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Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations

Year: 2009

Suppose now, after 20 years, Robinson Crusoe is found and brought back into civilisation. He will be glad to be saved and eager to apply his knowledge, but some parts of the diplomatic system he is thrown into will seem incomprehensible. A returning Robinson Crusoe would benefit from a study of Copeland’s Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations. It offers a conceptual framework and practical guide for navigation through a globalised world, altered by science and technology, with transnational communities and global threats to security.

A holistic approach on diplomacy by a firm believer in the power of talking

Daryl Copeland is more practitioner than scholar. After 28 years as a diplomat he is now teaching at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. The book starts with the story of one of his first assignments as a diplomat to Thailand. This introduction reveals one of the primary themes of the book: cultural sensitivity and the need for the diplomat to leave the secluded and secure area of the embassy in order to listen and understand. Above all, the author is a firm believer that a revived diplomacy is the only adequate means to solve today’s complex problems.

We may ask, if putting ourselves into the shoes of the Robinson Crusoe diplomat thrown into a world that looks radically different than that of twenty years ago, what analyses and guidelines Daryl Copeland offers. The book starts by analysing the changes that followed the end of the Cold War and then goes on to describe globalisation and the new world order. This first part lays the foundation for later analysis. The second part of the book is concerned with ‘drivers for change’: global security threats, the link between security and development, and the changing influence of science and technology. This is followed by an intensive look at the foreign ministry, the diplomatic service, and diplomats themselves. As a result, Copeland calls for a new approach to diplomacy, a new kind of diplomat, and reform of the foreign ministry.

A new kind of diplomat

The book’s title is striking and thought-provoking. It immediately invokes associations with small groups, unconventional tactics, ambush, mobility, and flexibility, ideas not traditionally associated with diplomacy. How can one make sense of the term ‘guerrilla diplomacy’? Copeland describes it as a special form of public diplomacy that engages in horizontal rather than hierarchical communication, takes cross-cultural communication seriously, and resembles a grassroots approach to diplomatic practices. ‘Guerrilla diplomats use all of the tools of public diplomacy – but combine them with some of the classic qualities of guerrilla warfare: agility, adaptability, improvisation, self-sufficiency, and popular support’ (p. 207). He also offers a new unique set of skills needed in the diplomatic profession of the 21st century: accessibility, flexibility, improvisation, cultural awareness, and a catalytic and transformational orientation. According to Copeland, this is a much needed adaptation to the changed international atmosphere of the 21st century.

A changed world demands re-structuring and a new diplomatic approach

Copeland identifies a diplomatic performance gap that he attributes to diplomacy’s poor adaptation to current security threats; to the ever-present interconnectedness between security and development; to the profound influence of science and technology on our daily lives; and to global threats (from climate change to weapons of mass destruction). Another gap is that between perception and image. In the 21st century, the importance of perception and image can not be overestimated. Diplomacy, once revived, is the tool of choice to influence and export a national image. Nation branding is one of the essential terms in this regard. ‘Competition to project a recognizable and credible image internationally – that is, to have an effective brand – has become acute, while the costs of failure, of projecting a poor or inaccurate image, have grown exponentially’ (p. 147).

Guerrilla diplomacy is a vital response to globalisation and the tool of choice to influence public perception. Copeland offers three proposals for change on the level of the foreign ministry and of the foreign service.

First, Copeland points to the need to re-focus the diplomatic service and concentrate on core competencies. He proposes ‘to begin a carefully planned and phased withdrawal from day-to-day work on particularistic issues’ (p. 188). These include environmental law, resource regulation, international financial institutions, and culture and the arts. By leaving these issues to the relevant ministries, the diplomatic service avoids turf battles and can focus on its core competencies which lie, according to Copeland, in connecting to people abroad and the national image abroad. Second, Copeland proposes the creation of virtual desks. Organised by topic or region, these could bring together a wide network of experts – extending far beyond the foreign ministry. Third, Copeland calls for making greater use of the internet and other electronic media.. For example, when talking about blogging he states that ‘responsive foreign ministries and some senior officials are doing it, and so too should more ambassadors, especially those posted to trouble spots’ (pp. 198-199).

No standard textbook, but a system for navigation through a complex world

The assertion that we live in the age of globalisation and that globalisation has altered the way in which international policy and diplomacy are conducted is certainly not new. The link between development and security has also been widely discussed (although many governments are currently following a different path). The book’s most valuable contribution lies rather in its holistic approach and in the intriguing analysis of diplomatic practices and their need for adaptation and reform. Copeland’s description of the qualities of the guerrilla diplomat and the workings of a foreign ministry are wise and insightful. His belief in the possibilities of diplomacy and the primacy of talk over war are well underlined in the examples given and the proposals for change made. Copeland is not afraid to include science and technology in his analysis and to talk about the possibilities the internet and new social media have to offer for advancing diplomacy.

However, there are three points on which I would like to sound a note of caution. First, guerrilla diplomacy is described as an ideal, a method best suited for the 21st century. However, it is not only a few people in extraordinary positions who should be engaged in guerrilla diplomacy. As the author states, ‘this new, more public style of diplomacy is not just for designated officers; it’s for everyone at the embassy, and indeed, for many beyond – providing, that is, that the activities have some direct connection to governance and the goals of international policy.’ (p. 150). I would argue for more caution. I also remain to be convinced of the almost universal application of methods of guerrilla diplomacy. Second, Copeland’s advice and practical proposals are inspiring and visionary and rooted in his deep reflections on the diplomatic ecosystem. Yet, in a world where many foreign ministries choose not to embrace the possibilities of new communication technologies and social media platforms (after all, only a few governments and foreign services use Facebook, twitter, Youtube, or Second Life), he might be overestimating the possibilities for change within a profession still marked by tradition and conservatism. He also acknowledges that many of his proposals would lead to the end of centralised control over communication and that this is something for which many governments are simply not ready. Third, many of the book’s examples are drawn from experiences with the Canadian diplomatic service and are focussed on the developed world. A thorough study of the applicability and usefulness of guerrilla diplomacy for developing states might be an interesting follow-up project.

With its research base, Guerrilla Diplomacy looks like a textbook, but it is not a standard one. Its tone is conversational and it is truly enjoyable to read. When choosing this book, do not expect to learn about the basics of diplomacy such as conventional bilateral and multilateral diplomacy or the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations. With its holistic approach, the book is, rather, a tool for navigation through a complex and intertwined system of multiple actors, levels, and problems and a guideline for advancing the role of diplomacy in a changed world.

The book poses many challenges to the traditional view on diplomacy. However, even if one does not conform at all with the specific perspective Copeland takes, the book remains a valuable read for its insights into the workings of the “diplomatic ecosystem” and its thought-provoking proposals for adaptation of this system.

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Review by Katharina Höne

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