Communication Lines in Diplomacy: Expanding the Possibility Set

15 july 2019

Yaroslav Lissovolik - Programme Director at the Valdai Discussion Club, Member of the Government Expert Council

Resume: The problem with communication in today’s world may be the illusion that real communication is taking place and no additional lines of communication are necessary. The truth of the matter is that there is still sizeable potential to raise the “technological capacity” in international diplomatic communication to a higher level via allocating the “frequency bandwidth” to regional blocks and other stakeholders.

The problem with communication in today’s world may be the illusion that real communication is taking place and no additional lines of communication are necessary. The truth of the matter is that there is still sizeable potential to raise the “technological capacity” in international diplomatic communication to a higher level via allocating the “frequency bandwidth” to regional blocks and other stakeholders.

 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

There appears to be something wrong with communication in today’s international setting. With considerations of narrow self-interest dominant and rules as well as existing international accords undermined the global community is faced with mounting challenges ranging from trade disputes to disruptions in the technological cooperation. This breakdown in diplomatic communication and international relations is starting to impact the technology of broader day-to-day communication, in particular the pace of transition of the world economy to 5G, as China’s rising technological capabilities in this area are starting to encounter headwinds from the broader US-China trade dispute. While there is unlikely to be a quick solution to the mounting communication failures, there is clearly a need to re-think the framework of communication in international relations via exploring some of the unused reserves in international cooperation. One of the aspects of the new framework may be a greater role of regional blocks and organizations that have thus far been overshadowed by the bilateral wrangling at the country-to-country level.

A key benefit of employing the regional lines of communication in international diplomacy is the absence of the conflict legacy in the relations between regional blocks given that the dynamic rise in regionalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the world economy. This of course stands in stark contrast with the conflict-ridden patterns observed with nation states, whose obsession with Realpolitik has driven the world into a “Prisoner’s dilemma” game mode.

If we are to use the game theory jargon, then what may be observed is that in order to take the world economy out of the “Prisoner’s dilemma” outcome we need to modify the game with its payoff matrix (including the asymmetries in the payoff structure between the players) as well as parties taking part in the game. Involving regional institutions may allow for averaging out the extreme asymmetries characteristic of the bilateral relations between nation states rendering the game dynamics less prone to falling into a spiral of “mutual defection”.

  The above considerations from game theory appear to be borne out by the empirics of dispute resolution in which regional institutions were involved. A comparative analysis of the success rate in resolving international disputes according to ACCORD (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes) suggests that “regional organisations are more successful mediators than the UN”.* In particular, regional organisations achieved some success with their mediation (that is a cease-fire, partial or full settlement) in 42.1 per cent of cases, while for the UN success in 32.1 per cent. Furthermore, mediation by regional organizations attained a full settlement in 8.2 per cent of the cases, compared to 3.1 per cent by the UN.*

 Table 1: Categories of Mediation Outcome

   Grouped
  Organisations
 Mediation Offered Only  Unsuccessful  Ceasefire  Partial Settlement  Full Settlement
 UN  3.3%  59.2%  8.4%  26.0%  3.1%
 Regional 
Organisations
 6.3%  31.6%  12.6%  21.3%  8.2%

Source: CARL SKAU, JACOB BERCOVITCH, OLE ELGSTRÖM, Regional Organisations and International Mediation. The Effectiveness of Insider Mediators, AJCR |2003/1, 25 JUNE 2003, 

According to C. Scau et al (2003), “regional organisations are co-operative organisations based on geographical proximity, social and political similarity, interdependence, and a commitment to regional security. As such, regional organisations are more likely to be familiar with local issues, the situation and the parties in conflict. We maintain that regional organisations that intervene in regionally bounded conflicts often share the characteristics of insider-partials. Their members are often immediately affected by the conflict and they cannot leave the post-negotiation situation. This makes them take a greater interest in managing or mitigating a conflict, lest it escalate and engulf the whole region. Regional organisations thus have a vested interest in managing a regional conflict. Their closeness to, and knowledge of, the local context give them an advantage as conflict managers compared to an outsider, like the UN”.*

The comparative advantages of regional institutions vis-à-vis global organizations in the economic sphere may in part be predicated on superior knowledge of local conditions and ability to track regional vulnerabilities and spillover effects, something that global institutions have only recently started to ascribe greater attention. But despite these comparative advantages vis-à-vis countries and global institutions regionalism is still a relatively rare participant in international diplomacy and the signing of international accords. This concerns in particular the lack of agreements and negotiations between regional blocks as well as their greater incorporation into the negotiations/fora advanced by global institutions.

What is needed then in the current gridlock faced by the world community on a range of global issues – from security accords to trade and innovation/technology – is a more effective use of instruments such as regionalism and communication channels that may be employed with the participation of regional groupings. The world community needs to explore the largely unused potential of regionalism, not so much with respect to the core intra-regional agreements overseen by the respective regional blocks, but rather with respect to the agreements, negotiations/talks with third parties.

This in turn may involve regional intermediation in country-to-country disputes, agreements forged between regional blocks as well as greater collaboration between regional blocks and global institutions. There needs to be a more active search for possible platforms, where there are less asymmetries among the participants and less constraints associated with the considerations of narrow national interests. In other words, the global community needs to more actively explore and use the entire spectrum and all the combinatorics of lines of communication involving regional blocks as well as other “non-orthodox” formats of communication.

Indeed, the problem with communication in today’s world may be the illusion that real communication is taking place and no additional lines of communication are necessary. The truth of the matter is that there is still sizeable potential to raise the “technological capacity” in international diplomatic communication to a higher level via allocating the “frequency bandwidth” to regional blocks and other stakeholders. We may need a transition to international diplomacy’s very own 5G mode to overcome the daunting challenges of the “crumbling world order”.

The Valdai Discussion Club


* Source: CARL SKAU, JACOB BERCOVITCH, OLE ELGSTRÖM, Regional Organisations and International Mediation. The Effectiveness of Insider Mediators,  AJCR |2003/1, 25 JUNE 2003

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