Diplomacy needed for networked age

Lord Ashdown in full flow

Pragmatic diplomacy of shifting alliances and networks will be the hallmark of diplomacy in an age of diffuse power and interdependence, Lord Ashdown told consuls.

Speaking at the final Consular Corps luncheon lecture of 2014, the former leader of the Lib Dems gave a tour de force, telling consuls that the world was entering a “terrible and turbulent” period of “power shift” in which power was migrating away from the nation state to the ungoverned “global space”.

Examples of this phenomenon include the globalisation of commerce, finance, media crime and terrorism which are not possible to manage from the confines of the nation state.

“One of the challenges of our time is to bring governance to the global space,” he said. “Diplomats will have to come up with a framework that holds global power to account.”

Ashdown said a new style of global governance was emerging in the form of pragmatic international treaty-based institutions that regulate the global space, such as the Kyoto Agreement or the International Court of Justice.

The diffusion power means the “monopolar world” with the US as superpower is changing into a multipolar world, he added.

“Diplomacy is going to look very different,” he said. “A multipolar world will look more like Europe in the 19th century, which was about a balance of powers. Back then it wasn’t about fixed alliances, only fixed interests.”

In this context, solving problems such as the threat of Islamic terrorism, and ISIL in particular, requires a more pragmatic approach, said Ashdown. The West will have to put their differences with Russia and Iran aside to defeat the more serious threat of the Islamic State, he said.

“ISIL will be defeated far more by diplomacy than by bombs and guns. We need to put together a wider coalition; we need Russia, we need Turkey involved, Iran; we need to have the Arab nations involved.”

Growing interdependence – where a crisis in one part of the world, such as Ebola or terrorism, spreads quickly – demands a more “networked” diplomacy, said Lord Ashdown.

“Successful diplomacy is not how much you can impose your will on others, but your capacity to influence and connect with others on common interests.”

The European Union is a good example of this kind of collaborative, joined-up diplomacy, he said, adding it would be “utter madness” for Britain to leave the union.

“But I fear we are now sleepwalking into a kind of English isolationism which is deeply damaging,” he said and urged British politicians to wake up and argue the case for Europe more forcefully.