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‘Anticipatory diplomacy’ would help us to better deal with crises

A sign near an entrance to the State Department is seen in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 22, 2022
Greg Nash
A sign near an entrance to the State Department is seen in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Diplomacy is about avoiding crises as much as solving them. Once a crisis is here, there is no choice but to deal with it in real time. A better way would have us foresee problems further in advance, give us more time to discuss them and develop a consensus around them, more flexibility in dealing with them, and a greater chance of ensuring resilience in the international system. 

An updated model for diplomacy — anticipatory diplomacy — would make it possible to confront global crises before they burst upon us. This approach means researching the years ahead to identify potential crises; engaging earlier and more often multilaterally to discuss the problems and shape consensus before crisis; partnering diplomacy with science to shape solutions; and using America’s power as convener to move issues from discussion to agreement.

American diplomacy now must cope with a number of major issues: the war in Ukraine, climate change, the effects of the pandemic, migration, energy supply, food security, economic recovery, and the unconstrained explosion of activity in outer space. Each of these issues affects us domestically. Solutions for each will depend on fact-based approaches. Science — soft and hard — is indispensable to good outcomes.

Reactive diplomacy — that is, responding when the crisis hits — no longer will suffice in many instances. Businesses, organizations, academic institutions, NGOs do forward-planning as a core function. The Department of Defense intentionally, and in detail, researches the future to plan for protecting the country. Why can’t American diplomats do the same?

Let’s try something that two American diplomatic giants — George Marshall and George Shultz — tried years ago in their stints as secretaries of State. We would:

  • Establish a structured process of policy research within the whole of the U.S. government, looking five to 10 years ahead; 
  • Build on the Biden administration’s commitment to the role of science. We would tighten the bond between science and diplomacy to have professional diplomats, working with scientists and technologists, engage earlier on issues where science is key;
  • Recreate the diplomacy and science career track at the State Department in the Foreign Service, with positions of authority at all levels, leading to an undersecretary for science and diplomacy;
  • Bring in participants from outside the government in working groups — private enterprise, nongovernmental institutions, and other stakeholders — to start discussions earlier and to speed up the policy process;
  • Go global: Use this model or one similar in dialogue with like-minded countries to encourage consolidation of expert and policy coordination; and
  • Integrate intelligence, either via selective declassification or by further elevating vital open-source intelligence products, to guide understanding of policy and diplomatic choices, as has been done recently, before and during Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The authors of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report of March 2021 highlighted one key statement in the report: “The scale of transnational challenges, and the emerging implications of fragmentation, are exceeding the capacity of existing systems and structures.” They made it clear what happens if America does not step up. No other country has the resources and foresight to help lead the effort described here, and no other country would be trusted to be as inclusive as the U.S. with that effort.

If years ago we had better predicted the scenarios happening today, we might have had time to better manage the issues and consider potential remedies. What if the United States had taken seriously Vladimir Putin’s warning words against NATO expansion in Munich in 2007? Would NATO have been motivated to reframe its approach to Ukraine to focus more on the country’s democratic and economic ambitions, rather than NATO membership? On disease, why did we not react more vigorously to the warning signs that were visible in 2002 to deal with the succeeding five pandemics so far of the 21st century? Did the climate change debate have to go as far as it did, or could we have treated the issue more urgently much earlier? Had we acted expeditiously, and with better judgment, on these issues, might the world be a safer place today?

To do a better job tomorrow, anticipatory diplomacy means turning to multilateral diplomacy more often, and earlier, regarding complicated issues. We should emphasize a broader, more diverse and collaborative multi-stakeholder process, and expand our foresight to see beyond only today’s issues to prepare for what may come. 

With that approach by the global community and a strategy for looking years ahead, U.S. diplomacy would be better prepared to face future challenges.

W. Robert Pearson is a fellow with the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies/Rethinking Diplomacy, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003), former director general of the Foreign Service, president of American Diplomacy Publishers Inc., and a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

Tags Diplomacy Foreign policy foreign service State Department

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