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opinion

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and MailThe Globe and Mail

In recent years, diplomacy has been ignored, if not scorned, by journalists, think tanks, international-relations scholars and, most surprisingly, by governments. That neglect, acute since the events of 9/11 and the declaration of a global war on terror, has proved costly.

Recent experience with the unsuccessful use of armed force by the United States in Iraq and the steep challenges encountered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan suggest that the case for revisiting diplomacy is compelling. With the settling in of the Obama administration and departure of the neoconservatives from Washington, and new enthusiasm for the likes of smart power, that stage appears set for change. The case for advancing diplomatic alternatives - and alternative diplomacy - is gaining momentum.

We are at a turnbuckle moment in history, and the time for Canada to get prepared is now. Power is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific; a heteropolar world, with radically divergent sources of influence, is under construction, and the Cold War suite of issues - ideological competition, geopolitical rivalry and alliance politics - are a diminishing part of the international policy mix.

In the age of globalization, the abiding need to rethink key elements of international relations - security and development - from the perspective of diplomacy is clear. In this new dispensation, Canada brings to the table many comparative advantages, not all of which are fully appreciated at present.

It must be asked: Does diplomacy still matter? Yes, but the profession has not performed well in contemporary circumstances, the entire diplomatic edifice is in crisis and radical reconstruction is required.

Viewed through the lens of those who favour talking over fighting, dialogue over diktat, and negotiation and compromise over compulsion, too many governments are relying on armed force as the foreign-policy instrument of choice, with calamitous consequences.

Diplomacy, in contrast, can help to make the world a better place, but it has failed to adapt to the imperatives of world-order management in the 21st century. It has been sidelined. If this is to change, the grand strategy will have to be demilitarized, and the entire diplomatic ecosystem - foreign ministry, foreign service and, most crucially, the diplomatic business model - must be reimagined and transformed from the ground up. This will involve addressing both the immediate and underlying drivers of insecurity and underdevelopment by generating better intelligence, working smarter, engaging strategically - and by building a better diplomat.

Diplomacy's front lines are now far removed from quiet clubs or closed meeting rooms, grand hotels or formal chancelleries. Today's diplomatic encounters tend to take place publicly and cross-culturally - in a barrio or a souk, in an Internet chat room or a blog, on main street or in a Quonset hut set astride the wire in a conflict zone.

Unlike all too many serving envoys, the guerrilla diplomat will know how to swim with comfort and ease in the sea of the people rather than flop around like a fish out of water, and prefer to mix with the population rather than mingle with colleagues inside embassy walls. Today's envoy must be somewhat of a renaissance polymath - part activist, part humanist, part lobbyist. The outdated archetype of the cartoon cutout bedecked in pearls or pinstripes and lost in a haze of irrelevance somewhere between protocol and alcohol must be punctured by the counter-image of a street-smart, BlackBerry-toting emissary in sandals and denim.

These days, the erstwhile global village has come to resemble a patchwork of gated communities surrounded by a roiling sprawl of shantytowns. The conventional causes of conflict, such as political differences or territorial disputes, have been displaced by a raft of transnational issues, many rooted in science and driven by technology. The new threats include criminality, terrorism and religious extremism, but also the more profound threats of state failure, climate change, environmental collapse, pandemic disease and genomics.

The time is overdue to get on with adapting to the transition from the Cold War to the globalization age. This can be achieved by transforming traditional state-to-state relations, with all of their conventions and rigidities, to postmodern politics, which include new actors drawn from civil society, supranational bodies and the private sector.

By embracing radical new thinking in an analysis of the conceptual, institutional and practical tools required to identify the vectors of insecurity and underdevelopment, and to manage the spectrum of current global crises and challenges, Canada and the world can, and indeed must, find a better way forward.

Carpe diem.

Daryl Copeland is the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations. He was a participant in yesterday's ForeignPolicyCamp - an innovative hybrid conference about rethinking Canada's role in the world.