The Future of Diplomacy Amidst Global Change

Published on 19th January 2015

Foreign Policy is an essential part of the identity of any State; it reflects both the way in which we, as a national community, view the world and the complex and diverse manner in which we are affected by and must respond to the dynamics at play in this wider world.

We Irish are a nation that has colonisation, liberation, hunger and migration at the heart of our collective experience. It is important, I believe, for members of Ireland’s diplomatic service, and for all of us concerned with Irish foreign policy, to consider the contemporary significance of this particular historical experience. This, in a way, amounts to reflecting on the legacy handed down to us by previous generations of foreign policy makers and diplomats. Indeed the great architects of Ireland’s foreign policy had a defined sense of Ireland’s history and political traditions as having provided our country with a specific ethical, and emancipator, perspective on world affairs.

Such a vision was manifested, for example, in their defence of the voice and right to independence of small nations in multinational fora such as the League of Nations, the Council of Europe and, from 1955 onwards, in the UN. It was not without its contradictions, of course, as the plea for the freedom of other peoples was accompanied by a strident anti-communism, in particular at a Council of Europe seized by the threat of the extension of communism in Europe.

That Ireland was particularly qualified to advocate the cause of other nations pressing for self-determination was powerfully expressed by Frank Aiken in the speech he gave to the UN General Assembly in October 1960. In his address, Aiken referred to Ireland as a State whose people had retained “a historical memory” of domination by a foreign power:“A memory, he said, which gives us a sense of brotherhood with the newly emerging peoples of today, a memory which makes it impossible for any representative of Ireland to withhold support for racial, religious, national or economic rights in any part of the world, in South Africa, or Tibet, or Hungary. We stand unequivocally for the swift and orderly ending of colonial rule and other forms of foreign domination.”

Another founding figure of Irish international diplomacy, Seán Mac Bride, documented in his writings the significance of the Irish liberation movement in international relations throughout the first half of the 20th century. In his Message to the Irish People,[1] Mac Bride thus recalls the meetings his parents had in Paris with revolutionary leaders from Egypt, Morocco and India, such as Bhikaiji Cama, known as the “Mother of the Indian Revolution.” He also relates his own encounters with Ho Chi Minh at international summits throughout the 1920s, and his friendship with Nehru, tracing the links between the Irish Constitution of 1937 and the 1948 Indian Constitution.

During my recent visits to Africa and China, I experienced very strongly the manner in which actions taken historically by Irish diplomats in regard to decolonisation, to human rights, to the struggle against apartheid, to disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, to peace-keeping were appreciated – how all these initiatives have contributed to forging Ireland’s good name on the world stage, and how they continue to inform the sympathy our nation enjoys among developing countries. This is a moral heritage we must cherish; one that is valuable both in itself, and as an asset in our relationships with other nations.

At its best, diplomacy is, I would suggest, a practice which constantly strives to creatively balance the pursuit of national interests – ideally sourced in an inclusive public sphere – with an open, enlarged ethical consciousness grounded in a recognition of our solidarity as human beings sharing a fragile planet. Preferably, such a project should stem from a shared European public sphere, but it also has to be sought at global level, and perhaps with most proximate benefit in the multilateral institutions.

The narrow pursuit of material gains and the so-called ‘realist’ conception of international relations, which portrays the State as “the coldest of all cold monsters”[2], one that knows no moral code, are, in my view, but two avatars of a utilitarian and impoverished version of diplomacy.

Things have changed, of course, since the days of the cold war, an era when prudence was the primary virtue required and exercised in international relations. Morality has made a comeback in foreign policy debates; the citizens of pluralist democracies exert greater demand for continuity between domestic and international policy principles. Yet, the depiction of ‘professional’ diplomatic activity and raison d’état as being in conflict with ‘emotional’ and ‘moralist’ public opinion still holds in some foreign policy circles – and indeed it is an opposition as ancient and enduring as the deadly confrontation between Antigone and Creon.

I would like to invite all of you, Ambassadors, Heads of Mission, and foreign policy makers, to uphold the values of peace, solidarity and global justice which have inspired the actions of your distinguished predecessors. You are the recipients of a long and admirable tradition – one that runs from the human rights work of Roger Casement to that of Mary Robinson, who was with you earlier, and that includes, for example, the lead taken by Ireland in recent years on the control and abolition of cluster munitions and the protection of human rights defenders.

This tradition can and must continue to shape our country’s response to the great challenges brought about by the contemporary historical moment. The rise of nations belonging to what used to be called “the Third World” is one such defining shift of our times – a shift which Ireland must, it is my conviction, welcome and support.

We are now presented with both a challenge and a test, to exercise Ireland’s credit in contributing to creating a new atmosphere in global South-North relations. We must not waste the real opportunities that exist, for example, to build a new North-South dialogue ahead of one of the most important meetings in which Ireland will participate, in Paris in December of this year, when we must achieve real, binding and transparent commitment to actions against climate change.

No less importantly, Ireland’s appointment, together with Kenya as one of two co-facilitators of the UN negotiations on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals is both an honour and a critical opportunity for our country to contribute to advancing a strong global agenda that will seek to eradicate extreme poverty and food insecurity in the next generation, through a process that gives voice to those most affected by global inequalities. Ireland can be an important voice in revising our definitions of development.

In my view, our key objective should be to reach a North-South consensus at the end of the negotiation process, in September 2015. For this to happen, however, a radical change of approach is necessary in the way the North relates to the South. The nations of the South must be free to imagine and implement new models of social, economic and cultural development, rather than be submitted to a hegemonic, and already failed, paradigm of growth.

We are in new circumstances, facing new challenges but also old ones that have been neglected or evaded and must be addressed – such as global poverty, global debt, and the reduction of food production to a commodity at the mercy of speculation by hedge funds. I very much welcome the fact that, after many decades, the role of the State is again being recognised as essential for responding to both global challenges and the destructive ingress of unregulated financial markets.

For the reasons I have stated earlier – Ireland’s unique historical experience as a Western European country without an imperialist legacy; and the capital of sympathy we enjoy amongst many Southern nations – I believe that our country can play an important mediating role towards achieving the necessary shift in vision and discourse. We cannot afford such confrontations as were experienced within the UNCTAD, for example. We cannot afford to abuse the concept of reform as an attempt to undermine or dominate our shared multilateral institutions.

There is a new, multipolar world in the throes of emergence: let us be attentive to the diversity of voices that resound across the world. And let us endeavour to craft, with all those concerned, collective solutions for our shared challenges. Of course, as you are aware, multipolarity does not necessarily chime with multilateralism; and yes, there are reasons to fear the formation of some new balances of powers instead of the cooperative international system for which so many are calling.

Yet, however complex the task may be of building a new architecture of legitimate and well-resourced multilateral institutions – based on genuine representativeness, an ability to translate agreed principles into action, and a recognition of the intergenerational nature of our responsibility towards the planet – it is a task worth undertaking.

And I believe that it is also a task Irish diplomats have the necessary skills to undertake successfully. Indeed our diplomats’ dexterity as negotiators, their ability at cultivating good relations with their foreign counterparts and at building flexible alliances in order to broker deals are qualities widely recognised among our partners at both European and international levels.

When reflecting on the skills required of diplomats in the current state of international relations, it seems to me that a good diplomat remains, at a basic level, someone who has genuine empathy for the foreign society in which she lives and works. That she is, in other words, a translator, or a ‘knowledge broker,’ able to read cultural and ideological complexity as context, and to empathise with the point of view of the local people so as to better communicate the message and positions of the country she represents, and, vice versa, to convey to this country the local people’s views and values, read and expressed within the frame of their own circumstances.

The contemporary moment, defined by what Jürgen Habermas has described as a crisis of legitimacy, is characterised by a weakening of State institutions and the emergence of new actors. This has led many foreign policy practitioners to push the boundaries of traditional diplomatic tools and channels. After the Arab uprisings in particular, (which very few had foreseen), there was widespread recognition among Western embassies of the need to enlarge and diversify their networks beyond dialogue with other diplomats and official functions held in the capital city, in order to explore the margins, both social and geographical, establish contacts with non-governmental actors, and track the emergence of new social movements.
In doing so, creative use can be made of the new social media. The ability to select the best sources and to discern who has real authority or legitimacy in the public debate – be it a young rural blogger or a representative of a religious minority – can add real value to any diplomat’s information mission. Of similar importance is the courage to convey to one’s Department even those dissident voices that are not part of the status quo of the day.

Of course, one must avoid the temptation to regard the civil society uncritically, in an atmosphere where the state has, as I have said, too often been portrayed negatively, as the most fundamental obstacle to unregulated market forces.
If I may mention an old concern of mine, I would add accountability and openness to the characteristics of any good foreign policy. Three decades ago, in an era when there was no Oireachtas Foreign Policy Committee, I persistently advocated, in Seanad Éireann, in favour of an increase of public participation in foreign policy debates, and for the need to make accountable what was then said and done, or not said and done, in the wider world, in the name of Irish citizens. My arguments were outlined in a 1988 article published in the journal Studies.[3] Reading that article or the Seanad debates which it recalls, one can see that the discussion was centred on whether foreign policy was an executive function or whether it could and should accommodate democratic accountability.

Finally, I want to emphasise how important it is that we give ourselves the means and time to decipher the intricate and confusing trends at play in the world today. Engagement with the wider intellectual debate and with ongoing research in the social sciences and humanities takes on a greater importance in a world characterised by uncertainty and heterogeneity.

The importance of the craft of diplomacy is surely underlined by the events of last week in France and Nigeria, which have exposed the horrific consequences of violence grounded in fanaticism and the complex nature of conflict today. Terrorism, but also novel uses of technology and science, such as cyber-attacks and remote, extra-judicial executions performed by machines, blur the boundaries between war and peace, and risk instilling generalised suspicion between and within our societies.

The work of those who seek to build friendships between peoples, to construct peaceful, collective resolutions to the root causes of conflicts – this work is of immense importance and should be celebrated.

By Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland,  at a Reception for the Irish Heads of Mission (Excerpts).


[1] Seán Mac Bride. 1985. A Message to the Irish People. Mercier Press, pp. 38-40.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
[3] Michael D. Higgins. 1988. “The Case for an Oireachtas Foreign Policy Committee”. In Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 77, No. 305, pp. 63-67.


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