Broadly speaking, what we call 'diplomacy' is the art of managing any relationship in a sensitive and tactful manner. It may be both interpersonal, and international. We are concerned here with the latter. In this sphere such activity comprises verbal or written communication by agents of states, or other societal organizations intended to influence events, and obtain outcomes in the international systems. Hedley Bull, often seen as the founder of the Anglo-Saxon school of international relations, incidentally my mentor, had argued that the sovereign State is the ultimate social unit in the otherwise anarchical world. That is the current predominant universal wisdom. Accordingly, when states relate among one another, which they must constantly need to, they use the art diplomacy as the main instrument of foreign policy to guide their conduct. The age-old custom has been to use for this purpose a group of designated professionals called 'diplomats', who functioned out of institutions generically named 'Foreign Offices', reporting to their political masters. Over time, as global linkages grew more complex, there was a burgeoning sense that diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats. Just as, in the wake of the First Great War, the French Premier Georges Clemenceau observed that war was too important to be left to the generals!
The key traits required of diplomats were that they focus on interpersonal skills, communication, leadership, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence to navigate professional interactions. Their essential attributes were said to be an open and serious spirit, low ego and equal humor, and the ability to remain calm under pressure. They were usually men in grey or dark suits, or women of similarly indistinguishable attire, all designed to engender a serene monotony. There was another profession in the civic community, who were meant to share similar qualities, but with a methodological difference in how to achieve their ends, which was not by friendliness but by force. That was the military. Their uniforms, though often resplendent, also signaled a modicum of uniformity. Logically, eventually, the endeavors in pursuit of the goals of the uniformed military and the civilian diplomats in pursuit of the perceived self -interest of their States became enmeshed. As a result, a co-development in the arena of inter-State relationship was the emergence of military diplomacy.
This set of activities was carried out by representatives of the defense and security institutions which assisted the pursuit of foreign policy related to their responsibilities. This was different from other aggressive norms of external behavior such as gunboat diplomacy or other similar coercive means of achieving goals. The personnel belonged to the military but worked in aid of their civilian colleagues. Their tasks were more specific, gathering and analyzing information on threats and making assessments promoting cooperation and communication between militaries and defense establishments of other states, supporting arms trade and procurements and performing ceremonial duties with international counterparts. In embassies abroad, they acted as Military Attaches, and were the only other embassy personnel, who apart from the Ambassador required agreement from the host country, thereby giving their activities more precise recognition. Some countries, like Denmark, have also begun to appoint civilians as Defense Advisors.
The term 'defense diplomacy ', the subject of our discussions today, is related to both methods of State conduct in international relations I have just described. In contemporary times, following the Great War in Europe of 1914-1918, and the World War of 1939-1945, as well as the unsettling impacts of the Cold War of the decades that followed, there was an interesting conceptualization of a new and positive role of defense related diplomacy. One the one hand there was a felt need to demilitarize international relations to the extent possible and on the other, to provide a broader perspective to the function of the armed forces, beyond their offensive, defensive and deterrent roles. The result was what was called, in an emerging body of literature, 'defense diplomacy'.
If definition is, what logic teaches us, the explicit description of the connotation of a term, there is no universally accepted definition of the term 'Defense Diplomacy'. Here what clearly operates is the maxim that to define is to limit, and it is difficult to do so here because this concept is in constant flux, forever changing and adjusting to specific circumstances. But for our general conceptualizing, I shall cite some attempts at definition. According to a UK Defense Ministry Review in 1998, the term reflects a peaceful use of defenses in order to achieve positive results in the development of bilateral and multilateral relations with given countries. In this view, defense diplomacy did not include military operations, but promoted other kinds of activities like mutual visits of ships and personnel, bilateral meetings and dialogues, and exercises and training. UK researchers A Cottey and A Forster defined it as "peaceful and non-confrontational use of armed forces and related infrastructures as foreign policy and security tool".
While the concept has a western origin, there also has been Asian contributions to its expansion. Two experts from Singapore where I lived and worked for many years, Tang See Seng and Bhubhindar Singh gave it a wider connotation by adding the role of managers of the defense and military establishments. They saw it as "joint and coordinated application of peaceful initiatives of cooperation between the defense and armed forces leadership to build trust, counteract crisis and resolve conflicts". An Indian perspective was provided by Admiral Sunil Lanba when he saw this as part of a toolkit-these words are mine- for India's maritime diplomacy. He saw India's naval role as a set of actions in consonance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of SAGAR meaning 'Ocean' but used here as an acronym for "Security and Growth for All in the Region".
It would not be out of place at this stage to focus a little on the idea inherent in the soft and hard power applications in diplomacy by State and at times also non-State actors. The term "soft power", first coined by Professor joseph Nye in the late 1980s denotes the persuasive approach to international relations involving the use of social, economic and cultural influences. Nye argued that the US could use non-coercive power to help establish itself as a world power, using culture and ideology for the others to follow its lead. The Chinese lent substance to this idea by incorporating, as China often does, a 'Chinese way'. Beijing 's current 21st Century version of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the Chinese soft power path to the fruition of Zhang Guomeng or China Dream. The flipside of the coin is "hard power", the coercive approach to international relations, frequently involving military might. It involves the use of force or threats to do so to make others comply. There are also examples of the same tool, such as economic clout, used for both purposes, as soft power when used in the form of market access or investments, or hard power when used in sanctions. 'Defense Diplomacy' is somewhat similar, and can be used both to cajole, and that failing, to coerce.
While there is no agreed definition of 'Defense Diplomacy', there is a broad consensus that as an expression of network diplomacy, it links the implementation of foreign policy objectives to those of the Defense sector. By bringing to bear the manifold manifestations of both 'soft' and 'hard' power on any given issue, it demonstrates that Defense diplomacy, if appropriately conducted, and when not misused as a weapon of political control, can be an invaluable instrument of statecraft as the title of our discussion suggests.
I should like to enter a caveat here, though. Concepts such as 'Defense Diplomacy' do not constitute water-tight silos in the intellectual realm and are often created to assist research and also introduce some discipline in strategic thinking and planning. In the long run, these have got to be a part of any nation's integrated foreign policy.
UN Peacekeeping operations, in which Bangladesh plays so important a part, are a supremely important instance of 'Defense Diplomacy'. Another is how militaries of powerful countries have begun to round off perceptible sharp edges by simply responding to sentiments such as gender-balance. An excellent example would be, as is now seems very likely, by the appointment as the Army Chief in the UK of Lieutenant General Sharon Nesmith, a woman.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
Leave a Comment
A reception was hosted at Baridhara on November 29, 2023, celebrating ...
In its most urgent and scathing statement yet on the situation in Bang ...