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Blog Post | Adapting Diplomacy to a Changing Global Order

In March 2022, a considerable number of non-Western countries abstained (35) or voted against (5) a resolution deploring Russia’s aggression, its violation of the UN Charter and demanding the withdrawal of its forces from the territory of Ukraine. Even fewer countries subsequently actively supported sanctions against Russia. It was a geopolitical reality-check for the West that should not have come as a surprise, but highlights the need for new diplomatic partnerships.

Over the past decades, there has been increased discontent in the Global South about their underrepresentation in the international system, the perceived double-standards of the West and unfulfilled promises with regard to climate finance, vaccinations and debt relief. The liberal world order has been considered for a longer time as inherently illiberal by many of their populations and according to some even based on principles of global white privilege.

While the analysis of these issues is in itself not new, the current global order in which they unfold themselves  makes these issues even more striking. At the start of the 20th century, one in four persons on the planet were European. Now, this is one in seven, and in 2050 this will be one in ten. Around mid-century the three most populous countries will be India, China and Nigeria. The combined wealth of the US and the EU will decline from 40% of global GDP to a projected 25% in 2050. There is also a growing competition between the Western model of democracy and liberalism, and an alternative offered by increasingly revisionist powers, that wish to dramatically change or put an end to the current system, such as China and Russia. Less than half of the world population nowadays lives in a democracy. As the demographic and economic weight shifts from West to East and South, rising middle powers such as India, Brazil and South-Africa expect to be treated on an equal footing and demand a bigger say on global issues. Therefore, if the EU and the US want to safeguard our values and interests well into the future, they  should build a broader platform beyond the West.

Letting go of Eurocentrism

This is duly recognized by EU political leaders. Dutch Foreign Minister Hoekstra pleaded for a “stronger, more assertive diplomatic stance”, “paying greater heed to the interests of our interlocutors” and the need for more intensive contacts with both old and new partners in Africa, Asia and South America because: “what you give attention to will grow”. A less fortunate floral metaphor was used by EU High Representative Borrell when he spoke to the European Diplomatic Academy about EU as a “garden” and rest of the world as a “jungle”.  He did, however, point out that “we have to be much more engaged with the world”. Chancellor Scholz stressed that “such partnerships must abandon the Eurocentric view of decades past. (…) They must be partnerships that not only claim to take place at eye level, but which ensure this”.

The diplomatic machinery needs to adapt to this new reality. First of all, it calls for a change in attitude and actions. The fact that the power balance changes, compels Western nations to adopt a different tone and attitude. This means that we should really be listening instead of explaining when it comes to challenges that require us to work together. On matters where our opinions differ, we should engage in dialogue, without taking a superior or sanctimonious attitude. It also implies an adjustment of diplomatic time invested in these conversations. As an example, political and senior civil service should travel more often to rising non-Western countries, as well as democratic frontrunners in these regions.

Secondly, this new agenda requires actions and the need for the West to make an appealing proposition on substance in the form of enhanced policy offers. That will require an assertive diplomatic push on topics such as a comprehensive trade agreements, reform of international organizations, Global Gateway initiatives, climate financing, defence- and tech-cooperation and debates about our colonial past. Of course, such an agenda requires investing political and financial capital. An obvious example are the sensitive debates about trade. Trade agreements are partially a geopolitical game, a means to deepen the relationship with upcoming countries and provide a counterweight to the economic model of China. But trade agreements are also notoriously difficult to conclude domestically, as the debates in the Netherlands, France and other EU member states about Mercosur illustrate. But a lack of adjustment to the shifting world order would also come at a cost.

‘Global outreach’ or ‘strengthened engagement’

Conceptually, in the policy domain this approach is often referred to by terms as ‘global outreach’ or ‘strengthened engagement’. However, there are competing interpretations. One stresses a more short-term, transactional agenda where specific deals should support Western interest, compelling third countries to choose sides between the West on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. In principle, these deals (for example on defence , development, financial aid)  could be struck with both democratic and autocratic regime and need not be particularly value-driven. Apart from this quick fix, the other interpretation stresses the importance of a deeper understanding of the changing dynamics. It points towards the need to build durable, long-term relationships based on equality and shared values and interests. This fundamental shift in attitude and approach is very much seen as a generational effort. To bring these perspectives together and decide on a future-oriented geopolitical agenda is both politically and academically demanding.

The debate on how to adapt diplomatic practice to the rapidly changing global order is currently at the forefront of policy discussions within foreign ministries. Think tank publications and foreign policy magazines start to delve into this discussion. Although there is of course a wider academic literature on the international system, balance of power and historical inequalities, less scholarly thought has been given to what the combination of the current war, heightened global competition and the rise of the middle powers means for international relations and diplomatic statecraft. This is an invitation to start these debates, deepen the analysis and even provide policy recommendations. This would be extremely valuable in order to chart a future-proof course in building equal and mutually beneficial partnerships, which can uphold our values and interests in an increasingly insecure world.

Arjan Uilenreef is Strategy Director at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He obtained his doctorate at Antwerp University. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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