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Blog Post | The Populist Challenge and the Domestic Turn in Diplomacy

Author: Andrew F. Cooper

The drama over Ukraine with respect to the Trump administration’s attempts to initiate an investigation into the affairs of Joe Biden’s son brings the central challenge facing diplomats to the fore. Looking back to the post-Cold War era, diplomatic practitioners in general – and American diplomats specifically – were held in high esteem. Individual high-profile US diplomats, from Richard Holbrooke through to Michael McFaul, were lauded for their robust promotion of democracy and liberal norms.

Diplomats as suspects

Under the weight of the forces of populism, what we now see is a stigmatization of the diplomatic machinery and the institutions at the core of the established - albeit eroding- international order. Unlike classical nationalists, populists do not differentiate between insiders and outsiders, but between the elite and the people. No less than other foundational institutions such as courts and central banks, diplomacy and diplomats are deemed suspect as elevated globalists disconnected from domestic society.

To be sure, populism has always been a feature in parts of the world. For the most part, however, this phenomenon was associated with frustrations within the Third World/Global South. Bursts of populism in countries such as Argentina or Venezuela drew academic interest, but they did not leave any systemic impact. With the success of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, this is no longer the case, a situation magnified by the influence of Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

In mid-2016, the sharpest illustrations of anti-diplomatic/anti-foreign ministry sentiment came from forces that still could be construed as outsiders: whether in the former UKIP (now Brexit) party of Nigel Farage or  Marine Le Pen of the French National Front (now the National Rally). In the first stages of both the Trump administration and Theresa May’s government, the challenge to diplomats and diplomacy remained overshadowed by other features. Although Rex Tillerson directed his attention to cutting resources to the State Department (including public diplomacy) it was only after he left that the gates opened up to the full-effect of  populist forces. In similar fashion, although Boris Johnson proved an erratic UK Foreign Secretary, Theresa May relied heavily on Olly Robbins, an experienced practitioner, as her Europe Adviser and Chief Negotiator.

All of this has changed with the tightening grip of the populist ethos in both the US and the UK. The British government’s foreign policy is increasingly personalized around Boris Johnson’s  leadership, amid rumors that he may still  appoint Farage as UK ambassador to the US. The Ukraine drama has revealed in explicit detail how career diplomats were sidelined or completely removed by political appointees and shadow practitioners, above all Rudi Giuliani

Systemic challenge

If associated with key personalities, the larger forces behind their success merit sustained analysis beyond this blog, or indeed the special issue of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy (HJD) to which I contributed an article. As I referred to, one of the main causes of the systemic challenge to diplomacy and diplomats is the process of dis-intermediation. That is to say, a process in which diplomacy and diplomats appear to be disconnected from the interests and identity of their domestic societies. This dynamic in turn is exacerbated by the ability of hyper-empowered individuals to tap into this feeling of neglect and frustration. Using both traditional and social media, these individuals push to make a direct and emotional appeal to their supporters.

Diplomats and diplomacy must now adjust to these new conditions. Optimists, of course, can argue that the Trump and Johnson challenge is an aberration that will pass. At least in Western Europe and Canada, at the national level, this attitude is reinforced by the impression that the ascendancy of populism has stalled.

Yet, across the spectrum of countries that have been in the forefront of innovative and progressive forms of public diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, it is clearly not ‘business’ as usual. Even countries that have blunted the populist challenge such as France, Canada, and New Zealand rely very heavily on individual leaders (Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern) – as opposed to professional diplomats – for their international branding. Such a dependence plays into the impression that diplomats have lost their salience.

Consolidating the client base

The only reliable and authentic path by which diplomats and the institution of diplomacy can regain standing is to convince their citizens that they are valuable. In many ways, this approach is highly instrumental in flavor. As highlighted in the HJD in a number of recent issues, demonstrating value relies on transactional elements: whether a greater focus on commercial diplomacy or on consular activity. Such activities help consolidate the client base for diplomats as well as diplomacy.

Yet instrumental purpose cannot be the only way forward. On 31 October, I was one of the speakers at an event in Berlin on Cultural Diplomacy in the Age of Populism, co-organized by the USC Centre on Public Diplomacy and the Embassy of Canada to Germany.  This is an important topic as the cultural and diplomatic communities face the same perceived images of being embedded, not only with elitism but also pluralism: another anathema for populists.

Expanding  the ambit of culture, widely defined, offers one important route for pushing back on the emotional attraction of populism: with a renewed orientation towards linking public diplomacy to the promoting of aspirational narratives about the dreams of members of domestic society in all of its rich diversity. To use various Canadian examples, public diplomacy must tap into not only the narratives of famous authors such as Margaret Atwood, who appeared in October at the Frankfurt book fair with a strong message concerning literature as a vehicle for engagement, or celebrities such as Drake, with his message of a diverse ‘We The North’. Canadian public diplomacy can equally capitalize on the inwards and outwards projection of stories from aspirational immigrants. 

Revitalizing diplomacy

Of course, a concerted push back against populism cannot be accomplished by cultural means alone, especially with an emphasis on proxies rather than professional diplomats. Nonetheless, such a creative linkage is indicative that diplomacy can no longer be a mere outward-directed activity. If diplomacy is going to be revitalized at the core of the international system, there must be a domestic turn: a form of animation that embeds its machinery and institutional expression in everyday societal life inside as well as outside national boundaries

To read Cooper’s HJD article on Adapting Public Diplomacy to the Populist Challenge press here.

Andrew F. Cooper is a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo. He is a recent recipient of Distinguished Scholar Award of the Diplomatic Studies Section in the International Studies Association.

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