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The hidden potential of Europe’s waning diplomatic power

Could Korea learn from diplomatic experience in today’s Europe? After all, whilst the economic risers of this world, in Asia and elsewhere, are beaming with confidence and brainstorming about what they can contribute to the new international order, many foreign ministries in the European Union are now depressing places.

Once-high-minded diplomats convinced of seemingly eternal Western superiority are licking their wounds, wondering what is left of Europe’s soft power. European diplomatic services are hard pressed to do “more with less,” some of them with very little.

Once the cradle of Westphalian diplomacy, European countries may still be well placed, though, to develop the kind of diplomatic structures and processes that the world needs in the 21st century. If European governments keep investing in their critically important networks of overseas missions, their future diplomacy may well punch above their economic weight.

We can already clearly see the beginning of a new order that questions age-old diplomatic principles. The Arab Spring is just one example that reveals a contradiction at the heart of Western diplomacy ― whether the diplomat should or should not intervene in the internal affairs of foreign states.

European governments required their diplomats to establish relationships with the opposition movement in Egypt and Libya at the same time as maintaining formal relations with the authorities. In more mainstream international relationships such interference is taken for granted, in fields such as climate change, health and human rights as well as familiar issues such as international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The tasks for European foreign ministries and like-minded countries in Asia are piling up. The changing global balance of power and geopolitical uncertainty ensure that governments will now demand more from their diplomatic services.

A big chunk of today’s diplomatic agenda focuses on the physical and economic security of the individual within the state, rather than of the state itself. This poses new challenges and requires global collaboration that goes well beyond governments to reach out to NGOs, and civil society in general.

Diplomats must learn to share the stage with a broad range of other governmental and non-governmental actors ― or become irrelevant. Their role changes from executor of policy and negotiator of agreements to facilitator of networks and social entrepreneur identifying possible civil society partners and the venues in which they can meet.

Post-modern Europe, with its strong international civil society, can and should deliver such a transition. But the world is not going Europe’s way. There has been a resurgence of more traditional geopolitical agendas.

Countries like Russia and China are more interested in the conflict over power, territory or resources than in resolving the issues of the new international security agenda. They also object to the implied interference in their own domestic affairs, with the promotion of direct links between professionals and civil society outside of their direct control. This poses serious problems for foreign ministries that need to deal with geopolitics and global issues at the same time.

This challenge coincides with another conundrum. As the hegemony which the U.S. enjoyed in the 1990s progressively weakens, and Europe does not look like a substitute, emerging powers place more emphasis on their own value systems and rules. China not only feels no necessity to fulfill its commitments under WTO entry, but also rejects Western financial systems and their rules. Saudi Arabia not only feels able to play geopolitics in Syria, but also asserts the superiority of Islamic banking systems over the Western, interest-obsessed alternatives.

A future of conflicting value systems offers countries and corporations considerable leeway in deciding which to use. It confronts future diplomacy with the challenge of managing more rather than less global diversity. Appeal to universal rules can no longer be relied on, and that complicates the task of Western countries and firms protecting their interests and assets.

These conflicts and uncertainties condition the roles government diplomats will play in the 21st century: facilitate global policy networks to engage the new security agenda; manage more traditional geopolitical relationships; manage the conflicts between the two; analyze and navigate the competing value systems and international rule sets; and long-term strategic analysis and planning. If Europe’s diplomacy is up to the task of serious reforms addressing these issues, its governments may still have a bit of an edge over fast-rising but still more “Westphalian” powers outside the Western world.

By Brian Hocking, Jan Melissen, Shaun Riordan and Paul Sharp

Jan Melissen is director of research at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael” in The Hague. He co-authored the report “Futures for Diplomacy: Integrative Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” together with senior visiting fellows Brian Hocking, Shaun Riordan and Paul Sharp.