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  • Writer's pictureSeckin Barıs Gulmez / Associate Professor of IR

How to Conduct A Post-Western Diplomacy in A Post-Western World?

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

International affairs in the emerging post-Western era proves elusive for diplomats, and the Covid-19 pandemic further constricts diplomatic practice. Diplomacy and diplomats must adjust to these new realities if they want to survive in the post-liberal age. Diplomacy is not a liberal creation, but it is viewed by populist governments as a liberal instrument at the hand of the West. When Liberal International Order is contested and discredited, so is diplomacy. Diplomacy must be redefined as a global phenomenon beyond the West. Therefore, a post-Western outlook is necessary to reorient diplomacy and empower diplomats in a global context. This should involve the hybridization of diplomatic theory and practice blurring the boundaries between the East and the West. This means empowering the non-Western cultural, political and philosophical elements in diplomacy without alienating the West.

Therefore, what diplomats require is a new type of diplomatic style, i.e. ‘post-Western diplomacy’ to adapt to the emerging post-liberal international environment. Some Western diplomats have already attempted to reflect a post-Western outlook in their diplomatic activities. So far, three features come forward. First, diplomats employ ‘hybrid practices’ mixing up Western and non-Western cultural elements to be more appealing at foreign courts. Harry Harris, the US Ambassador to Seoul, shared in social media a video clip where he mixes up American Whiskey with Korean fruits and spirits to transform traditional Western cocktails into hybrid ones. He also blended Western and Oriental flavours to create a hybrid omelette. However, these hybrid practices failed to have the expected impact, since his Japanese heritage continued to arouse suspicion and contestation in Korea.

Hence, employing hybrid practices alone does not guarantee success in diplomacy especially when diplomat’s credibility in the eyes of the host society is already under question. Besides, such practices can be interpreted as cheap tricks to gain leverage over the host government. Therefore, diplomats may be required to go into a deeper commitment to ‘win hearts and minds’.

The second feature of post-Western diplomacy is called ‘acculturation’ which indicates a deeper commitment to host society. Accordingly, diplomats internalize some of the cultural elements in host country and use them for public interaction. This is more than just mixing up Western and non-Western elements. It entails self-identification with host society’s culture triggering a joint sense of belonging and creating a public image that a foreign diplomat can become ‘one of us’. Richard Moore, former British Ambassador in Ankara is an outspoken supporter of Besiktas Football Club, one of the three Turkish giants. He had a Besiktas flag hanged on the Embassy building in celebration of the club’s Turkish premier league title. He then became a board member of the club. Besiktas fandom made him a public figure in Turkey. Before his departure, he appeared in a farewell video clip where he shouted Besiktas’ famous ‘Black/White’ chant. His legacy lasts even after he moved back to London. His successor Dominick Chilcott picked up where Moore left off and declared on social media his support for Fenerbahçe FC, another Turkish Football giant.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

The final feature of post-Western diplomacy is ‘hybrid identities’. A diplomat with diverse ethnic background may serve as an excellent asset for mediation between the government s/he serves and her/his country of origin. Gary Locke, an American diplomat of Chinese origin, played a critical role during his tenure as US Ambassador to Beijing in easing out tensions between the US and China. He used his Chinese heritage as a strong soft power instrument. Shortly after arriving to Beijing, Locke visited his family's ancestral village of Jilong, in southern China becoming a highlight in Chinese media and raising sympathy within Chinese public. He then acted as a mediator between the two governments both in the Wang Lijun crisis in February 2012 and regarding the escape of the activist Chen Guangcheng’s to the US embassy in May 2012. He was even praised in media as ‘the Best-Ever American Ambassador’ to China. However, ethnic heritage may not always be an advantage as observed in the case of Harry Harris. His Japanese heritage became a problem in Korea. He should have been assigned to Japan instead of Korea. Governments should be extra careful in assigning diplomats overseas.

Post-Western diplomacy exemplified by, but not limited to, the above features, may help diplomats reassert their importance in the ‘post-liberal’ age. It may increase diplomats’ credibility both at home and at the host country conferring them a mediating role in bilateral issues. It may not solve the problems between populist statesmen and diplomatic bureaucracy, but it can help diplomats escape from being stigmatized as elitist proving that diplomacy is not a mere instrument of Western imperialism.

On the other hand, diplomats should address two potential hurdles. First, unless institutionalized, these practices may rather remain as individual cases whose effectiveness depends on individual experience. Therefore, governments should embrace post-Western diplomacy as an official policy line and seek to generate ‘post-Western’ recipes for establishing diplomatic dialogue with others. Alternatively, post-Western diplomacy can also be embraced by international corps diplomatique as a viable code of conduct among diplomats. This may strengthen solidarity among diplomats of various nationalities and encourage peaceful dialogue.

Second, embracing a foreign culture may lead to accusations of localitis, i.e. going native, in which diplomat ‘loses touch with sentiments at home’ or even acts as a ‘mouthpiece’ for the host government. This could compromise diplomat’s credibility at home, while trying to raise it abroad.

Diplomats should seek a balance between their post-Western initiatives and commitments to their official duties to prevent any false accusations.

Overall, this article offers a way out for diplomats emphasizing the need to embrace a post-Western outlook to survive in the emerging post-liberal age. By blending Western and non-Western elements into diplomatic practice, diplomats can find innovative ways to communicate at foreign courts. Infusing the cultural elements of host society into their own life, diplomats can become principal enactors and carriers of public diplomacy. Finally, diplomats with multiple cultural identities can act as mediators between the government they represent and the country of their origin. A post-Western diplomatic style may help diplomats redefine their role in a changing international order and reassert their value in foreign affairs.

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