Diplomacy and Developing Nations: Post-Cold War foreign policy-making structures and processes

*(Routledge: London, 2005) pp. xi 280, ISBN-10: 0714654035

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Guest Review by Kishan S. Rana

This book is a valuable addition to the slim body of literature on foreign ministries and the process of external policy making. The book is all the more welcome as it examines the situation in that large part of the world that is all too often overlooked in scholarly works. The editors have marshaled a fine collection of essays that examine the situation in Brazil, China, the Eastern Caribbean, Egypt, Ghana and Malaysia. The country studies are balanced with overviews that consider the Westphalian frame, the choices that US dominance imposes on the Third World, the emergence of new diplomatic tools, especially information technology, and the role of the non-state actors, besides a concluding essay on narrowing distinctions among states.

The introductory essay by Justin Robertson presents a novel typology of foreign policy processes as a frame of reference for the entire book (he had edited a pioneering collection in 1998, also focused on developing states, in a special issue of the journal International Insights, published by Canada’s Dalhousie University). Robertson identifies six dominant patterns that can be applied to the making of external policy:

  • Conventional diplomacy is described as systems where security considerations dominate, though the neo-realism in such countries is moderated by the interplay of domestic factors and the country’s institutional elements. Egypt and Malaysia are presented as examples.
  • ‘New state capacity’ is juxtaposed as the counterpoint to the above, where the foreign ministry plays the role of coordinator, the institutions that influence policy are networked externally, and virtual diplomacy is also deployed. This segues into niche diplomacy, and countries small in size, such as the Seychelles, show greater adaptability than larger states.
  • ‘Capital-driven’ is another category, states where economic ministries play a dominant role, leading to the ‘competition state’, or globally networked central banks dominate, producing the ‘regulatory state’. Brazil and China are believed to show these tendencies, as also Trinidad.
  • ‘Marginalization’ of foreign ministries results when external powers and international institutions dictate policy. The expansion of US military bases abroad, the ‘imposed consensus’ practiced by the US and the UK in relation to international standards, and the conditions imposed by the IMF are offered as instances. Ghana is a country that suffers from weakened autonomy in such situations.
  • ‘Elite survival’ becomes the object of foreign policy in weak states, where the dominant domestic groups pursue international relations for their own survival. This is the case in Rwanda and in other unspecified African countries, as also in the Middle East.
  • Foreign policy ‘privatization’ occurs when domestic actors, such as business groups acquire dominant influence over policy, or guerilla factions become powerful and tap into international resources, as in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zaire.

Such classification raises anew the inherent contradiction between empirical study and theorization, given the multifarious elements that govern the situation in each country, and the dynamic evolution that occurs continually. For instance in 1997-98, immediately after the Asian Crisis that severely crippled the economies of several SE Asian countries, one might have described Thailand, which accepted the bitter prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF, as a country that had surrendered policy autonomy and was dominated by these international institutions—a stark contrast to Malaysia which rejected external prescription, and did not do any worse for that. But even for Thailand that was a passing phase, and it would be a gross error to label that country as anything but fully independent, even innovative, in its policy-making.

What this book describes as privatization or elite survival types of foreign policy are often characteristic of failing states, or are found in states that are under severe stress. Again, these are useful analytical concepts, but their value as classification typologies is questionable.

Where classification is useful is in allowing us to identify and isolate specific trends, to examine these in comparative terms. But if we attempt to treat such trends as dominant factors, this leads us towards sweeping and erroneous generalization. In most cases the real situation is a mix of several factors. Further, there exist ‘traditional’ systems where little change or adaptation has taken place in the diplomatic process, owing to the resistance of the entrenched system, and unwillingness to consider new options.

Another point that sometimes comes up in commentaries on foreign ministries—and features en passant in this book—is that developing countries have aped Western institutions and processes in their diplomacy, rather than beaten their own path. Does the international system offer any other choice? Those critics that offer this comment do not themselves suggest alternatives. We might think back to the early days of the October Revolution, when the newly-coined Soviet Union briefly attempted its own diplomatic style. So did Libya in the 1980s, in its revolutionary zeal. Neither of these led to anything. What the post-colonial era has produced is pluralization in some forms of diplomatic practices, such as colorful national attire, and more relaxed practices in international discourse—ASEAN’s golf diplomacy—without affecting the real content of diplomacy. We might also observe that there is now something called an ‘Asian way’ or an ‘African style’, but these are subtle or minor variations around a standard method of inter-state discourse.

Maurice East’s elegant concluding essay offers useful insight. One broad conclusion offered is that differences between developed and developing countries are narrowing. That needs closer study, because my research suggests a somewhat contrary conclusion, that on average the gulf between the practitioners of ‘smart’ diplomacy and the traditionalists is widening, though all developing states cannot be placed in the latter catch-all group. East also offers four other conclusions:

  • In most countries, the internal and the external policies are closely tied, but we should see them as the factors guiding policies, and not as the perspectives behind policy.
  • Elites play a critical role in most countries. But is this not a truism, since any group that is in a leading position will be labeled as an ‘elite’? Do we really know of countries that are not led by elites?
  • Civil society is more active everywhere, and societal factors are at play in policy-making. But having said that, can we really assert that there are places where ‘citizen-based sovereignty’ is reality?
  • Regional diplomacy is active everywhere.

Everywhere, foreign ministries are in the midst of adaptation, as this book rightly concludes. One area that awaits research is the situation in the transition states of East and Central Europe, and Central Asia, where innovative change is underway.