QDDR and the Future of Diplomacy

  • Dec 16, 2010

    For most of the past decade, it has become standard fare to preface big strategy documents with references to “sweeping changes” in the international environment, “new actors” on the world stage, “interdependence” in economic relations, the “complexity” of today’s emergencies, and “emerging threats” from “fragile states,” “transnational networks,” and other scary places. The QDDR report is not the first to serve up this fare, nor (alas) will it be the last.

    Yet for all the repetition of these bromides, policymakers and others in the international community have been maddeningly slow to recognize how deeply held the assumption is that all diplomacy must take place between and among representatives of states and states only. When one’s partner is assumed to be a central government (often little more than the armed faction that happens to control the capital city), this makes it difficult to provide direct assistance to reasonably stable unrecognized territories such as Somaliland and makes it nearly impossible to achieve even modest developmental and strategic objectives in places where the state apparatus is so corrupt, or so weak compared to the problem set, that foreign assistance makes nary a dent. When the unit of analyis in datasets of politics, governance, and development indicators is the “country year,” important dynamics taking place within countries, especially in places too violent for data to be collected, are going to be missed. When the unit of multilateral diplomacy is the “member state,” nonstate entities and unrepresented peoples within states are marginalized from the world system, giving them no incentive to maintain the stability of that system.

    The countervailing calls, from some quarters, for more “bottom-up” foreign assistance, or for approaches that bypass national governments and work directly with subnational units, civil society, or opposition groups are more a sign that conventional diplomacy is not up to today’s challenges than they are a definitive solution to those challenges. Sometimes the central government can and should be bypassed, but more often a creative network of partnerships that include state and nonstate entities will need to be defined and developed for any progress to be possible. To date, more progress has been made in recognizing that some nonstate actors are part of the problem set than in recognizing that other nonstate actors can be part of the solution.

    So it is gratifying to see that the first QDDR includes an entire subsection in its diplomacy chapter dedicated to “engaging beyond the state”: American diplomats, it notes, “have long been skilled at engaging with the governments of those countries, but in the 21st century, engagement must go far beyond government-to-government interactions. Non-state actors, ranging from non-governmental organizations to business, religious groups to community organizations, are playing an ever greater role, both locally and globally.” The report emphasizes civil society dialogs, public-private partnerships, and connecting local governments with foreign governments, among other initiatives. These are welcome, although most of this effort mainly raises the profile of existing projects. Still, it is a start. It remains to be seen how enthusiastically, and how deeply, the State Department encourages its diplomats to reach beyond their familiar government partners and how seriously the Foreign Service takes the guidance.

    Perhaps the next QDDR could address the more difficult questions, such as the place of nonstate actors in international law, or opening up more treaties to entities other than “member states.” This review does not go nearly far enough to recognize the importance of identifying and working with the new nonstate partners that have been acknowledged as being important. But it goes farther than might have been expected, coming out of two institutions whose very structure is dedicated to state-to-state partnerships.

    Robert D. Lamb is senior fellow and deputy director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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