: Diplomatic systems follow varied paths, but everywhere, professionalism is vital. Investment training and in human resources produces competence to handle disruptive change, and adapt as needed.

Another key antidote to deal with the VUCA world is policy coherence, in framing and execution. Under the pressure of complexity and subject diversity challenges, accompanied by a narrowing of specialties, paradoxically, the generalist gains dominance in enforcing policy consistency. But this generalist is personally rooted in specialised studies, thus understanding firsthand the value of expertise, with insight into dealing with domain knowledge, blending this with broad experience, to integrate multiple perspectives into a seamless whole. In effect, it increasingly becomes a top management skill. This generalist-specialist paradox is but one of the bipolarities of the VUCA world.

Comments and criticism welcome.


Join Diplo’s anniversary conference, The Future of Diplomacy, on 17-18 November in Malta. Register and find more details on the conference website: https://15years.diplomacy.edu

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