Global Diplomacy in the 21st Century: Game On?

Clipart with two diplomats holding up each side of a shiny golden trophy.

Why does global diplomacy seem to be dwindling right now, at a time when we need it the most? This was the question posed by the Harvard Social Impact Project to high school delegates participating in the 2020 Harvard Model UN Conference. Over 3000 students from all over the world came to discuss world issues and submit their innovative responses to this challenging prompt.

Winners are often the only ones who have their projects showcased, but who said we have to go with traditional norms? Here's my project, an essay, which I'm proud to share with the global community of young people.

The gist: the threat of global crises has developed a harmful "win-lose" mentality in global diplomacy

I TRUDGED BACK TO my seat in the General Assembly, with a myriad of papers and pens still clutched in my hand. The soft red glow of the dimly lit hall hid my shame. Our division from the Canadian National Debate Team had just lost against Team Netherlands, and we were officially out of the running to win the Europens Debate Championships.

I was competitive, and so was my team. We envisioned ourselves on the dazzling stage debating in the grand finals, and nothing was supposed to obstruct us from capturing that glorious supremacy above everyone else. We spent months investing our time and energy to train for this opportunity to represent Canada in Hamburg, Germany, at an international event. Team Canada had had spectacular debate results in the past. Needless to say, losing was never an option.

As trivial as my experience is compared to the realm of international politics, it highlights a striking challenge in global diplomacy: the mentality of winning and losing. At its core, the “win-lose” mentality is a form of self-defence for states against possible threats of aggression. It began in Renaissance Europe, where states were born in the hostile environment of frequent bloody wars fought with neighbours over quarrels. When monarchies began sending ambassadors on diplomatic missions, the game shifted from physical might to bargaining tactics and expansion of trade routes, and the winning and losing mentality lived on.

States in the 21st century continue their ancestors’ traditions. Globalization is creating more opportunities for states to compete with one another through multinationals, foreign investment projects, and overall growing GDPs through expanding import and export markets. Economic competition also extends into the political sphere. A telling example is China’s infamous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which supports infrastructure development in Africa and some parts in Asia, such as Myanmar and Pakistan. In response, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea in November 2019, U.S Vice President Mike Pence said to world leaders “Know that the United States offers a better option...When you partner with us, we partner with you, and we all prosper,” despite the U.S. provoking debt crises across South America and Asia in 1998, and during the financial crisis in 2008. The tug of war over the BRI is more than an effort to promote global development, it also appears to be a dispute over foreign influence.

The same competitive nature carries through in diplomatic contexts. The media and public often loosely adopts the term “win” or “loss” to describe diplomatic missions. For instance, in the wake of the trade war, the New York Times published an article titled “Trump gets his trade deal, China gets the win” reporting on the latest round of  U.S-China trade talks.

Such a judging standard can pressure diplomatic officials to always take home a “win” for their country. With the fear of getting rebuked for making too many concessions, diplomats are sometimes incentivized, understandably, to err on the side of caution and prolong talks instead of reaching compromise. When time is abundant, this strategy is preferable for negotiating better terms and is often worth the effort.

However, the urgent threat of global catastrophe looms over the world today. Climate change is expected to claim 250, 000 lives every year between 2030-2050 from health conditions alone, according to the World Health Organization. Nuclear threats have been rising too, as complex tensions develop. Iran has announced it will abandon the Iran Nuclear Deal after the U.S. assassinated General Soleimani. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), designed to contain U.S and Russia arms development, has fallen apart due to alleged Russian violations of the deal. North Korea’s nuclear programme has been fading from the media after President Trump announced his summit with President Kim Jong-Un as a success. The vacancy from waning global diplomatic ties invited these conflicts to fill the gaps instead.

Unfortunately, it is harder to reach compromises at the time we most need it. People feel a sense of scarcity; fear-mongering in political rhetoric and the media is partially to blame. In reality, global crises do not fit the parameters of the game for global power. If diplomacy is not restored and maintained, everyone will lose.

“Winners” will be those who have suffered the least, but who have also lost billions of dollars in infrastructure damage and millions of lives from natural disasters or a nuclear war. When the instinct for survival finally kicks in and drives humanity together, it would be far too late to repair the destruction. Our new mentality should be "win-win". The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do just that. Unilateral initiatives and private global diplomacy should follow these UN principles that nearly all countries in the world have pledged to aim towards.

When my coach asked me how the round went, my cheeks flushed. “We lost,” I informed him, “but I thought we deserved to win.” The disappointment quickly washed away as I immersed myself into that night’s culture festival. Everyone set up booths filled with their country’s desserts and specialties, offering treats for debaters and coaches and interesting facts about their traditions and heritage. The room glowed green, blue, and red from special lights dancing around with the beat of the music blaring from loudspeakers. As I walked over to the counter to get a drink, a girl from Mexico stopped me and asked if I wanted to play ping-pong with them. I said yes, and for the rest of the night, I chatted, laughed, and danced with new people I met from Mexico, Germany, Denmark, and even the Netherlands.

While still in the game, I wondered why I couldn’t genuinely connect with anyone from the other countries' teams. It was only when I stopped viewing them as my competitors, that I realized that that was the simple mistake I was making all along.











In reality, global crises do not fit the parameters of the game for global power. If diplomacy is not restored and maintained, everyone will lose.