CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In an era of great change, diplomacy, like many other disciplines, must adapt and innovate. Some changes are already visible.
There were many negative comments following the recent G8 summit in Okinawa. Some are valid, others are debatable. Choosing Okinawa for domestic purposes is one such issue. All previous gatherings — most diplomatic conferences — are linked with the host’s desire to upgrade a particular location or bring an issue to the attention of the participants and the media. We can’t fault the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi for selecting that venue.
The Okinawa summit was memorable — apart from the high visibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin — for the novelty of involving leaders of the “other” world (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Nonaligned Movement, and so on) and showing interest in their views.
What made it less relevant, was the lack of concentration shown by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was preoccupied with the Middle East peace talks.
No wonder, then, that the final communique did not win the attention of the world. This point leads me to stress the need for new ideas in the international arena.
The real landmark at Okinawa was the beginning of a dialogue with those beyond the world of the G8.
ASEAN is often on the receiving end of critical remarks. Nevertheless, at its recent conference in Bangkok, apart from the spotlight on North Korea, the group managed to develop a new “consultative troika” and, more importantly, to deepen the very substantive process of ministerial “retreats,” where the real issues are discussed privately, quietly and sincerely.
This is a welcome development and it should be encouraged and expanded, perhaps even for senior officials’ meetings. After all, and despite the contrary view of some politicians — usually Western, rather than Asian — bureaucrats still play an important role facilitating communications across continents and time zones. Ministerial offices cannot absorb the volume of work to be done or followed in all its details.
While the attention paid to new areas such as human resources, information technology and cultural and environmental issues is welcome, we must also examine the disturbing side effects of the information revolution. There is the alarming fact that as many as 11 million people worldwide are literally addicted to the Internet, some of them spending 18 hours each day surfing instead of caring for their families and loved ones.
The well-known Vietnamese thinker and monk Thich Nhat Hanh has remarked that we have taken gigantic steps in the realm of instant communications, but we have lost the ability to really communicate with one another. This is a philosophical concern of a general nature, but a new diplomacy. while relying and focusing on information technologies, must be conscious of their negative aspects as well.
Interaction between politicians active in diplomacy and their civil-service assistants, and academics, journalists, strategic thinkers and philosophers assumes increased importance these days. It should be further encouraged. The cross-fertilization of ideas is limitless; the real problem is not lack of information, but screening and properly evaluating it. While the ultimate responsibility for making decisions rests with politicians, others are in a position to offer useful input and to sometimes even discreetly prepare the ground for official action.
Finally, a new-era diplomacy will have to strike the right balance between organization “fatigue” — created by the growing number of such forums — and genuine interest in joining such regional groups. The larger the membership, the greater the danger that antagonists will find themselves under the same umbrella. New skills will be needed to navigate these waters.
In Asia, monumental changes are occurring that will affect the global scene. Throughout the area, there is a feeling — perhaps an expectation — that the next administration in Washington will pay more attention to the region and elaborate a coherent new policy as a result. Other players will have to pay equal attention as issues become more and more complicated and challenging.
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