The Need for Defence Diplomacy

Jim Murphy MPBy Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Defence Secretary

The globalised world in which we live, with its rapidly evolving modern threats combined with budgetary pressures for almost all nations, means coalition-building and greater international co-operation are central to modern defence policy.  Maximising global reach and influence today demands new partnerships and collaborations with governments and publics around the world.  A strong multilateral defence policy, therefore, is a necessary response.

Multilateralism in defence must span all aspects of policy, from generating equipment programmes to supporting multinational institutions, from capacity building in developing nations to deeper bilateral partnerships. Public diplomacy can also contribute to this  modern arsenal.

Public Diplomacy is not new. The Roman Republic invited the sons of neighbouring kings to be educated in Rome. The Greek Ptolemaic dynasty constructed the Great Library of Alexandria. Napoleon planned to order the entire French Army in Egypt to convert to Islam to help establish French rule. In defence policy today public diplomacy can be a key plank of our preventative strategy.

The Globalised World and Defence Policy  

Foreign and domestic policy goals are becoming incrementally and irreversibly interdependent. What’s happening in almost any corner of the globe affects us all. A family in Birmingham, Alabama’s worries about fuel prices will be as acute as those in Birmingham, England. If you commute to New York from Chatham, New Jersey, you’ll share the concerns about terrorism felt by those who commute into London each day from Chatham, Kent.

Today prosperity, security, liberty and civil liberties at home cannot be separated from events beyond our borders.  Increased interdependence is the principal driver of today’s transformative security landscape.  Threats are shared, so too must be solutions. Global terrorism, global warming and global recession should prove that the biggest security threats cannot be tackled alone.  Threats are also changing.  Most states are no longer threatened by territorial expansion of other states but by new trends which have no respect for territorial boundaries, for example strands of extreme religion, climate change or new technologies.

A New Multilateralism in Defence  

There are two potential responses for policy makers and politicians. One is to run and, inevitably unsuccessfully, hide, and the other is to engage.  The only real option is to engage with foreign governments and connect with foreign publics.

For government-to-government engagement, there is a need for new defence partnerships. Interoperability, sharing expertise and co-operation over procurement are all crucial to efficiently enhance capabilities. The bilateral agreement signed with France is a positive first step and should be extended to other groups of European nations. For the UK there is particular potential for partnerships with Nordic states.

Strengthening multilateral institutions is also essential. Democratic procedures by which international decisions can be made must be more flexible and representative, burden sharing should be more equal and they should be the driver of greater co-ordination over equipment programmes. I want to see the UK playing a strong role in strong multinational organisations, which is significant given our unique diplomatic reach, but we should also champion strengthened regional groupings such as the African Union and Arab League and so should help build their capacity and encourage their participation.

A real emphasis on defence multilateralism should also mean a new approach to conflict resolution through regional political reconciliation. In Afghanistan, Libya and Syria the diplomatic engagement of regional neighbours is – in their different ways – vital. Defence and security policy is strengthened if executed through political alliances from the areas towards which policy is focused.

Defence Diplomacy

Defence relations, however, are about more than government to government working, and these relationships should be complemented by more effective government to people engagement. Publics are now vital players in international policy. They have a greater say in the decisions their governments make, while the decisions they make about their own lives can have a direct impact on the rest of the world, whether by repudiating terrorism or by changing their own behaviour to prevent climate change.

Today defence diplomacy should aim to minimise hostility, build and maintain trust and assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces and military strategies.  Conflict prevention and resolution can be enhanced by the domestic and international consent which can arise from greater and more effective engagement.

Policy-makers and diplomats must work with a wider range of constituencies beyond government, moving towards a more open, inclusive style of policy-making and implementation.

In my view there are four challenges in this area.

First, good communication at home and overseas.  An aim of many modern conflicts will be to deny opponents the nourishment of popular support and for that we need to compete for the hearts and minds of those we set out to protect. In the conflict in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida know the importance of their own pernicious public diplomacy. The Taliban leadership renovated printing presses in the 1990s and media soon became part of their operational fabric.

Military success is increasingly reliant on winning an argument through modern communications. This means being clear about the intentions behind military actions as well as countering our enemies’ propaganda.  During the Kosovo conflict there were three daily press conferences aimed at the populations in the Balkans and world opinion. Compare that with the current approach to Afghanistan, where there is very limited public discourse about the purpose behind our involvement. Public opinion across Europe has in cases become understandably reticent about Afghanistan and governments have suffered serious political damage. Some governments are now unilaterally announcing accelerated withdrawal dates and domestic consent for future military action, even with UN approval, will be harder to achieve with publics weary and wary from more than a decade of war.

Governments need to do a better job of explaining and discussing Afghanistan with their own publics. Here that includes the previous Labour government. More significantly today’s Government is failing to make the case for Afghanistan. Winning the hearts of Afghans is essential but retaining the consent of the people of Britain is compulsory. Consent for a strong defence policy across and within British communities relies on effective communication, but not enough is being done. This is now an essential challenge.

Government refusal to make a sustainable case for why we are in Afghanistan makes it harder to make the case for a necessary lasting commitment to that country, which remains in the national interest, but also for future interventions. We must start now, and all parties must be better at explaining our intent while also fostering serious debate at home and abroad, in particular with Muslim communities, breaking down the barriers between the military, political and civilian worlds.

The second challenge is understanding that good communication means listening. Public diplomacy is not public relations, nor is it about more military attaches. We need genuine engagement.

We must engage with foreign publics throughout the policy cycle, taking account of people’s views when we implement not just formulate policy. Ed Murrow, former director of US Information Agency, tells an anecdote about him telling President Kennedy that if Murrow was expected to be there at the crash landing of a policy he expected to be there at the take off. For modern public diplomacy substitute the US Information Service of the 1960s with the foreign publics of today.

Defence diplomacy can do more to move from a culture of secrecy to one of openness. There will rightly always be state and diplomatic secrets. I am not naïve about this. But our default position must be dialogue with a huge range of stakeholders.   In many countries power has shifted from the elites to the public. Through the Arab Spring we have seen this take place before our eyes.  The challenge now is how we can forge a shared security agenda with other nations’ governments, their businesses, their civic institutions, their populations.

In the past, we could find the people of influence in a foreign country relatively easily – in smart clubs and large houses in capital cities. Now it’s harder and that’s good, but we need to seek out stakeholders not just from the corridors of power, but also the slums, the business districts and the suburbs.

Our third challenge is to change our approach to building the knowledge we hold as the UK.  To understand more about the cultures of the countries on our security radar so we are able to apply specific solutions to the issues they face, not generic rules of governance or development, we must have the right skill-sets within our government departments at home and embassies around the world.

We need more people based around the world on the ground learning the languages, customs and thought processes of local people whose interests we aim to protect and whose support that relies on.  Like so much else, defence diplomacy must be rooted in the knowledge which derives from lived experience.

The fourth challenge is making use of the internet, which has the potential to change fundamentally how policy makers generate knowledge and engage with domestic and foreign publics. Hilary Clinton recently said that, ‘[I]n the 21st century, the US is convinced that one of the most significant divisions between nations will be not between East or West, nor over religion, so much as between open and closed societies.’ Making use of the internet through policy is central to securing, expanding and fostering openness since common projects and ideas between people from across the world can be established by communicating and collaborating online. Sharing new thinking globally, wide and transparent policy development and consultation and global campaigning are all now possible if defence ministries become genuine participants in the online conversation.

Conclusion: Achieving Fusion Between Government and Public  

One of the ironies of a more interconnected world is that many people have a stronger sense of their unique cultural, social and political heritage.  If a new defence diplomacy strategy is to be successful it must understand local idiosyncrasies better in order to retain the consent of those we wish to help.   In the past defence policy was often about fissures – rivalries between states, competition between cultures. That can of course still be the case, but the difference today is that fissures can be overcome by fusion – the collaboration of governments and publics around the world in the pursuit of shared priorities.

The article was originally published by RUSI – you can read that version here.

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