As war rages in Europe and tensions rise across the Asia-Pacific region, diplomacy’s long-established pillars are being tested. In the following, we speak to some of the world’s top diplomats to gauge where their profession is heading.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked the failure of what was arguably the most intense period of diplomacy in Europe since 1939. Footage of Russian troops marching through the dawn shattered hopes that conversation would prevail: by April 2022, at least 394 Russian diplomats had been expelled from Western capitals, with a similar number of retaliatory expulsions. Yet the invasion also spurred a bravura push to punish Russia.
The US-led effort to impose sanctions on Moscow and arm Ukraine unified and revitalised the Western alliance. However, as the war approaches its second year and the world fractures into hostile blocs, it is hard to argue that diplomacy is winning. What is its future in a multipolar world? Are its key institutions fit for purpose? And what to do about an increasingly confrontational China? We make the case for dialogue over conflict and coercion.
“I thank the representative of the Russian Federation for their statement,” says Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, at the end of an incendiary speech by Vasily Nebenzya. It’s the 32nd anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, 18 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, and Thomas-Greenfield is chairing a UN Security Council briefing on the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Most ambassadors congratulate Ukraine on the anniversary and condemn the war; Nebenzya, who has been Russia’s permanent representative to the UN since 2017, uses his allotted time to accuse the country of being controlled by a “neo-Nazi” regime.
With the US holding the 15-member Security Council’s rotating monthly presidency, Thomas-Greenfield has little choice but to let Nebenzya speak. During the debate, she announces that she is switching hats from chair to US representative and issues a stern rebuke. “Children are literally being ripped from their homes in the year 2023 by a country sitting in this very chamber – by a permanent member of this council,” she says. “This is straight out of a dystopian novel but this is not fiction. This is real life.”
In an interview with monocle shortly after the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield acknowledges the emotional toll of such debates but says that there is value in them. “It’s emotional because it’s so horrible,” she says. “But it’s important for us to have these types of meetings so that Russia hears from all of us and the world hears about what it’s doing. I want Russia to feel our pain. I don’t think that it does but I want the country to hear it.”
Ecuador’s UN ambassador, Hernán Pérez Loose, points out that there have been almost 70 Security Council debates on Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began but the war continues. And Ukraine is not the only intractable conflict on which the Security Council is paralysed. The day before, Thomas-Greenfield presided over a meeting on Syria at which countries called for an end to the civil war and expressed their frustrations about the lack of a political solution. As in Ukraine, Russia has blocked Security Council resolutions condemning the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
UN ambassadors, however, insist that there’s still a future for diplomacy here in New York. “If we want to overcome these challenges, we can only do so by talking to each other,” Pascale Baeriswyl, Switzerland’s permanent representative, tells monocle. “Facilitating dialogue – that’s where multilateral diplomacy and the UN can still make a difference.”
When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022, Sergiy Kyslytsya resolved not to be “too emotional”. As Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, he knew that he would regularly encounter Russia’s delegation and it was necessary to keep a clear head. Kyslytsya says that he instructed his staff to limit how much footage of the war they watched, so that they too could maintain a certain emotional distance. In his speeches, Kyslytsya has called for Russia to be removed from the Security Council but he tells monocle that he also believes that the country’s presence works to Ukraine’s advantage. He says that many ambassadors have “grown tired of Nebenzya’s lies”, that only a handful of UN countries identify ideologically with Russia and that if the leaders of nations in the so-called Global South had to listen to the Russian representative regularly, they too might come off the fence and back Ukraine.
Kyslytsya believes that the Security Council remains a vital tool for public diplomacy. The council forces other countries “to go on record”, making hesitant nations consider their position on the war in Ukraine. Still, he acknowledges that the conflict has created a toxic atmosphere at the UN, which reached its nadir when Russia held the council’s presidency in April. “It’s not as easy as it used to be, particularly because Russia and China now have a ‘friendship without limits’,” says Thomas-Greenfield. Yet she cites small victories when it comes to the latter country. “We know that there are limits,” she says. “We see China abstaining occasionally on resolutions.”
However egregious its violations of the UN Charter, Russia is a permanent member with veto power, so there’s no practical way to kick it off the Security Council and the other countries have no choice but to work with it. Nonetheless, Thomas-Greenfield insists that the Security Council is still a productive diplomatic institution. “I hear a lot of people complaining that it’s not working but the council is working,” she says.
Crucially, it’s the only institution in which US and Russian ambassadors have regular interactions. Even closed-door meetings aren’t always fraught. “Sometimes they’re confrontational; sometimes they’re respectful, says Thomas-Greenfield. “If I need something done, sometimes it’s easier to ask for it in a way that isn’t confrontational.”
And there are plenty of things that need to get done. Though the Security Council is deadlocked on major conflicts, it regularly approves peacekeeping missions in a dozen countries, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cyprus. Thomas-Greenfield cites recent resolutions on thorny issues in places including Lebanon and Haiti. Some of these are about condemning a government; others concern practical matters, such as a multinational mission to address insecurity in Haiti.
Even Ukraine’s backers say that it’s useful to focus on other countries’ priorities too. “Solidarity is a two-way street: you have to understand the problems that others have,” says Rein Tammsaar, Estonia’s UN ambassador. “This is also my message to my capital: please keep in mind that there are many conflicts in the world, other countries are experiencing horrible situations and we have to try to help them as much as possible.”
This need to show solidarity is apparent even in Russia. “Moscow doesn’t like being isolated,” says James Kariuki, the UK’s deputy ambassador to the UN. “It needs friends. So if you have a set of countries, including those in Africa, calling out a coup in Niger, the Russians will join the consensus.”
Yet diplomacy is becoming harder. After the Cold War, there was a period in which multilateral institutions and international conventions were being strengthened. “But, for more than a decade, we have been observing a trend reversal,” says Switzerland’s Baeriswyl. Countries are increasingly disrespecting international law and conflicts have intensified, exacerbated by the pandemic and climate change. That’s why rebuilding trust was a central theme of Switzerland’s Security Council presidency earlier this year. Baeriswyl says that both her country and the UN are committed to building “a new agenda for peace” in the Security Council. “The countless violations of international law, especially in Ukraine, have increased the urgency of a huge reinvestment in dialogue and trust,” she says.
With the Security Council often paralysed, diplomacy is shifting to other multilateral venues. On Ukraine, for example, the US and its allies have turned to the UN General Assembly, the body that includes all members, where 141 nations condemned the invasion in a resolution on 2 March 2022 after Russia vetoed a similar measure in the Security Council. Action has also moved to other international bodies and blocs. “Ukraine has forced the US to be more flexible in where to push global interests,” says Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign and senior vice-president of the UN Foundation. “You can tee something up in the Security Council, then carry it over to other diplomatic forums.”
The UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, has pushed for regional bodies to take the lead in resolving conflicts, such as the Economic Community of West African States, regarding the coup in Niger. He even attended the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in August. But Guterres draws the line when it comes to matters of global import, such as climate change and artificial intelligence, warning that the proliferation of blocs of like-minded countries could lead to fragmentation.
Rebuilding the Security Council’s credibility must start with expanding its membership, something that the UK’s Kariuki admits will be a “long game”. In the meantime, countries such as India, Nigeria, South Africa and Germany, which are currently left out of the council’s rotating membership, must have their views acknowledged. “The Security Council is an important body but we shouldn’t fetishise it,” says Kariuki.
Though almost every member nation acknowledges that the council must be expanded, nobody can agree on which countries to include and whether they should have the power of veto. Asked whether any reforms are possible, Thomas-Greenfield mentions a recent priority of her boss, Joe Biden. “We need to take into account the realities of the world today and one of those is that we have 54 countries from Africa with no permanent representation on the UN Security Council,” she says. “Fixing that is clearly accomplishable.”
Expanding the membership wouldn’t solve the problems of Russia and China blocking action or the council’s strained credibility as it struggles to enforce the UN Charter. But in times of war and global conflict, there is an argument that even a paralysed UN is essential for the future of diplomacy, simply because it remains one of the only forums in which warring nations engage with each other. Diplomacy isn’t always about immediately solving intractable issues; it’s sometimes a matter of keeping the lines of communication open.
Until someone comes up with a true alternative to UN diplomacy, there’s little choice but to find a way to make it work. “The show that Russia has put forward on several occasions has undermined the council’s credibility,” says Estonia’s Tammsaar. “But we don’t have a better global instrument at the moment.”
Every profession has a distinctive argot, often comprising phrases that are more or less incomprehensible to outsiders. These usually evolve so that those on the inside – whether in plumbing, landscape gardening or, indeed, journalism – can swiftly identify one another. The same is true of diplomacy, which has its own peculiar lexicon. But in this case, the dialect has developed to enable its practitioners to communicate effectively, whether with each other or with the public, without saying precisely what they mean. Consider the best-known example: when a foreign minister or ambassador stands at a lectern and reflects on the “full and frank exchange of views” that they have just conducted with their interlocutors, you can usually just about hear the venue staff sweeping up smashed crockery behind the conference-room doors. But the world turns, diplomacy adjusts and the language in which it is conducted changes. Here, we present some of the recent additions to the diplomatic dictionary.
The careful avoidance of declaring a position on the grounds that doing so might lead the other party to take precipitate actions and that refusing to reveal your intentions will keep a potential antagonist guessing. The most prominent example right now is the US’s attitude towards Taiwan.
The anxious designation of those nations that don’t quite belong to the wealthy, democratic West, succeeding “Third World”, “developing countries” and several other terms that affronted everybody thus classified. “Global South” also affronts every nation thus classified and will therefore last only as long as it takes for someone to come up with another term that nobody will like either.
Global middle ground
One such possible successor to “Global South” is “global middle ground”. It has so far been invoked by the likes of James Cleverly, the UK’s foreign secretary, to describe the countries that the West assumed would be right behind it in the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine but instead shrugged, unpersuaded that the conflict had anything to do with them.
Global pivotal state
A recent coinage of South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, which might or might not catch on. A “global pivotal state” (gps – someone somewhere was dreadfully pleased with this acronym) is a country that, while perhaps not formally aligned, is nonetheless a substantial diplomatic player. It will probably appeal to Saudi Arabia, India, Nigeria and Qatar, among others.
A new Chinese term used to describe diplomats who conduct themselves with a certain brusque swagger. It is only ever used non-derisively by the diplomats in question, who enjoy the fantasy that passive-aggressive jeering on social media makes them Sun Tzu.
According to a recent directive to officials from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, this is what we’re now supposed to call hostile states.
Rules-based international order
In theory, the sensible, orderly, collegiate arrangement by which the nations of the world trade, collaborate and settle disputes. In practice, everybody except China, Russia and perhaps a few others.
All conflicts end with ragged edges and the war in Ukraine will be no different. Straightening out those edges will require negotiations but what will they look like? It’s hard to imagine Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin sitting down together. I met Putin in Minsk in August 2014 with his then Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, and the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus. We wanted to talk about the conflict in the east of Ukraine, trade and energy. It quickly became clear that there was little room for negotiation. Putin’s animosity towards Ukraine has since hardened even further and led to devastation. But however long the war lasts – and however clear-cut we hope Ukraine’s victory will be – diplomacy must be ready to sort out what happens next.
Negotiations on prisoner releases and the return of those who have fled, the removal of mines and invading forces, reparations and prosecutions, future security and borders – the list goes on, even after a clear victory. And it will be more complex if the war ends in a compromise. But long before discussions can begin, decisions must be taken about what form they will take.
There are four basic things to consider in advance. Where will the talks take place? Who will be in the room? When will they start and in what format? Finally, what is on the agenda?
I led the 2015 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme on behalf of the UN. We spent weeks arguing about where they should take place, ending up choosing a different location every time, from Kazakhstan to Switzerland. To avoid delays, a venue that is acceptable to everyone should be decided beforehand. Far more complex is the question of who will be in the room. Many will feel that they have a stake in the outcome but negotiations need a limited cast. The format depends on the subject and you might require separate discussions about disarmament, reparations and prisoner return. What matters most is who decides the agenda and in what order things are discussed.
Is it appropriate to consider such matters while the war in Ukraine is ongoing? The answer is yes. Failing to plan ahead risks delays when the conflict draws to a close. But international diplomacy will have to reconcile the different values that we now hold. Russia has made it clear that it rejects the rules-based international order that has largely prevailed since the end of the Cold War. It argues that democracy, human rights and freedoms can be reinterpreted or disregarded depending on the situation. And it is turning to others, such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa, to bolster its challenge to Western norms.
Among the terrible consequences of Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Iran deal in 2018 was that he undermined the results of the only time in history when all five permanent members of the UN Security Council worked successfully together over a sustained period to solve a global problem. The deal was blown up by the country long regarded by many as a guardian of the principles on which postwar international diplomacy was founded. Returning to the point where they can work together should be our goal, however hard that seems. If we want evidence of a lack of good diplomacy, look around at the world today.
Ashton served as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy between 2009 and 2014. Her book ‘And Then What? Despatches from the Heart of 21st-Century Diplomacy’ is out now.
The monthlong disappearance this summer of China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, sparked rumours of a conspiracy. A brief state-news report confirming his successor did little to quell speculation about what had happened. Under Xi Jinping’s regime, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find out.
Xi, who came to power in 2012, has manoeuvred to rewrite the constitution to enshrine his personal philosophy and secure a mandate to rule for life. When foreign correspondents pressed a government spokeswoman about Qin’s disappearance, she said, “China’s diplomatic activities are steadily moving forward.” But what kind of diplomacy can a country conduct when even those in senior positions fear punishment?
Qin’s was only the latest sudden departure of a high-profile official. Though the stated reason is usually corruption, some of these purges are likely to have been politically motivated. Crackdowns in China and the harassment of foreigners signal that Beijing isn’t bothered by its worsening image. The trial of journalist and former Harvard fellow Dong Yuyu in July was another example of Beijing’s efforts to deter citizens from engaging with outsiders. Dong was arrested while having lunch with a Japanese diplomat.
Governments and international organisations are grappling with the risks of interacting with China. How can they engage with the country without endangering anyone? Before her arrest for “inciting subversion of state power”, my friend Sophia Huang, a feminist Chinese journalist, was preparing to study at the University of Sussex after winning the Chevening scholarship, an award from the British government intended to strengthen international relationships. The UK has yet to protest her arrest.
It wasn’t always like this. When I started working in China in 2012, foreigners could still have fairly open discussions with lower-ranking Communist Party officials. Chinese foreign ministry staff would meet with journalists in coffee shops and share their bewilderment about events abroad, such as the election of Donald Trump in the US.
In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese diplomats sought to persuade the world that their country’s economic rise wasn’t a threat. That friendlier approach initially proved highly effective but it frustrated many Chinese citizens, who felt that they were being too deferential, according to Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army. Combing through the memoirs of retired diplomats, he found that, as the country grew stronger, some believed that China should assert its interests more forcefully. The hawks appear to have won.
So, what can democracies do? Voices of moderation warn against matching Beijing’s vitriol with similar bullishness. Civil-society exchanges remain valuable and governments should heed the perspectives of the Chinese diaspora. The policy approaches that result could determine whether China and the US can peacefully coexist or we are heading towards open conflict.
Chiu is a Vancouver-based journalist and author. Her most recent book, ‘China Unbound: A New World Disorder’, is out now.
Elina Valtonen took up her post as Finland’s foreign minister in June. Three weeks later she represented the country as Nato’s newest member at the military alliance’s summit in Vilnius. The 41-year-old, who secured the highest-ever number of votes in the Helsinki electoral district at the 2023 parliamentary elections, shrugs off comparisons to Finland’s former prime minister Sanna Marin. A country’s image should be more than that of a top politician, she tells monocle. “I prefer to focus on policy issues.”
Valtonen believes in strong transatlantic relations and is a staunch Nato supporter. She represents the progressive wing of the conservative National Coalition Party and her liberal, pro-immigration views have pitted her against her coalition partners, the far-right Finns Party (PS). At the Nato summit, she made headlines after apologising on behalf of the Finnish government to her Turkish counterpart for the past inflammatory rhetoric of a PS minister. She spent much of her childhood in Bonn, where her father was posted on a diplomatic mission, and is now her country’s top diplomat. monocle met her at Finland’s foreign ministry in Helsinki.
There’s a war in Europe, Finland has joined Nato and the risk of a global conflict is at its highest in decades. What is it like to be a foreign minister now?
It’s an interesting, challenging time. It’s also a sad time, as we have a major war on European soil. Though the world has changed, Finland’s long-term objectives have not. We want to keep our country and its neighbours safe while advancing the cause of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Joining Nato was a logical continuation of that; it wasn’t a radical change in our policy. Finland has not been neutral since it joined the EU in 1995.
Do you believe that old-fashioned diplomacy is still relevant today?
Not only is it still relevant but the role of diplomacy is growing. A decline in violent conflict has been a consistent trend over the past few decades. It might be tempting to assume that diplomacy is a thing of the past when a member of the UN Security Council so flagrantly breaches the UN Charter, as Russia has done. But that doesn’t mean that we should do away with the rules-based international order. Without diplomacy, we would live in a world where might is right. For a small country such as Finland, that would be a horrible scenario.
How can we ensure that diplomacy trumps war in the 21st century?
Multilateral institutions such as the UN aren’t perfect. Reforming them will be an arduous task. And dictatorships such as Russia don’t respect rules anyway, so reform wouldn’t necessarily help. A more effective way would be to advance democracy in places like Russia by supporting people in civil society who are fighting for it. Countries that still believe in the power of diplomacy, rules and freedom are the ones where most people want to live. They remain the most attractive nations. Russia’s war in Ukraine has made the West more united. That is the best defence of diplomacy.
What role can diplomacy play in solving the crisis in Ukraine? Do you believe in a negotiated settlement and, if so, what should it look like?
There are glimmers of hope for a negotiated settlement involving many stakeholders but it must happen on just conditions. We’re talking not only about Russia ending the invasion and withdrawing but also about what happens after that, with regards to issues such as nuclear safety and the environment. As for what the settlement might look like, it isn’t for me to predict or prescribe. That is Ukraine’s right as a sovereign nation.
Should Russia be punished?
It must face consequences for its war crimes. We have seen that its leadership only bows to power. Russia doesn’t believe in diplomacy but we must. While isolating it politically, we still need a channel of communication in order to understand each other. We also have many practical issues to address with regards to our long land border with Russia.
What is Finland’s position in the new multipolar world?
Our position is that of the EU and Nato. The West needs to stay united and stand up for its values. Now that the rules-based international order is under attack, we need to keep supporting Ukraine tirelessly and as long as it is necessary. We also need to strengthen our military capacity so that our deterrent against a possible attack remains strong.
1. Getting Finland settled into Nato and deepening its relationship with the US.
Finland joined Nato this spring. As the alliance’s newest member country, its actions will determine how the others will perceive it. What will Finland’s role in Nato’s collective defence be? What can Nato learn from Finland, the member with the longest land border with Russia? Valtonen is also eager for Finland to continue deepening its relationship with the US. The two countries are currently negotiating a defence co-operation agreement.
2. Long-term support for Ukraine and strengthening the European security architecture.
Valtonen believes that Ukraine deserves a peace that is both just and sustainable. Helsinki has strongly supported Ukraine throughout the invasion and has indicated that it will also support Kyiv in its EU and Nato membership bids. Valtonen argues that Europe needs to boost its military capabilities strategically and scale up its homegrown defence industry.
3. Promoting the rules-based international order, while reaching out to the Global South.
One of Finland’s priorities is to reform the UN so that it can respond to the global challenges of the decade. Finland is also seeking to form strategic partnerships with countries in the Global South and to promote democracy and human rights, with a special focus on women’s rights.