Lost Art or the Art of Losing: Evaluating Diplomacy

States without Diplomacy

There has been a tendency, before now, to characterise the rise of the Islamic State (IS) across territory in both Syria and Iraq as, first and foremost, a ‘terrorist’ threat. IS, after all, has its roots in the branch of al-Qaeda that operated in Iraq during the war and the two organisations were once formally allied, though relations have since become critical and estranged. Combined with this, in the wake of 9/11 states all around the world expended vast resources on reorientating their militaries and police forces towards detecting, confronting and ultimately eliminating the ‘new’ terrorist threat that had been so effectively promulgated by the War on Terror as the gravest security concern we would face in the twenty-first century. From the moment it declared its Caliphate in June 2014, IS was incorporated into the paradigm of global terror and its actions dissected through the related narrative.

However, following unprecedented territorial advances and the fall of the strategic Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi, some analysts are beginning to argue that IS represents a new type of threat. IS, they claim, can be more accurately described as a ‘quasi-state’ entity commanding territory, economic assets and a conventional military. Moreover, these features differentiate it from other jihadist terrorist groups that are noted for their transnationalism, lack of territory and exploitation of sovereign borders and inhospitable terrain to evade conventional military confrontations where, it is commonly thought, they would be quickly overwhelmed by superior airpower and professional ground troops.

To consider Islamic State as a ‘quasi-state’ gives rise to a secondary consideration; what a state actor would look like if it completely lacked any capacity for, or willingness to engage in, modern interstate diplomacy. The brutality of the IS regime towards the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq, in which women are routinely abducted and coerced into sexual slavery, demonstrates a complete transgression of the international norms governing human rights. The capture of large swathes of land from Iraq and Syria demonstrates a violation of the structuring, geopolitical principle of Westphalian state sovereignty. The series of negotiations between the Jordanian authorities and IS that culminated in the barbaric murder of a young Jordanian pilot demonstrates the degree to which IS cannot be relied upon as a party to discussions that seek to de-escalate exigent situations. The suspected use of mustard gas on civilians near the Syrian city of Aleppo in August demonstrates a gross disregard for the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in warfare.

Islamic State is thus a stark and horrifying example of what happens when diplomacy is absent; when an actor on the international stage violently and intransigently contravenes the use of diplomatic tools so that other states, by extension, see their own capacity for a diplomatic response to be precluded. Mutual forbearance, rational deterrence and cooperation in the interests of common peace goals appear to become utterly impossible pursuits.

Despite this, diplomacy all too often seems to be the only means by which the belligerent excesses of states can be curbed, or at the very least condemned, allowing us to avoid the discursive normalisation of conflict even if conflict itself is not always prevented. Why, then, do some states seem to be increasingly sceptical of the ability of diplomatic solutions to promote international stability?

Diplomacy in the Twenty-First Century     

Of course, the Islamic State is by no means the first actor on the international stage that has been deemed to fall outside the reach of normal diplomatic relations. Most democratic states are stringently devoted to an absolutist policy of not negotiating with terrorists, though arguably they are galvanised by a desire to obscure the murkier reality wherein negotiations can and have been frequent.

This diplomatic prohibition became an area of renewed interest and contention throughout the War on Terror, particularly in relation to, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many now view the prospect of peace negotiations with the Taliban more favourably than they once did. When the United States successfully negotiated the release of Sgt. Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees in early 2014, it provided the connection and momentum needed for further negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan officials a year later in Qatar. 

In Palestine, Hamas continued to be designated a terrorist organisation even after it beat Fatah to win the 2006 parliamentary election. Many criticised this hard-line approach on the part of Western states as a missed diplomatic opportunity that impeded the broader Israel-Palestine peace process. Hamas, they argued, in addition to being a military faction, was a political entity that should rightly be considered a legitimate party to the peace talks. Earlier this year, the EU took steps to appeal a court ruling that Hamas be removed from its terrorist list.

Even more tellingly, there are those nation states that are considered exceptions to the diplomatic process on account of their disregard for international stability and their unconcern for the general wellbeing of the international community. North Korea’s instrumental foreign policy, persistence in missile testing, and sporadic skirmishes with South Korea along the demilitarised zone, from exchanges of artillery fire earlier this year to the alleged sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010, have ensured that Kim Jung-un’s regime is, to a large degree, ostracised. And the US has long abstained from normal diplomatic relations with Iran, culminating in the highly-publicised and hugely divisive breakthrough nuclear deal that the P5+1 (United States, the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany, plus the EU) brokered with Iran earlier this year.

Elsewhere, ongoing events in the Ukraine have greatly problematised diplomatic relations between the United States, the EU and Russia. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia was suspended indefinitely from the G8 and the security environment in eastern Ukraine remains fractious. This has made it all the more difficult for an adequate international response to be mustered towards the Syrian crisis; although the US and Russia have primarily been in disagreement over how best to resolve the Syrian civil war that has since erupted into the evolving threat from IS, still it is thought that US-Russian coordination will be crucial to any future proposals for conflict resolution, and in the interim will be necessary to deconflict Syrian airspace.                

The complex, fragile security environment we face today therefore points to several important points regarding diplomacy in the twenty-first century. Firstly, there is a recurrent, underlying scepticism, vocalised by certain strategic policy-makers and think tanks, regarding the efficacy of diplomacy of and by itself to achieve progress towards stability. Unless backed up by a credible deterrent and the political will to punish violations, most likely through a declaration of war, diplomacy will be the purview of naivety and weakness, prone to abuse externally while internally, both time and competitive advantages are squandered.

In other words, diplomacy is in this view seen to be useful to the degree that it clarifies the conditions of war to the enemy and brings legitimacy to the war effort should it eventually become necessary. Such thinking can be traced back to the Bush-era perception that international agreements and multilateral organisations should only be relied upon to the extent that they coincide with the national interest, but should not be considered as ends in themselves. American unilateralism in the early millennium has had an immense impact on the way that states approach the security environment; the terms and justifications for war have become broad and ambiguous, and subsequently war seems to frequently be the closer policy option, often closer than diplomacy. Iran sceptics, for example, have argued that Iran will not feel compelled to comply in the nuclear deal unless they are fully convinced that the United States will follow through with its deterring threats, even so far as going to war, in the case of non-compliance.

Secondly, states will likely cling to the idea that certain other states are not to be trusted, even if successful diplomatic agreements appear to prove the contrary in the medium-term. For all that the dominant theories of foreign policy teach us that all states are rational calculators and that their interests will therefore fall within a knowable spectrum of behaviour – power maximisation, balancing, counter-balancing, revisionism, resource diplomacy and so on – few states, if any, feel more secure now than they did at the end of the Cold War. This has to be at least partly due to the fact that the War on Terror introduced the rhetoric of ‘evilness’, ‘volatility’ and ‘unknown quantities’ into our assessment of the strategic environment; we are now led to believe that we contend with states, failed states and quasi-states that cannot be relied upon to play by the rules of the game and that will, moreover, be guided by interests and goals which will remain obscure to us.

Thirdly, there is the issue of legitimacy; by pursuing a diplomatic solution with an actor as reprehensible as IS, there would appear to be the danger of unwittingly confirming its status as a sovereign state, consolidating its territorial gains by lending them a permanency and a reality they would not otherwise have and, worst of all, prolonging its human rights violations by not seeking to wholly prevent them in the way that, for example, an armed presence on the ground would.         

Diplomatic Solutions

The other side of the story is that, from Cuba to Iran, President Obama has successfully revived diplomacy within the sphere of foreign affairs and recast the mould of American global leadership. Others argue that a diplomatic response must be adopted towards IS; that harnessing the abandoned tools of nuanced statecraft in order to align interests with regional stakeholders presents the best means by which further advances by the group can be curtailed.

Although the utility and efficacy of diplomacy may not always be immediately apparent, it is absolutely vital that we desist in seeing diplomacy as a losing strategy. It helps to consider diplomacy as the art of shaping likelihoods rather than the art of preventing war at all costs. In this view, when diplomacy does fail to prevent war, it is not proof that diplomacy itself does not work, but rather proof that an insufficient volume of diplomacy has been built into the system as a whole, that diplomacy has not reached critical mass, that what is required is more diplomacy in more places and among more actors. Diplomacy is, after all, a series of interconnected, negotiated activities out of which a strong, conscionable international community can be built; and once it is built, once it is inclusive, equitable and norm-governed, it will be worth protecting. Besides, the alternative to diplomacy too often looks to be like no alternative at all, and if only for this reason, we should stop focusing on how to discredit diplomatic solutions and start figuring out how we can we shape the likelihood that they will succeed.                  

About the Author

Heather Emond is an MSc graduate in International Relations from the London School of Economics, with a focus in advanced international security, European security and defence policy and Arab-Israeli Relations. Upon graduation, she worked in the fields of economic development and external affairs for local government in Edinburgh, assisting with a number of EU, international and telecommunications projects. More recently, Heather has collaborated with the United Nations Association of Edinburgh and is currently based in Northern Chile volunteering for a teaching programme co-delivered by the Chilean Ministry of Education and UN Development Programme.

Twitter: @HGEmond

Cover image ‘Diplomacy‘ by Maxime Bonzi

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