Tom Fletcher, former British ambassador to Lebanon, is the author of The Naked Diplomat: Understanding Power and Politics in the Digital Age. He is a visiting professor of international relations at New York University, a member of the Global Tech Panel and the principal-elect of Hertford College, Oxford University.
If there is one thing that sensible diplomats have learned over the centuries, it is not to make predictions.
But here is one anyway: Abnormal will remain the new normal. The 2020s will be no less erratic than the period since the (hopefully temporary) 2016 resignation of America as the most influential driving force for liberty in history.
So it is tempting to write the decade off until we see whether the lights come back on in the shining city on a hill. U.S. President Donald Trump has been determined to prove his critics right. His re-election would extend the vacancy for leader of the free world, cripple efforts to slow the climate crisis and delight the growing club of autocrats and despots who have profited from his first term. His assault on the post-1945 international rules-based system has orphaned the structures for global co-operation and will already mean that the first half of the coming decade is about damage limitation rather than more expeditionary diplomacy.
But diplomacy does not have the luxury of standing still in the hope of a return to strong American leadership. You can’t press pause on the world’s crises or ignore the decade’s next flashpoints in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. And the countries with the most to gain from Mr. Trump’s erratic approach – I’m being diplomatic – will press their advantages in the early 2020s, particularly Russia, Israel, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Of the other major powers, China will approach the 2020s with strategic patience, focused on the domestic economy and the quiet but ambitious expansion of infrastructure and influence across Asia. Meanwhile, a Russia in long-term decline will, under Vladimir Putin, continue to conclude that it can get away with murder, often literally.
Foreign policy before 1914 was based on divide-and-conquer thinking. For much of the world since, it has been despair-and-conference at worst, and deter-and-convene at best. For Mr. Putin, it is now disrupt and confuse, and social media – with or without a nudge – will continue to be a great help to him. Where that is insufficient, Russia will continue to terrorize Syrian civilians to save them from terror. George Orwell will continue to sell well throughout the coming decade.
What of Britain in the midst of this cacophony? The Boris Johnson landslide will, of course, mean a short-term diplomatic focus on “getting Brexit done.” But beyond this, there will now be a huge need for Britain to be part of a new coalition of more agile internationalists and ardent promoters of greater freedom to trade, move, think and innovate. If Britain can come together as a country and take itself more seriously, it can expect the world to take its global aspirations more seriously again.
The big diplomatic opportunity of 2020 itself will be the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow next November. With December’s COP25 talks in Madrid having failed to meet even modest expectations, this is a summit that really matters. Britain should throw everything at getting a decent result for the world, even if it means burning capital with the big polluters. Either way, the decade’s diplomacy will be dominated by damage control on climate – by 2030, several UN member states may no longer exist because of rising sea levels.
While the United States is divided and distracted, NATO and the G7 enter the 2020s facing a crisis of confidence. Meanwhile, an EU in transition still thinks it merits five seats at the G7 table, despite moving from setting the list of diplomatic challenges to appearing on it.
A resuscitation of the United Nations is more urgent than ever in the 2020s. The world has not yet come up with a better idea for managing global co-existence. With at least three permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., Russia and China – actively disrupting the status quo, there will be a welcome injection of fresh blood, with India, Kenya, Canada, Ireland and Norway among those competing to sit at the top table next year. And the 75th anniversary is a chance for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to revive his mandate by restating and upgrading UN values and objectives for the digital age.
Without this renewal, we will see in the 2020s more politicians weaponizing intolerance. More selling of the snake oil of hatred of difference as a panacea for globalization. More access to deadly weapons and lack of justice for those who use them. More policy by media cycle, quick fixes for a complex world. More of the inequality of opportunity in which extremism and anger fester.
Diplomacy is tough in periods of introspection and nationalism, and when you no longer have enemies you can find on a map or kill in a James Bond film. Ironically, the global campaign against globalization will continue. Rising public distrust in authority and institutions will make genuinely strategic statecraft – as opposed to grip-and-grin summits – more elusive in the coming decade, especially in the West. It will be easier to be an insurgent than to govern. The pace of technological and political change will mean that statecraft will often feel slow, clumsy and irrelevant.
Given the number of silverbacks involved, more diplomacy in the early 2020s will be theatrics – macho handshakes, late arrivals and chest thumping. But diplomacy is not reality TV. When it fails, the world is less safe. The international system is scaffolding built with immense sacrifice and patience by previous generations to protect us from our worst instincts. It is evolution of reason over craziness, community over tyranny, honesty over lies, and restraint for the dangerous individual who believes he – normally he – alone has the answers.
But as the decade matures, we will see other evolutions in the way diplomacy is conducted. More citycraft in place of statecraft, especially on the climate crisis. More aggressive engagement with Big Tech, including on vital issues of artificial-intelligence governance, lethal autonomous weapons and liberty online. Women will, thankfully, be playing a much more prominent global role by 2030. The diplomatic success of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shows the international appetite for a new style of leadership. The most effective diplomat of the 2010s was Angela Merkel; 2019’s most influential diplomat was Greta Thunberg.
In terms of craft, diplomacy won’t innovate as fast as it should for the technological changes ahead, but by 2030, there will be a transformation in how to manage digital information and networks more efficiently, automate diplomatic functions and return to the idea of an embassy as an idea that connects people, not a building that keeps them out.
Citizens will be increasingly impatient with any diplomacy that appears entitled, inauthentic and irrelevant. The most effective ministries will shift from a culture that prioritizes competencies, hierarchy and process to one based on skills, networks and real-world outcomes. Whatever the technological change, though, the best diplomacy will remain about human connection and empathy – these aspects of the role will make it one of the last professions to become automated, even if much more diplomacy by 2030 is with the machines themselves.
With the current weakness of global leadership, the big questions of 2030 look likely to remain unanswered in the immediate years ahead. How do we ensure more winners from globalization and technology, while better protecting those left behind? How do we prepare for an age of massive migration? How can we manage the next transition between empires – from the U.S. to China – more peacefully than history predicts?
One bright spot in 2020 will be the release of new ways to teach and assess global competence. This could quietly lay the basis for a generation of citizen diplomats by 2030. We will need them to be more kind, curious and brave than we have been.
At the London G20 Summit in 2009, the world’s leaders managed through intense and creative diplomacy to reverse the global economic crisis. As they walked to the family photo at the summit’s close, Barack Obama congratulated Gordon Brown, but quietly noted that, unless the systems for international co-operation were transformed, the next crisis would be much worse.
Not even the most starry-eyed diplomat can claim that improvement. While we were busy building driverless cars, we ended up with a driverless world. The 2020s will test human capacity to fix that.