DIPLOMACY AND THE POLITICS OF FEAR
High Commissioner for Cyprus Euripides L. Evriviades discusses this major twenty-first century challenge to the theory and practice of diplomacy and international relations
Sir Henry Wotton was an English author and a diplomat who served as Ambassador to Venice in the seventeenth century. He is known for his much used and abused maxim: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” What is forgotten is that Sir Henry also said: “Tell the truth and so puzzle and confound your adversaries.” And this I believe encapsulates, in many ways, modern diplomacy.
The life of a diplomat is indeed a peripatetic one. It is a life’s voyage. It is a long one; full of adventure; full of discovery; full of knowledge; analogous to the one mused by Constantine P. Cavafy in his classic poem Ithaca.
What has my journey taught me in almost 41 years in the service of my country? That diplomacy is by definition an art, a practice and a skill. It is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of foreign relations. Diplomats must also inject their public personas into the holistic promotion and protection of their countries’ interests. Diplomacy requires a thorough knowledge of both the country the diplomat is serving, and the country the diplomat is serving in; but a fine balance is required. Too much diplomacy with not enough knowledge may be dangerous; too much knowledge with too little diplomacy may be disastrous.
I will be one of the first to admit that diplomacy is not for the timid or for the weak. The sheer toll and tax on the diplomat is both physically and spiritually daunting. Yet despite frustrations, shortcomings and personal costs, the rewards and enrichment are immense. They are life-transformative.
One of the most pressing demands on diplomats nowadays is the imperative to keep apace with the dynamics of change, including technology and the 24-hour news cycle. Just as the world around us is changing rapidly in scale and scope, so too is diplomacy. As globalisation and interconnectivity are forging new and more rapid networks of communication and interaction, (some of them negative too), diplomats and diplomacy are trying to adapt and adopt new ways to address them. While the avenues for diplomacy have widened, the vehicles for diplomacy must adapt as well.
Some of the more profound developments in diplomacy stem from such global changes. Long gone are the days when President Jefferson (1801-09) famously instructed his Secretary of State: “We have heard nothing from our Ambassador in Spain for two years. If we do not hear from him this year, let us write him a letter.”
It is important to acknowledge the effect of advancing technology on modern diplomacy, which goes far beyond the traditional confines of relations between states, governments and international organisations: these are no longer the sole actors on the world stage. Diplomacy, for a number of years now, has increasingly been involving and incorporating the taxpayer and civil society. The citizen is no longer a mere spectator; s/he is a stakeholder. Diplomacy is no longer the sole purview of the diplomat. A plethora of international events have shown this vividly. Indicatively, one mentions the tumultuous events in Georgia, in Ukraine, the recently attempted Turkish coup and the mother of them all, the Arab Spring.
We live in a complex global environment. It is fragmented and unpredictable. As Heraclitus said 2,500 ago, all is in a permanent state of flux; nothing remains the same. Our rules-based international system is under constant threat and violation. It is honoured more in its breach than in its observance.
One of the key issues that modern diplomacy needs to address more resolutely is the politics of fear. There is a general sense of anxiety, uneasiness, despair and often outright fear within societies but also between countries. It is caused by poly-parametric and entwined situations, including many exogenous factors. Conflicts, wars, climate change, terrorism, economic disparities, the rise of violent extremism by non-state actors, press coverage, nuclear proliferation, pandemic deceases, migrants and the refugee crisis are just some cases in point. Many fears are legitimate, or at least understandable. Others are not. These problems are not for individual states to solve; they will be solved through multilateralism.
By politics of fear, I refer to the political capitalisation of this emotion, whether at the national or international level. People’s fears are exploited for political purposes and expediencies.
Fears are thus being extorted by some politicians who seek advantages by capitalising on this human feeling, thus creating an atmosphere of bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance and nineteenth century nationalism, which in turn creates more fear. It is a vicious cycle.
Candidates who base their narratives on the politics of fear will directly affect diplomacy and international relations if they are to be elected. For example, the outcome of the US presidential election is the most obvious case where the local/national affect directly the international. European politics are not an exception. The mere fact that populist politicians have seen their popularity soar is tangible proof that feeding on people’s fears actually works. Win or lose, their narratives have permanently altered political landscapes, and this is not necessarily a bad development. Since almost everything blurs together in our global village, politics of fear are enough to throw the conduct of traditional diplomacy off its tracks.
Diplomats have a significant role in alleviating the politics of fear through their actions and narratives, by turning declared policies into praxis. They should lead the debate, not react to it. They should engage in more systematic and robust ways with NGOs, businesses, faith groups, academics, the media and the diaspora communities, in alleviating the politics of fear through transparency and authenticity. It behoves diplomats to use all the diplomatic tools in their arsenal to try and repair our interwoven fabric. And here too correct use of social media plays an important role, but it is not a substitute for action.
In the prudent words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…”
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