It's hard not to notice that the media environment affects the minds of the foreign policy elites. For many, foreign policy is increasingly becoming not just a professional occupation, but also a pleasant pastime and entertainment. This directly affects the quality of foreign policy assessments and decisions.
There are several reasons for this. Modern politics unfolds in the media space. Landmark negotiations are held behind closed doors of course, but the repercussions often become more important than the substance of the agreements reached. After all, social networks are about approval – politicians and experts expect applause for each and every move. Talk shows are not intended to establish the truth – as Sergei Markov noted, they are a funfair of emotions, in which viewers see how their “kin” crack down on “strangers” brought in to be bashed up. In the context of the global media environment, foreign policy expertise and the value of objective knowledge of the world are being devalued.
However, in the present conditions of multiple international crises, we need qualitative knowledge of each other more than ever. It is also far easier to get this information than before. Yet, the desire to understand each other’s motives and logic, as well as their fears and phobias, is no longer there. Imagination readily paints an opponent in the gloomiest of colors.
As a result, rationality and mutual respect have been drained from the foreign policy dialogue. Gags, memes, and expressive poses are gradually replacing diplomacy. Perhaps this is the consequence of a false sense of security, the improbability of war as a result of nuclear deterrence. Leading players’ foreign policy gains a tendency to irresponsibility, or, as Timofei Bordachev says, “strategic frivolity” – a readiness to create risky situations for the sake of momentary interests.
They say the new information era is washing away the differences between adults and children, and that an era of universal infantilism is approaching. I do not want to think about what this would mean for international relations. Working out a foreign policy strategy is extremely demanding in terms of the diplomat’s professional qualities. Even to understand – at least to just understand – complex crises like Ukraine or Korea is extremely difficult. Let's try to think what professional skills and qualities this professional might need.
I am not talking about professional propagandists and cynics who are not sensitive to the state of bilateral relations with another country and can use any situation for career purposes. We are talking about bona fide middle-level specialists, heads of departments in foreign policy bodies. In my experience, they are in the majority. First of all, they face the seemingly simple task of understanding the situation.
However, in reality, this task is not so simple and there are several hidden reefs here.
One of them is a lack of first-class information. It seems that a diplomat has at his disposal an inexhaustible sea of data – social networks, media material, subscriptions to classified analytical products, and special agencies’ material. However, in fact all these are secondary sources filled with vivid interpretations that are interesting for wide audiences of the mass media, but useless for professionals. The modern media’s fever to sell their stories pushes accuracy to the backseat. The material supplied by special departments have a tendency to distort the real picture and add unnecessary details, curious, but insignificant for understanding the subject. Expert reports rarely show the problem under the required angle and therefore seem irrelevant.
The second problem is a lack of personal observations. Once a year, the ministry can send a field mission of three to four people to clarify the facts. The department will then use their stories about a week's trip for a whole year. This is not enough. An objective assessment can only be based on accumulated experience of personal observation of a country, best of all, a long stay in it. Over that period of time, the specialist should build several hundred professional contacts and gain a considerable amount of observations of the local society and elites in various circumstances, including observations about the economy, culture and life of the country in question. Only this knowledge will allow one to develop empathy – the ability to walk in another person’s shoes, to truly understand them without agreeing. This skill does not come from the others or from reading books, using the media and watching movies. Only personal experience and observation can confirm that the United States really believed they could bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq by force and spent about 2 trillion dollars to achieve this goal. This is hard to believe without understanding the American mental context. It can be argued that the opinion of a person who visited the country in question less than a couple of dozen times carries no weight.
The third problem is a lack of fundamental training of foreign policy specialists. Talking about our colleagues in Western countries, one can hardly find a university there that still teaches a chronologically continuous world history course from ancient times up to the present day. Only that would have taught them to connect causes and consequences in the behavior of states and give them the required associative range for current policy analysis. Teaching of regional disciplines and foreign languages is irretrievably undervalued. It is believed that the local specifics is best known by local staff, and for translation, there are translators. Instead, future diplomats’ curricula are filled with innovative techniques and application modules. It is good to know how to solve cases and do projects, but first of all, it would be good to know something about the host country and its view of the world.
The fourth reason, the lack of fundamental knowledge, is often compensated by ideological predisposition. Such a specialist reads and understands even first-class information incorrectly – through the bias of their stereotypes, and often in their native language, not in the original language. As a result, their eyes look but do not see the important things, automatically sifting out incomprehensible, uncomfortable or unpleasant material. This hardly helps them fully understand the context and the true meaning of what is really happening.
All this makes the specialist unarmed when dealing with the complexity, ambiguity of contexts and the multiplicity of signals in foreign policy. Such a diplomat is impulsive and becomes easy prey of manipulation or, more often, a sarcastic editor’s column.
Foreign policy practice is a complex professional field, in which precision, insight and perfect knowledge are required – the knowledge of ourselves, of the partner country and the current situation. Without this, even a first-class source will be misread, misheard or misunderstood, leading to wrong assessments and erroneous decisions.
The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
So far, the foreign policy of most countries leaves enough room for precocious judgments, stereotypes and ignorance. The quality of foreign policy assessments and decisions is often lower than similar solutions in the sphere of economics and social regulation. As science and profession, diplomacy has yet to go a long way to take its place among the exact sciences. Unfortunately, the road there lies through mistakes – international crises.