The Deterioration of Classic Diplomacy

two people sitting in front of fireplace
"As the coronavirus wages war on freedom of movement and the Trump Administration fixates on military defense to the detriment of diplomatic affairs, classic, old-school public diplomacy—and the soft power born from it—is facing a significant risk of permanent damage"

Classic, old-school diplomacy. The one that requires traveling to other cultures, sharing a handshake with a smile over a cup of tea, and looking at someone face-to-face. The kind where you sit around an oval table with other senior representatives, offer gifts of friendship by fireside, or lounge in a pair of chairs in front of an attractively decorated mantlepiece. The style that peaked in popularity during the 20th century. Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill meeting at the Tehran Conference in 1943 to plan the anticipated conclusion of World War II. Ho Chi Minh welcoming contemporaries to Hanoi through the mid-20th century to foster peace and connectivity. Richard Nixon visiting Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972 to establish formal bilateral relations. Are these snapshots of history a thing of the past or is there still room in modern international relations for classic diplomacy?

The coronavirus has stunted diplomacy

Classic, old-school diplomacy was becoming an endangered species even before 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic backed diplomatic offices around the world into a corner. Physically, the novel coronavirus has drastically pummeled international travel across the board. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, who publishes a daily tally of travelers passing through U.S.-based airports, is reporting daily drops in traveler throughput of around 70-76 percent. Most countries have made a practice of banning travelers from certain nations in an attempt to contain the virus domestically. Americans, for example, have been banned from at least 33 countries over concerns specific to the virus.

Even if individuals are able to meet in the same room, there is now an uncomfortable air of caution borne from social distancing that can stagnate amiable connections generally required for successful statecraft. Handshakes and smiles—both universal signs of greeting and goodwill in most cultures—are tools of statecraft that can no longer be easily used. While being invaluable tools, a full transition to video or teleconference calls could also subtly impact discussions; perhaps even more-so for those who have been conducting diplomacy in other ways for decades or are trying to navigate cultures with a limited appreciation for technology.

Should we care?

Shifting trends in diplomatic methods is not uncommon. As far back as 1962 and 1950, scholars have taken note of these adaptations wrought by major global changes and for various purposes. However, the last few decades have brought unprecedented changes that are altering the face of classic diplomacy for, potentially, forever. 

In his 2018 book War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Pulitzer journalist and former State Department aide Ronan Farrow argues for the human connections in diplomacy and how “[i]n many of America’s engagements…military alliances have now eclipsed the kind of civilian diplomacy that once counterbalanced them, with disastrous results.” Farrow links the decline of “classic, old-style diplomacy” to American leadership no longer valuing diplomats and subsequent proposed budget cuts. 

The most concerning aspect of a decline in public diplomacy is its correlation to a decline in soft power: “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Joseph Nye, who coined the term ‘soft power,’ states that this kind of power is directly linked to public diplomacy efforts and were essential in winning the Cold War. With discussions of a ‘New Cold War’ between China and the U.S. becoming more commonplace every year and the increasing ability of citizens to voice their opinions through technology, a drop in soft power could be detrimental to any nation’s success; but especially to that of the United States. 

If classic, face-to-face diplomacy is in decline, should the world let it run its natural course? Is it time for a new era of statecraft—maybe one that capitalizes on expanding technologies—to adapt to the modern age? Until robots run state departments, the human element in all diplomacy and statecraft will remain as will the need for a human connection. That can be difficult to achieve through an electronic screen. This would be especially true in the honor-bound cultures of the Middle East and East Asia. 

Washington, D.C. has not completely forgotten public diplomacy. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush took 52 and 48 diplomatic trips during their two-term presidencies, far above most of their predecessors. But between the Trump Administration proposing to slash international affairs budgets in favor of defense buildup, the resulting mass exodus of senior career diplomats dimming the morale of the State Department to an “unprecedented low,” and the impact of the coronavirus expecting to loom into 2022, classic diplomacy is on the verge of being left high and dry.

Jessica L. Martin is a researcher in the Washington, D.C. area specializing in U.S.-China relations and security studies.

Fortress International L.L.C. is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business

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