An IDEAS Approach to Diplomacy

The Diplomat speaks with Prof. Michael Cox and Gordon Barrass about China’s rise, transatlantic relations and how a new course at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS fits into international diplomacy.

Do you think there has sometimes tended to be an excessively “Transatlantic” emphasis in the study of international relations and strategy that has failed to recognize some fundamental shifts?

Prof. Michael Cox : There are two parts in answer to that question. In the pastfour to five years there has actually been very little interest in the transatlantic relationship. There has been something on NATO, something on the EU, something on economic relations. But the real debate, if you like, over the past five years has been away from the Transatlantic toward Asia, toward the rise of China. So, 20 years ago the answer would definitely have been ‘Yes’. But in the last five years, in some ways the focus has been so heavily biased away from the Transatlantic toward China what we need to do now more is bring it back to the Transatlantic, because there has been a lost discussion.

What I’ve tried to talk about in my own work is to say that while obviously there are major economic changes taking place in the world that are reorienting the global economy toward Southeast Asia and most obviously China,  in three fundamental ways the Transatlantic relationship is still very important.

One way, of course, is economically. It still constitutes half the world’s economy, something that is often lost sight of with China’s rise. Second, one element of the Transatlantic relationship that hasn’t been talked about much is that it’s still the best source of democratic values and human rights in the world today. Without that transatlantic political basis to the world, the world would look a more problematic place than it does, which is why I think the relationship is so important. And then there are strategic reasons.

But that said, there’s now a debate going on within the United States as to whether Europe is as importance as it was in the Cold War and through the 1990s. And of course there’s another part of this debate which is going on in China, which is how much the country should orient itself toward the United States. Interestingly, when you talk to policymakers in China, they don’t want a G-2. They don’t want to orientate too much toward the United States.

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And of course there’s the Euro crisis. That impacts not only transatlantic relations, but global relations. We’re at the most crucial point in European history since the Second World War, and it does draw us back to Europe. I would say that we probably haven’t been transatlantic enough.

And now with the Euro  crisis,  it’s making clear how very important Europe and the transatlantic relationship is because if this fails, it’s not only the transatlantic relationship that will face problems, but also China, South Asia, and Africa.

How difficult is to devise a course that keeps up with all these changes? Is there a risk that material that was up to date at the start could be left looking very dated indeed by unfolding events?

Prof. Cox: The broad subject of international relations isn’t history. We’re not waiting for 30 or 40 years for issues to be revealed through archives. So we don’t have that luxury of spending time poring over documents. And so the study of international relations can always fall foul of events, of superficiality, it can sometimes sound like journalism without footnotes, which is sometimes an accusation I would throw at people in IR. But we need it. You can’t avoid it – this is what people want to find out.

Second, events can pass you by very, very rapidly as you’ve seen in the past 10 years – 9/11, the financial crisis, the Euro crisis. So you’ve got a real job on your hands keeping pace. But there have to be some key core arguments about how the world works in general that you can bring to the study of current events. That’s why with the study of International Relations we need to deal with more than just current events. If we just deal with the moving picture in front of us, it can change tomorrow. What we would like to do with this course, with its unique combination and range of leading academics and senior policy practitioners, is give a broader perspective with wider study that can put things in context.

After 30 years of teaching the subject, you do start to see some broader patterns and larger issues. What is power? How is it distributed? What if countries go to war? Why does co-operation exist more in certain parts of the world? These are fundamental questions that go to the heart of the international condition. You can build on a large pre-existing literature, but then move beyond just journalism or a bar room chat.

One of the biggest shifts, as you’ve mentioned, is from the West to Asia, and specifically toward China. Is there any danger that with such a poisonous domestic atmosphere politically, it could adversely affect the United States’ China policy?

As you say, the U.S. has its own domestic problems, a hostile Congress, and the gap between the government and Congress is enormous ideologically. And the atmosphere is going to get nastier and nastier next year. But we have to be careful about how far we go when we’re looking at the effect on foreign policy. I know that all foreign policy is domestic in America, but still, the President still has an enormous amount of autonomy in foreign policy. He is commander-in-chief, and the current interpretation of the Constitution gives the American President a great deal of leeway in foreign policy choices.

And the United States has been thinking about China constructively – and not so constructively – since Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. Given the Western malaise on the one hand, and China’s advances on the other, it’s one of the issues they think about most. I don’t think they generally think about Europe. Europe is boring – in a good way. But China poses a host of interesting questions with no easy answers. It’s a potential adversary, but one which is also a partner. It’s a partner, but also a competitor. It’s starting to push around Southeast Asia, which is drawing America back into the region. They spend more time thinking about China than any other single major issue – as much as the Middle East, and as much as the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

The danger, and you raise a very good point, is that it will become a domestic political issue, and could become a football in the political arena next year. A communist regime is simply anathema to many Republicans, and with an undervalued currency, human rights abuses, Taiwan – you could name half a dozen issues that could easily come up. And if America is economically hurting, which it is now, then you can add protectionist voices. And this could, despite the interdependence of the two countries, it could complicate that relationship.

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Looking at the emergence of China, are we seeing the emergence of a different type of leadership that profoundly challenges Western thinking around liberal democratic capitalism?

Prof. Cox: There are two kinds of challenge to what you might call the ‘liberal democratic capitalist model’ as outlined by someone like Francis Fukuyama in his “End of History” article in 1989. One is the notion that China itself offers an alternative authoritarian state capitalist model that might be very appealing for countries in Africa. For example, China is investing very large amounts in infrastructure projects without asking any dodgy questions. There is a book written by Stefan Halper, a centrist Republican, called The Beijing Consensus, which  argue, not from an alarmist point of view, that post – the financial crisis, many people will be drawn to a very different model to that which has been advanced by the United States.

And that is a genuine question. Why should people listen to the United States when the American model hasn’t been doing so well? Or for that matter, who is going to listen to the Europeans? How well that is going to travel around the whole world, I don’t know. But it’s certainly there as a reference if you want to move past the dominant Western narrative.

The other kind of leadership emerging, and which has already emerged, is that of the Arab Spring. Clearly people in the West have become used to the fact that there are different kinds of people, with different kinds of values, who take religion more seriously than we sometimes do in the West. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model now.

Gordon Barrass: I expect that as people look more closely at what has happened in China they will see that it isn’t replicable elsewhere, because it grows out of such a different system.  On the other hand, some of the more authoritarian states will see advantage in having good relations with China. However, in many countries, including ones with autocratic regimes,   social changes have been taking place over a long time and there is a growing number of  people who wish to have more of a right to say their piece, to be heard, and to have some semblance of law and order and political expression.  I think, therefore, that democratic ideas, broadly defined, will still be a potent force, though the implementing them will not be easy.

Prof Cox: I agree with Gordon. What has been a very interesting and inspiring about this very complicated process is that we do see people calling for rights, and we do see people calling for free speech. But I think we can say with a fair amount of certainty that what will emerge are not the kinds of regimes that have existed before, and that these regimes will have characteristics that some in the West will find problematic.

Indeed, some have problems with what exists in Turkey, even though Turkey is democratic. Some may have problems with certain elements of Islamic culture, however you want to define that. But as Gordon says, and as Turkey has proven, we should have looked much more carefully at what has been going on there and given it many more thumbs up. In my own personal view, we should have given Turkey far more positive indications about EU membership. We would be in a much better situation with relations to Turkey. But now, pro-EU sentiment is declining and pro-U.S. sentiment is declining. And who can blame them? They are now pursuing their own interests, and it won’t be singing from an American or EU hymn sheet. In a way, what that also raises is the more fundamental point  that the world we knew, which we called bi-polar in the Cold War, and what was uni-polar in the 1990s, that world is eroding. The idea that we have a superpower or transatlantic super powers that shape and determine what is going around the world that world is gone. The huge problem for the U.S. in particular is how it can think quickly enough to benefit from a world that isn’t inimical to Western interests.

Could the U.S. have done anything differently after 9/11 to slow this shift? Was it inevitable? The 1990s in many ways seemed like something of an idyll to what has come since.

It’s important not to idealize the 1990s in terms of peacefulness, but for the United States it probably felt ideal. And probably from the point of view of the EU it felt like a pretty good decade (apart from the Bosnian war). There was enlargement, the introduction of the Euro. So the 1990s might be looked back on as a golden era of stability, with globalization driving all before it, the EU acting to enlarge the field of democracy, markets in Europe doing a good job, and the United States pushing forward globalization under Bill Clinton. I think he turned out to look more of a successful foreign policy president than he did at the time.

I think there’s no doubt that has changed. Time magazine had a front page on December 2010 saying ‘The Decade from Hell.’ And by comparison with the 1990s it certainly must feel like that. First there was 9/11, then the way the U.S. administration decided to respond, not just with Afghanistan but also Iraq. Then there was the whole crisis over U.S. foreign policy, with the criticism of America as an empire in the making. Then there were the human rights issues over Guantanamo – and a lot of Americans felt deeply uncomfortable with that. Iraq has proven hugely costly in terms of economics and also lives. Many Americans lost confidence in what their leadership was doing. A lot of people outside lost confidence in America. It can be overdone, but nonetheless,  9/11 was a huge turning point.

Then you come to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, and you get almost what you might call a double whammy – a strategic crisis and then a deeper model crisis. Is the American model the best and only model for delivering prosperity, jobs and employment? You now find Americans at a very low ebb. Their confidence has gone. Their economic confidence has gone. Their confidence in the future is gone. And that’s very important   because while Europeans tend to think backwards, Americans think forward. And to have only 25% of Americans thinking that their children’s lives will be better than their own lives is an extraordinary reversal. And now the US is facing all these domestic issues, and the deep internal divisions.

Gordon Barrass: I think that Mick is right. American opinion is always shaped by how others are faring. If in the next few years China begins to encounter significant problems, it would almost certainly boost American self-confidence.

Prof. Cox: The question is if it is structural or conjectural. If it is structural, then we really are seeing a shift. If it is conjunctural, then what we might be witnessing is temporary blips in the Western economies, and maybe not necessarily long term rises in the Chinese economy, which could be hit by natural crises, such as social and economic problems. The 10 percent growth model they have is bound to slow down, which then leaves the question of how they maintain social stability. So where we are now isn’t necessarily where we will be in three or four year’s times. If the Western economies can pull themselves out of this, and if China slows down, then our perceptions might change. But we don’t know yet.

You mentioned earlier about the challenge of running a course that keeps pace with events. How are you hoping this course can help people grapple with such events?

Gordon Barrass: When LSE IDEAS was set up in 2008, it had three main remits–to provide a forum for the discussion and debate of major international issues, to develop a dialogue on foreign affairs between academics and government, and to help train people to think more strategically about the issues.

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What became clear when we talked to governments was that what they really wanted was not a course for juniors –but one that would enable people in mid-career to gain benefits that they could apply directly in their current and more senior positions.  So we sat down and designed a course that is not available anywhere else in the world. This isn’t a conventional  university course taken by hundreds of people;  it is an executive masters where a small number of high-flyers ( who are mainly between 35-45 years of age) are, in effect, coached to challenge conventional wisdom.

The course focuses on getting people to think about what ‘drivers’ are shaping the world now, and how other factors may change the course of events.  Having learnt about some of the new techniques there are for producing robust assessments, they go on to look at horizon scanning and contingency planning, and then how to devise strategies to deal with emerging risks or threats.

Our approach is that there is more to strategy than fighting and winning wars; we want to help them use the arts of strategy to keep the peace and resolve problems of mutual interest. One of the key elements in this whole process is getting inside the minds of others, because far too often we know even from our own personal relationships that it is extraordinary how assumptions are made about the attitudes of others. So we have put a lot of work into looking at the way people can get proper, sensible insights and think about the implications of this for diplomacy and strategy.

The current course, which began in September, was heavily over-subscribed.  From the applications we selected 21 people, including two British ambassadors-designate; an adviser from the office of the Turkish PM, experienced diplomats from the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Morocco and Thailand; defense officials from China, Japan and the UK; business people from Iran, Germany and Argentina; plus a UN official, an international lawyer, an analyst from a major international bank and a financial services regulator.

The course is structured to take account of the many changes taking place in the world.  For example, we’ll be touching on the Middle East generally on a number of occasions in the academic year, and although we may be saying something at the beginning, we may be saying something different later on.

Besides having close contact with an impressive team of internationally renowned academics, the participants also spend a considerable amount of time in discussion with highly experienced practitioners who have dealt with politics, strategy and diplomacy.  These include Jonathan Powell (former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Blair), Sir David Manning (former British Ambassador in Washington), Sir Richard Mottram  (permanent undersecretary in three departments in Whitehall, including the Ministry of Defense) and Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who was the No. 3 in the State Department.

Prof. Cox: One of the things that we are trying to do is more concentrated away weekends. We’re looking at the financial crisis. And we’ll be doing one on Iran – what are the options there? So we’ll be bringing in some of the Iran specialists in this country, bringing together the academics and practitioners, bringing together those two cultures.

Gordon Barrass: Having extended access to practitioners is a special bonus. We say to the participants, this is one of the rare chances you’ll have to be able to ask such people what it was that they learned from the time they were your age, to the time they were at the peak of their careers, and to try to get insights into what is required to help you through this difficult process. I think that is a very important issue, and I think that after this first year, we’re going to have even more senior people coming on the course.

Full details of the MSc Diplomacy and International Strategy course, and how to apply, can be found at