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The new age of diplomacy requires heightened expertise and foresight

Today, new diplomatic challenges, once a tide, now a tsunami, urgently demand a more agile, multidisciplinary and anticipatory strategy. 

In March 2021, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report stated that “The scale of transnational challenges, and the emerging implications of fragmentation, are exceeding the capacity of existing systems and structures.” Modern anticipatory diplomacy is already showing excellent promise. However, rapidly evolving global challenges show that more progress is a top priority.  

Among the foremost new steps is the effective inclusion of academic and practical scientific expertise directly into the diplomatic process. In fact, the speed at which the foreign policy community openly integrates scientists and technologists will substantially affect future global stability. 

A growing chorus of high-profile reports supports this approach. In November 2020, the American Diplomacy Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center highlighted the need for greater expertise. An American Academy of Diplomacy study in February 2022 calls for more multilateral diplomacy and more effective U.S. interagency coordination. In January 2020, Duke University’s Rethinking Diplomacy Program, where I am a fellow, was launched, and in 2022, detailed its call for a long horizon, anticipatory diplomacy in the State Department and the U.S. government. Buttressing these initiatives is State’s strong commitment to a more diverse representative Foreign Service.  

State’s Modernization Plan, announced by Secretary Antony Blinken in October 2021, is reshaping the future of American diplomacy to include four important components: (1) wider and earlier employment of multilateral diplomacy, (2) a more cohesive, formal look forward to identify global problems to be managed before they become crises, (3) greater leveraging of the U. S. convening power to strengthen the rules-based international order and (4) a vigorous fact-based approach based on science. Work underway with key allies to expand multilateral efforts and the State Department’s strengthening of diplomatic skills and technical education further these aims. 

The department now should begin to proactively identify issues for multilateral diplomacy work. This includes linking United Nations diplomacy on global issues with the adoption of rules and behavioral norms. 

An excellent example of successful U.S.-led diplomatic collaboration is its efforts to respond to Russia’s November 2021 direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons test (DA-ASAT). That test created a dangerous field of space debris and threatened the International Space Station. After banning DA-ASATs itself in April 2022, the U.S. pushed for a 154-nation agreement in November 2022 to adopt a U.N. resolution opposing DA-ASAT use.  

Other U.S. initiatives are underway. The new U.S. National Cybersecurity Strategy announced on March 2, will facilitate international discussions on cyber. On March 2, 2022, U.N. member states took the penultimate step to finalize an international agreement on plastic pollution by 2024; the U.S. is a major actor. With the successful Artemis Accords, the U.S. is energizing the process of setting space norms prior to the return of humans to the moon. Washington now should seize the opportunity and convene an International Space Summit to accelerate these discussions. 

Within the U.S. government, there is no downside to requiring agencies to scan a decade ahead for issues that need attention now. Nor is there any obstacle to more concerted interagency coordination to frame a common, long-term strategic view. The policy planning centers at the State Department, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the analysts within the intelligence community have the talent. Extending the strategic time horizon allows more time for creative options. 

We are seeing more selective adherence or even non-compliance with treaty provisions. Russia will maintain the cap on the number of its strategic missiles while rejecting inspection and verification. The Outer Space Treaty holds a country liable for damage by its space vehicles, but the provision is ignored. China joined the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOS) but refuses to recognize the South China Sea as high seas. 

On the positive side, while the U.S. has never ratified the LOS Treaty, Washington cites chosen provisions routinely to support its views. Washington also embraces the U.N. High Seas Treaty aiming to safeguard biodiversity and sensitive marine areas in 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. This agreement could eventually provide a framework for dealing with extractive activities and sovereignty issues in space.  

It also makes sense to focus on best practices and behavioral norms regionally and globally. This emphasis may lead to productive global discussions. Sub-global and regional agreements allow interested countries to deal with challenges outside of larger agreements or arrangements. Regional fisheries agreements and management organizations involving U.S. engagement are key examples. The U.S. also has a new envoy for Arctic issues, and new defense funding for the region is planned with allies. 

Earth’s seas are an essential part of humankind’s global commons, as is outer space. Law of the Sea language is now also being applied to outer space to address issues that once were science fiction: space debris, the militarization of space and resource extraction. Space may be the clearest current example of a pre-conflict scenario that lacks prominent diplomatic attention. 

Finally, COP27 has codified the issue of climate change loss and damage, with attention turning to accountability and funding. 

Science and diplomacy must be active partners to tackle these challenges. Science guides diplomacy toward possible solutions; diplomacy guides science to implementable results. The State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs recently announced a seventh cohort of science envoys, the largest and most diverse in history.   

Diplomacy now comes with adjectives like climate, space, ocean, health, digital, data and artificial intelligence, water, food and cyber. American diplomacy, as befits its mission, must be anticipatory, catalyzing and consensus building, mitigating future risks before they indeed overwhelm our capacity to react.  

W. Robert Pearson is a fellow with the Duke University Rethinking Diplomacy Project, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003), former director general of the Foreign Service, and a scholar with the Middle East Institute. 

Tags American diplomacy Antony Blinken Foreign policy Politics of the United States State Department

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