With globalization, diplomacy has now become present in practically all fields of human activity.
The international system was born and continues to be marked predominantly by power relations. Whoever has power, rules. Whoever does not, must conform obediently or be forced to find alliances that strengthen itself. What is called the Trump era is taking us down this dangerous path.
During the 20th century, there were not a few attempts to relativize this concept—Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the United Nations Charter, to name just the most illustrative. Both ended up submitting to the less ethical reality of national interests. Ethics serve as a model for international organization. In its name, it seeks to repress actions or decisions which reflect the unilateral interests of the strongest partners.
Between action and its result, under normal circumstances, what is attempted is called diplomacy—preventive diplomacy, used to prevent an action of force, and conclusive diplomacy, used to minimize the effects of the use of force or prevent new situations, which could provoke that. There are infinite varieties of measures which can be employed before, during and after the use of force. War usually occurs when these measures, threats and intimidation, in the eyes of the attackers, do not result in the desired effect. In some way, one could simply say that ethics, persuasion and pacifist means precede eventual aggressions using force. Sometimes they succeed and prevent, through intimidation, war. And when that happens, a peaceful solution is found for the dispute. One side gives in, does the math and perceives it would not have effective recourse to face the conflict, much less win it. In other situations, the attacking side prefers to self-immolate rather than lose honor. Let it rock.
It is rare, but there are cases where, when confronted with an imminent aggression, a country manages to negotiate a balanced solution to the conflict. It is all a question of power or lack of power. One thing one learns from the start of taking diplomatic office is that nothing is resolved just because of generosity. The party which affects generosity in a conflict is seen as weak and fickle, and therefore more vulnerable.
A description of diplomacy as a certain black art which hides in the entrails of pretense, which does not let itself be seen, but lives in the profound obscurity of mysteries, is attributed to the French analyst Le Prosne.* There are other descriptions of diplomacy which also accent the vile side, so to speak, of diplomacy: “An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country;” “An ambassador is a man capable of sending his interlocutor to the depths of hell and making him anticipate the pleasure of the voyage.”**
Just in the 1960s, when I was preparing to enter a career, many analysts predicted the decline and the end of diplomacy. The red telephone between Washington and Moscow would make everything easier and less complicated, less wrapped in lace cuffs. For a while, my generation feared it had entered into a career condemned beforehand.
However, what happened was exactly the opposite, and the instantaneous nature of contacts in meetings between nations often created more problems than it resolved. It was the diplomatic apparatus which ended up trying to untangle more complicated situations. Moreover, with the gradual expansion of international activities, and afterward, what is now called globalization, diplomacy started to become present in practically all fields of human activity. No more just in peace and war, but in all fields of activities and decisions that were previously deregulated: financial transactions, commerce, investments, the environment, science, technology and human rights. And much more.
Ministries grew and diplomats started to have to deal with issues that traditionally were outside their range. We became, according to some nasty characterization, “specialists in general subjects.” Careers at the same time became professionalized and the diplomatic apparatuses grew, also a function of the growth of the number of sovereign countries.
Another aspect which changed was the relationship between diplomacy and intelligence services. Previously, the second was integrated with the first. Little by little, diplomacy and intelligence became specialized and separate. Today, they often encounter internal conflict.
Abba Eban, the late Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, was an extraordinary thinker in the area of international relations. He said in his book about the “new diplomacy,” that diplomats when they are not complaining about their impotency, are reduced to listening to reflections on the moral defects of their profession. Stalin once said that “to speak of ‘honest diplomacy’ is like talking about dry water.”
In truth, diplomacy (even though it was not known by that name) comes from the mists of time. The Bible refers to numerous cases of kings, queens, generals and princes who exchanged messages with their counterparts in their regions. Even the concept of immunity started in that era since messages could often be aggressive or injurious. Sometimes diplomacy was respected. Other times not, resulting in the carrier of bad news receiving the maximum penalty.
Modern diplomatic traditions started to take shape in Greece. It was the classical Greeks who created such terms as “armistice,” “arrangements,” “alliances,” “conventions” and “peace.” It was the Greeks who started to use arbitration procedures.
Eban wrote that the central element of Greek diplomacy was “patriotism … my city above all!”
The Romans took diplomacy a step further. The envoys began to mix into the lives of the cities in which they were stationed and to send reports back to their superiors. That tradition is what led to their current reputation, that ambassadors don’t cease to be spies.
But it was during the Renaissance that the Italians made the practice of resident ambassadors common. Since then, the supreme ethic of diplomacy – going back to what Abba Eban said about Greek diplomacy – is “The Reason of State.”** Machiavelli contends that the norms by which individual morality is measured, the “ethics,” are not applicable to acts of the state.
With the collapse of the Italian system of balance of power, Machiavelli’s methods were, in a certain way, incorporated by powerful kingdoms in the process of the unification of Europe. Hugo Grotius spoke of “a sense of justice and of reason” as the basis for cooperation among states. Cardinal Richelieu, under Louis XIII, established a Ministry of Foreign Relations. The practice spread throughout Europe. It ended up being incorporated by the Vienna Congress of 1815, which reorganized the world after the fall of Napoleon. Stability would be maintained by the Concert of Europe (Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, France, Prussia and Russia), a distant predecessor of the Security Council of the United Nations, with practically the same hierarchal system.
It was thus, in a certain form, that a formal expression of a system of "balance of power" was secured. There was no talk, therefore, of ethics within international relations.
Power reigned and peace would be guaranteed by its balance.
The Franco-Prussian Wars and World War I and World War II, however, destroyed that equilibrium, and they ended up making it possible to bring the changed balance which emerged from these conflicts to the forefront of the system. What emerged were considerations and practices linked to ethics, similar to what is called public diplomacy.
The introductory part of this new period were Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, launched by the U.S. president at the end of the World War I. From the beginning, Wilson expressed a utopia: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
One could say that what started, thus, was the phase in which we find ourselves today. A public diplomacy and ethic incarnated by international organizations in coexistence with the traditional secret diplomacy boosted by the threat of and/or the use of force. There is no doubt that it is imperative that we have a shared international morality. And that, therefore, the implantation of an effective social ethic must incorporate ways of practicing relations between the countries.
But what we see is that the U.N. Charter itself, by creating the Security Council with five permanent members who have the right to veto, thus placing it above the General Assembly where everything is decided by majority vote, sanctions inequality within international relations. In his “Peace and War, a Theory of International Relations,” Raymond Aron is emphatic: "International relations have always been recognized by all nations for what they really are: power relations! In our time, however, some jurists are intoxicated by concepts, and some idealists confuse their dreams with reality. “***
Where is ethics in all of this? That is the question I pose and have difficulty answering. Is it in space? In the mind of the people? In collective institutions? Or in the nuclear arsenals of the great powers? Is it in Libya, in Syria, in the Ukraine? In Cuba? At the Kremlin? At the White House? In the poor regions of Africa, Asia, the Americas?
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to answer. My impression is that ethics is in the consciences of people who are concerned about the inequalities which characterize the world, such as violence, hunger, and the lack of security.
An idealized ethic. A utopia. A must be. A universal conscience. It is always good to have it present!
I am reminded of one of Montesquieu’s quotes:
“If I knew anything that would be useful to me, and hurtful to my family, I would reject it with all my heart. If I knew anything that would be useful to my family but prejudicial to my country, I would strive to forget it. If I knew anything useful to my country and injurious to Europe and the human race, I would look upon it as a crime.”
They are words which express a dream, a utopia, and well translate the characteristic dilemmas of the duality of war and peace.
So it is in these times we are living: The U.S. under a leadership unprepared and convinced of its self-sufficiency; Russia taking advantage of that situation and of Brexit to regain lost spaces on its periphery. China, doing very well economically and socially successful, seeking to use the influence it has to avoid large conflicts. And the European Union, with the elections in France and Germany coming up, has never seemed so weak.****
North Korea, a completely closed country, feels comfortable threatening, directly or indirectly, the main actors in the system.
The Latin American "left" decomposes with the events in Brazil and Argentina and with the exposed weakness of Venezuela.
But leadership has not yet emerged, and it is not clear what message our times are carrying.
These are historic signals of disarray that could trigger tragedies. It is the time to strengthen diplomatic negotiation. It is profoundly painful to see Brazil—always so active in moments of multilateral transformation—completely on the sidelines, enveloped in what is its own internal tragedy, practically inert on the international plane. Not even taking interest anymore in belonging to the U.N. Security Council. How we disappear!
I never thought I would see this period.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the identity of Le Prosne, the cited French analyst, could not be verified.
**Editor's note: According to Wikipedia, "The Reason of State" is an Italian work of political philosophy published in 1589 which refers to the “right of rulers to act in ways that run contrary to natural and positive law with the aim of acquiring, preserving and augmenting the dominion of the state.
***Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the source of these quotes, which may have originated in English, could not be independently verified.
****The French elections took place on May 7, 2017, after this article was published.