The Age of Diplomacy is Over

The Age of Diplomacy is Over

The dynamics of global conflict are too fluid for the traditional Westphalian state system.

A new front has opened up in the Gaza conflict. The new front is not Lebanon or the West Bank, but one whereby all the traditional forms of war have ended. The essential features of war since the nation-state ascendancy post-Westphalia were, from the Medieval period onwards, wars of the “just state.” Wars were essentially conflicts between noble families, and since the average European traveled within a maximum radius of fifty kilometers throughout their life, war was something “out there,” not “imminent.” Conflicts didn't draw in disparate neighbors or nation-states on the other side of the known world. This began after the formation of nation-states in the nineteenth century. It also resulted from the contradistinction between maritime (the British Empire) and land-based (Germany in the twentieth century) ascendancies. The United States inherited the mantle of the maritime ascendancy but is now losing it.

Last month, Houthi rebels managed to kidnap the crew of an Israeli chartered ship in the Red Sea shipping lane. The import of this is not the disappearance of the poor crew of twenty-five non-Israelis but the nature of modern conflict. For Israel, the event constituted another front. For the globalized world, it was another example of the dysfunctional nature of modern geopolitics. The Houthis descent from a helicopter to capture the ship illustrates the fluidity, the fall of any semblance of “morality” from international affairs, the ending of borders, and the end of diplomacy. 

No longer is diplomacy a chin wag between Napoleon and Alexander on a raft in the middle of the River Niemen at Tilsit in 1807, complete with fine wines and French cheeses. The forms of war have changed; solutions are technical and violent. The first maneuver is sending nuclear submarines to the Mediterranean. The age of diplomacy has shifted to the realm of computer games. We are now in danger of “technifying” reality. We can become distant from its consequences, immune to suffering.

The new front means two things. For the world, it means globalized war. For Israel, it means becoming embedded in a diaspora of terror in a wider Islamic world. It was Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan that introduced the total absolute boundaries of the nation-state—yet this was balanced by the idea of the justus hostis and magni homines. Even wars between kings could be limited by dynastic ties.

On the other hand, the twentieth century brought what Ernst Junger termed “a mine that detonates silently.” By that, he meant war for modernity was afar, total, against an “enemy,” “rogue state,” or the “terrorist.” The opposition becomes dehumanized, for this is the narrative of black and white, good and evil. Aligned with this movement to technicity and rationality, there was the abandonment of previous notions of “natural law” allegiances prior to the nation-state. That is—allegiances to other things besides economics, resources, or borders.

Modern technical warfare has relegated diplomacy and conceptions of natural law to the dustbins of history. Nation-states today regard with contempt the instruments of international justice: the United Nations or the International Court of Justice. Such arbitration only works on an equal playing field rather than the show trial atmosphere of many multilateral fora. Nation-states have dubious origins. The Holy Roman Empire, for instance, had the Pope or Emperor as the arbitrator of the status quo based on natural or customary law. 

Modern contestation more resembles the realms of pirates, rootless states with a fundamental commercial orientation. This leaves the world open to the death of diplomacy, a fight for resources with no underlying logos or law. Thus, modern liberal nation-states abolished the justus hostis for the ability to strike the enemy for merely territorial reasons. Kant, in his On Perpetual Peace, believed that economic cooperation would lead to perpetual peace. Hence, there would be a universal law based on a European concept of liberal democratic norms. This idea gained currency until the advent of modern total war in the twentieth century.

There is no avenue for diplomacy between modern conflicting nation-states and their constant assertion of geopolitical and resource war. International laws are redundant, for the institutions are partial and cannot appeal to the new pluralistic world as globalization hits the buffers. The new front of the post-liberal world is universal war, not universal peace.

Brian Patrick Bolger LSE, University of Liverpool. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in the US, the UK, Italy, Canada, and Germany in magazines such as The American Spectator, Asian Affairs, Deliberatio, L'Indro Quotidiano Indipendente di Geopolitica, The National Interest, GeoPolitical Monitor, Merion West, Voegelin View, The Montreal Review, The European Conservative, Visegrad Insight, The Hungarian Review, The Salisbury Review, The Village, New English Review, The Burkean, The Daily GlobeAmerican Thinker, The Internationalist, Philosophy News. His new book, Nowhere Fast: Democracy and Identity in the Twenty-First Century will be published soon by Ethics International Press.