How changing rules of engagement sparked a diplomatic crisis for diplomats


International diplomacy is changing fast.

Career diplomats in Washington are increasingly finding themselves sidelined and distrusted by their own political masters.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, China’s foreign policy professionals are being schooled to prioritise nationalistic rhetoric over subtle negotiation.

Then there’s the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The days of discreet deal-making are quickly coming to an end amid the tweets and soundbites of modern political engagement.

It’s not all negative, of course, but many leading students of diplomacy worry about the future.

Here are three major trends to be aware of.

A distrust of diplomatic expertise (the United States)

When James D Melville resigned from the US diplomatic service in late June, he did so in protest.

The US ambassador to Estonia — a career diplomat — said he could not support the language and actions employed by Donald Trump against his European allies.

Mr Melville’s resignation caused a minor media blip, but it was hugely symbolic of the extraordinary change underway in the ranks of the US State Department.

Funding to America’s foreign affairs service has decreased by 30 per cent under Mr Trump’s brief tenure, to $US37.8 billion.

And according to Tuft University’s Monica Duffy Toft, more than 62 per cent of ambassadorial appointments are now political, with career diplomats shunted aside.

“Many career diplomats at the senior levels are stepping down,” Professor Duffy Toft says.

“That’s worrisome. Mid-level ones are sort of groping their way through it, and then junior people are not going in because they are seeing this denuded State Department.

“They’re not sure they’re going to have [the] great career that their predecessors had.”

Professor Duffy Toft says the prioritising of outsiders over career diplomats reflects the Trump administration’s distrust of public service expertise.

But she also says it demonstrates a long-running trend in the United States to value military might ahead of diplomatic prowess.

At $US600 billion, the US Department of Defence budget is more than 12 times that of the State Department. And intelligence and military personnel are increasingly being used as America’s chief agents of international affairs.

“Kinetic diplomacy is this idea of diplomacy by armed force, where special operators actually become the face of the United States,” Professor Duffy Toft says.

“They are the ones trying to get other countries to do what we want them to do.”

She points out that while America has a “special operations” presence in 149 countries, under Mr Trump only 85 of the United States’ 188 ambassadorial posts have so far been filled.

“There are some worrisome aspects with the use and the deployment of these special operations forces around the world,” she says.

That includes, she says, the lack of public scrutiny afforded by military operations.

Diplomacy as a tool of hyper-nationalism (China)

Like the United States, China’s diplomatic corps is also undergoing significant change.

Officially, the Government of Xi Jinping talks about harmonious foreign relations, but the Lowy Institute’s Merridan Varrall says there are worrying signs for the future.

A new breed of Chinese diplomat is being taught to be hyper-nationalistic, she says, and to identify the interests of the ruling Chinese Communist Party with those of the nation.

“The implications are for quite difficult times ahead in diplomatic negotiations and diplomatic discussions,” she says, warning foreign affairs cadres are being extolled to take an “us against them” approach to the outside world.

Dr Varrall, the director of the East Asia Program, spent eight years in China, during which she taught at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.

She says Chinese foreign policy centres around four key ideas:

  • That China has an historic destiny to be a great global power;
  • That it’s assertiveness is appropriate given past humiliations by Western colonial powers;
  • That China’s natural role in Asia is that of a “benevolent, but strict” father-figure;
  • And that all countries have certain immutable characteristics — Chinese people are peaceful, for example, whereas the Japanese are always aggressive and Americans inevitably imperialistic.

“If someone is so fixed in their views and so determined that they are right and unwilling to compromise, it’s going to make it very difficult to move ahead in a way that is mutually agreeable,” Dr Varrall says.

And, she says, that’s ultimately counterproductive for China itself.

“If you are wedded to these ideas about how others see you, and you are interpreting everything that they do and say through that particular lens, it’s going to be difficult to be as deft and as responsive as you need to be,” she says.

A rise in undiplomatic language and behaviour (everywhere)

One very noticeable recent trend has been the rise of what Professor Duffy Toft calls “personalised diplomacy” — Mr Trump being perhaps the best example and exponent.

From his one-on-one summits with Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin to his outspoken attacks on NATO and America’s European allies, critics say American foreign policy is increasingly being directed by his personal whim.

The same could be said of other “democratic” world leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — both of whom, like Mr Trump, claim a personal connection with their people through social media.

But overriding or ignoring the expertise of professional advisers carries significant longer-term risk, says Philip Seib from the University of Southern California.

“If you strip your foreign policy establishment of the people who are competent to design and build that foundation, eventually it’s going to collapse,” he says.

This, he says, risks turning international relations into a spectator sport.

“There is an expectation now that everything is going to show up on Twitter or everything is going to show up on YouTube,” Professor Seib says.

“I think it’s important not to become overly enthusiastic about the wonders of new communication tools.

“To some extent they complicate the processes of diplomacy.

The Australian National University’s Rory Medcalf says we are entering uncharted waters.

“A leader making a sudden U-turn on a policy via Twitter, more often than not the results are going to be destabilising and unpredictable, and our foreign ministries have generally not been trained or equipped to manage the damage,” he says.

Nor have they been trained to deal with the consequences of leaders using distinctly undiplomatic language.

While tyrants and their propagandists have long used hyperbole and personal insults to try and get their way, it was, until recently, rare to hear a democratic leader engage in such rhetoric.

But Mr Trump insults friend as well as foe, recently deriding his Canadian counterpart as “dishonest and weak” and labelling Mexico as a country of “rapists”.

Professor Seib says it’s about appealing to domestic politics.

“There’s a tendency to try to cater to that audience, to be more political than diplomatic,” he says.

“And I think the rise of social media fosters that kind of behaviour.”

Caitlin Byrne from the Griffith Asia Institute agrees, saying real tensions exist between politicians and professional diplomats, who often operate behind closed doors, official to official.

“Their audiences are much more confined,” she says.

“Whereas for political leaders, they may well be on the global stage, but the audience they are really trying to impress is the one that elects them.”

She points out that many senior US diplomats who regularly use colourful invective, like UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are political appointments.

But, she worries that such behaviour will eventually become the rule, not the exception.

“I do think we are at a point where we see the language replicated, mirrored and amplified, as well, through media to a point where it starts to be seen as normal, and there is some danger in that,” she says.