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Reader riposte: Is diplomacy necessary?

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13 January 2011 15:44

An email from Daryl Morini:

Sam Roggeveen wrote, 'there's no room for human agency in this model; no sense that international relations is conducted by people who can be convinced, cajoled, threatened, flattered or even bribed.'

I could not agree more. Of course, power indices matter enormously in world affairs. But so do the choices and actions of individual diplomats, leaders and even citizens. For example, the recent history of US diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia (and South Asia) has been and will be written with such important actors as Richard Holbrooke in the foreground. Holbrooke did not alone decide the diplomatic settlement, or lack thereof, to these conflicts; neither did international systemic factors alone determine the US interventions in these parts of the world.

Similarly, Vladimir Putin does not alone decide on Russia's international standing as a great power; conversely, according to numerous Russian and international analysts, the present trajectory of Russian foreign policy would be inconceivable without the role of Putin as the leading partner in the ruling tandem. Finally, the actions and choices of private citizens (whether popular or not) in our day and age, including those of Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange, and George Clooney, seem to make a mockery of doggedly reductionist theories of international relations.

A useful way to conceive of this debate between the constraints of the international system and the agency of individual actors, I would like to suggest from my present location in besieged downtown Brisbane (my photo above), is that between the forces of nature and the reactive capacity of human beings.

Few would debate that the basic dynamic between nature and humans in a natural disaster resembles the realist Melian Dialogue: nature does as it will, humans do as they must. In other words, nature acts, humans react. That does not imply, however, that the destructive forces of nature determine the reaction of human communities and individuals.

A cursory look at the recent history of flooding in Brisbane would confirm this fact. During the 1974 floods, the relentless, impersonal forces of nature pummelled this city mercilessly. Local communities reacted as they could, with sandbags and stoic courage, but they were by and large forced to submit to the uncontrollable will and external constrains of Mother Nature.

Fast forward 37 years and the construction of one dam later, and we see that the reaction of human agents varies considerably. Obviously, the Wivenhoe Dam could not prevent the powerful natural elements from imposing their will upon local Brisbane communities (particularly not in the Lockyer valley, and especially not in Toowoomba). Nevertheless, careful and cautious human preparations, thorough contingency planning and a competently-executed disaster response by local authorities (as well as a largely controlled panic by private citizens) helped to mitigate the destructive forces of nature.

Human agents may only be reactive in their relation to the uncontrollable, and vastly more powerful, forces of nature, but their reaction determines the outcome of such a crisis as the present Brisbane floods as much as the actual external forces constraining and limiting human choice.

This analogy is useful in thinking about the agent-structure debate in international relations. Economic indices, military capabilities, geography, culture and technology are powerful forces shaping and constraining the decisions of leaders and policy-makers, but never determining them alone. Strategic planning, innovative policy initiatives and diplomatic choices are the collective reactions of human agents (who are the flesh, bones  and brains which always make up governments and nation-states) to those external forces.

Hence, leaders, diplomats and citizens perhaps cannot stop or wish away the vastly powerful constraining forces of the international system, but their decisions can make a world of difference between the outcomes of disaster and salvation, prosperity and poverty, war and peace.

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