The Treaty of Lisbon, finally entering into force in late 2009, heralds a new, more advanced phase of the continuing European integration process. The treaty creates the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to which a much-expanded European diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, will report.

For a continent at the crossroads, this is a strategic moment. Europeans have an historic opportunity to construct a common European foreign and security policy and maximize their global influence in the 21st century. This won’t be easy. But by using public diplomacy as an instrument of soft power, and by working smartly toward shared objectives, Europe can find its comparative advantage in an increasingly hetero-polar world.

The Return of Multipolarity?

This fall, travelling through Europe and talking with many officials, journalists and ordinary citizens, I had the opportunity to witness up close the emergence of the New Europe. The latest legal and institutional developments bring the level of integration in the ever-expanding Union to a higher, more political level. The broader ramifications of these changes, however, are little understood, either within the EU or, especially, outside it. To date, much of the commentary — provided so far mainly by the Euro-skeptics — has been dismissive, if not derisive.

If properly managed, however, much good can come of this bold experiment, both for the EU and for the world beyond.

Indeed, it’s easy to forget, amidst the tangle of treaties and the boggle of the Brussels bureaucracy, just how much has already been achieved. These are early days yet for the integration project, which in the space of a scant half-century has so tightly bound the destinies of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, and so ingrained the habits of cooperation, that war between these once irreconcilable adversaries is now unthinkable.

For the past few hundred years European statesmanship has been concerned mainly with balancing power, first on a multipolar continent, then in a bipolar world. During this period, governments carefully calculated and balanced the vectors of national power: armies, navies, economies, populations, territories. Alliances were made and treaties entered into for purposes of expressing and extending that balance. Through to the end of the Cold War, power was relatively easily measured and compared, and armed force remained the ultimate arbiter.

Attempts at power balancing might have disappeared with the advent of U.S. uni-polarity in the early 1990s. Largely as a result of disastrous policy choices, however, this brief period of hegemony flamed out in a violent starburst of shock and awe over Baghdad in 2004.

The mainstream view is that world politics are now returning to some kind of a multipolar dispensation. But the term “multipolar” does not adequately capture the geographic dispersion and fundamentally different character of the principal vectors of power and influence in the age of globalization.

Unlike in previous eras, the heterogeneous nature of the competing poles renders comparison difficult, and measurement even more so. The United States, for instance, will for the foreseeable future be the world’s leading military or hard power. Yet its economic and industrial position is in relative terms fading fast, a trend accelerated by the continuing financial crisis and costly foreign wars. Within a decade or two the mantle of leadership, and pride of place as the epicenter of the world economy, will have passed to the Asia-Pacific region generally, and to China in particular — with India not that far behind.

Russia seems intent on becoming an energy and resource pole, a status complicated by its residual capacities as a former superpower. Brazil may also emerge as a pole, perhaps of cultural diversity or as the leader of the global south. Other countries, such as Turkey and Iran, could also potentially emerge as regional powers. Regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will grow in influence.

The emergence of a new world order will call for a new emphasis on diplomacy, involving a nuanced and highly complex balancing between dynamic poles. A new suite of threats, such as climate change, resource scarcity and pandemic disease, like the problems themselves, will require solutions rooted in science and driven by technology.

This is the environment in which Europe must find its comparative advantage.

Toward a European Grand Strategy

If history is a reliable indicator, then the integration of the European economy will one day be matched by the consolidation of the European polity. With an increasingly interwoven economic union will inevitably come a higher degree of political influence and increased international sway, as has already been the case with new thinking on development assistance.

To date, however, European leaders haven’t engaged in a substantial or strategic consideration of the continent’s role in world politics. More critically, the architects of Europe’s new foreign policy structures have not yet connected those institutions to a program of action. In the words of Nabil Ayad, director of the Diplomatic Academy of London, “The Americans may act without thinking, but the Europeans think without acting.”

Enter the concept of grand strategy, which connects thought to action. Grand strategy is not much in vogue these days. It is largely unknown outside of specialist circles, and is almost never mentioned in the media. It is rarely taught, particularly at North American universities. Most countries don’t have a grand strategy. In Canada, for instance, the last effort to cobble together such a document collapsed in a smoldering heap following the change of government in 2006. Something of this nature may be under construction in the United States, but the Obama administration has yet to commit.

In the absence of grand strategy, international policy tends to be ad hoc and incoherent. Poor decisions are made, lives are squandered, finance is wasted, and the result is insecurity — often coupled with underdevelopment.

Put another way, in the absence of a keel, international policy easily becomes militarized. In the memorable formulation of Oxford University historian and theoretician Hew Strachan, without grand strategy policy can become an instrument of war, rather than the other way around. For Europeans, the key will be to craft a grand strategy devoid of imperial overtones.

Modern grand strategy consists of four critical elements: a unifying, long-term vision of a country’s global values and interests; an estimation of where that country is and wants to go in the world; an assessment of the country’s potential and capacity to achieve those objectives; and a comprehensive plan to reach the destination set forth.

Europe offers a certain model to the world. It’s peaceful and prosperous. Its cities are safe and livable. Its social safety net remains in place and its public infrastructure is excellent. It has a rich historical heritage, and a thriving artistic and cultural life. These are Europe’s global values, and the challenge will be translate them into policies and interests.

Europa seems destined to lead the world in soft power, the power of attraction. The source of Europe’s strength and the basis of its comparative advantage will reside in the demonstration effect, the ability to promote its successful example internationally. In other words, in the era of heteropolarity, European grand strategy must flow from the effective projection of its model.

The Virtues of Public Diplomacy

If soft power is the fuel of influence, then innovative public diplomacy — based on meaningful exchange, reputation management, and relationship building — is the delivery vehicle.

In Guerrilla Diplomacy, I argue that because development has in large part become the new security in the age of globalization, diplomacy must displace defense at the center of international policy. In this regard, Europeans would be well advised to stop fretting over their serial inability to fashion a common defense policy. Bombs and guns, generals and admirals will have a place, but they won’t determine the way forward for Europe in a heteropolar world. That enterprise will instead turn on dialogue, on cross-cultural communication, on knowledge-based problem-solving, and on complex balancing in the management of the Union’s bilateral and multilateral relations.

Defense departments, although they have been allocated the lion’s share of resources, are as instruments of international policy both too sharp and too dull to provide these kinds of services. You can’t garrison against infectious disease, call in an airstrike on global warming, or send in an expeditionary force to impose alternatives to the carbon economy. Diplomats, on the other hand, with their specialized cross-cultural, linguistic and political communications skills, can and indeed must address these issues.

The translation of Europe’s considerable appeal into tangible, progressive influence vis-à-vis the other poles of global power will largely depend, therefore, on the quality, agility, and acuity of its diplomacy. If that idea catches on at the level of decision-makers and opinion-leaders within the European Union, it just might help to re-energize a public imagination that lately appears to have been flagging as regards the integration project. In so doing, this focus on public diplomacy could assist in taking the process of European integration to a higher level.

Constructing a Durable Diplomatic Ecosystem

Over the coming months, officials from the European Commission will undoubtedly be meeting frequently with the newly appointed High Representative in order to first design and then build the new European External Action Service. In this exercise, they could usefully take account of the concept of the diplomatic ecosystem — an integrated, organic and indivisible conglomerate consisting principally of the foreign ministry, the foreign service and the way the business of diplomacy is conducted. No single component can be viewed in isolation — change anywhere will have an impact everywhere.

Despite many attempts at reform, to date nowhere have any of these three elements been successfully adapted to meet the imperatives of globalization. Each remains overly state-centric, hierarchic, rigid in structure and risk-averse in culture. At a time when all parts of the ecosystem must be attuned to the needs of managing clusters of cross-cutting issues — public administration and policy development, international science and technology issues, the rule of law, rights and democracy, and governance, to name a few — scarce resources have instead been deployed elsewhere, mainly to the military.

Rather than concentrating on becoming suppler and more focused, foreign ministries are engaged in determined but usually futile rearguard actions to defend bureaucratic turf and identify candidate activities, missions, and people for cuts. Canada is in the midst of one such exercise now.

Rather than building a better, more representative diplomat through innovative training, enlightened recruitment, and expanded exchanges with business and civil society, many diplomatic services are being compelled to pull up the drawbridges, circle the wagons and look inwards, just when they need to be looking out.

Rather than reflecting the methods and techniques required to take diplomacy into barrios, souks, storefronts, and conflict zones, diplomatic practice remains for the most part organized around isolated chanceries and established conventions. It’s elite-oriented and disconnected from both the general population and popular culture.

The EU has a rare and precious opportunity to avoid these shortcomings by creating from the outset a relevant foreign ministry, a transformed foreign service, and an effective model of conducting diplomatic business. Operating at a higher level of analysis than the competition, EU diplomacy must grapple with globalization and resolve problems that are not the responsibility of other government departments or other levels of government.

This will be a tall order. How will EU diplomatic missions and interact with the individual missions of the 28 member states? Will they be more than symbolic, or even superfluous? Should the EU establish consulates-general in major centers that do not happen to be capitals — Shanghai, São Paulo, Mumbai, Los Angeles? Would such a mission be in a position to promote the business objectives of EU member states in cases where those goals conflict?

Working Smarter as One

Maximizing the advantages and capably advocating the shared interests, policies and values of one Europe in a competitive and heteropolar world will require that priority attention and adequate resources be directed towards:

  • Nurturing policy capacity (development, analysis and implementation) in order to improve performance on issues such as Afghanistan
  • Burnishing core professional skills (negotiation, languages, cross-cultural communication) through improved training and professional development
  • Sharpening operational agility, flexibility and adaptability (continuous learning, empowerment, enabling tools), for instance, through better use of new media
  • Establishing a representational footprint in the field that is keyed to receiving as well as sending state needs and circumstances
  • Creating and connecting with wider networks, and;
  • Mainstreaming public diplomacy and European brand management.

If the members of the EU External Action Service can see the way ahead and begin by thinking of themselves as globalization managers, and their institutional home as a globalization entrepôt, then the prospects for success just may be within sight.

In recent weeks, the EU has come under sustained criticism. The euro is stressed. Some member states, especially Greece, are facing severe financial and economic challenges. The president of the EU Council of Ministers, Herman Von Rompuy of Belgium, and High Representative Catherine Ashton of the UK, seem ineffective and invisible. To cap it off, President Obama is passing on the U.S.-EU summit planned for May in Madrid.

Such issues are certainly not to be ignored. But it’s also essential to retain a longer-term view and keep today’s news in perspective.

Europe has some of the best foreign ministries and foreign services in the world. The time is ripe to benefit from that intensive knowledge and extensive experience. This will mean not only taking account of the growing corpus of diplomatic scholarship and commentary, but striving to navigate around identified pitfalls, overcome formidable obstacles, and demonstrate domestic relevance. This isn’t mission impossible.

In the era of heteropolarity, no one country or region can hope to solve all of the world’s ills. But the prospect of articulating a consensual European grand strategy, one carried abroad through relentless diplomatic innovation, offers a promising alternative to the continued militarization of international policy.

For More Information

This paper has been prepared in a purely personal capacity and responsibility for the views expressed is the author’s alone. For more information, see: See

Daryl Copeland is an analyst, writer, and educator on international policy, global issues, diplomacy, and public management. From 1981 through 2009, he served as a Canadian diplomat with postings in Thailand, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and Malaysia. His book, Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations, was released in July 2009 by Lynne Rienner Publishers. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.