“Diplomacy in the modern age can never afford to stand still!”
Chatham House is a world-leading policy institute, based in London. Since its foundation 100 years ago, the “Royal Institute of International Affairs” has been committed to its mission to help governments and societies build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world. Sir Nigel Sheinwald has been Chair of Chatham House Council since July 2021. The 68-year old is a retired senior member of the British Diplomatic Service and also served as British Ambassador to the United States for four years. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Peace initiative, spoke with Sir Nigel Sheinwald about international cooperation, the future roles of the United States and UK and President Biden’s decision on Afghanistan.
Sir Nigel, the Faces of Peace initiative aims to highlight existing and future potential conflicts and find diplomatic solutions. What does “peace” mean for you personally?
Nigel Sheinwald: At the personal level, peace allows individuals and families to live their lives and work for something better without fear of domestic conflict or international aggression.
Being a realist, I don’t equate peace at the international level with a complete absence of war!
There is always some conflict going on in the world. But what provides a sense of peace is confidence that there is an international system and underlying order, that the key players in the world have a shared understanding of the rules of the road and each other’s bottom lines, that there are pathways to diplomatic solutions for the biggest conflicts, and that overall the experience of ordinary people round the world and their sense of ease is getting better, not worse.
The Covid pandemic has reinforced an image of poor international cooperation, and a rise in national selfishness.
Unfortunately, although today’s world is beset more by international tension and internal disorder and violence than outright inter-state wars and conflict, I can’t help feeling that the level of confidence in the international system’s ability to deal with conflict and promote peace has diminished in recent years. The Covid pandemic has reinforced an image of poor international cooperation, and a rise in national selfishness.
You were Ambassador to the United States of America between 2007 and 2012. How do you rate Joe Biden’s foreign and security policies? What is left of “Trumpism” in the world?
Nigel Sheinwald: When President Biden entered office, I welcomed the emphasis on the traditional American strengths – the promotion of shared values, the stress on working through America’s alliances and partnering with the UN and other global and regional institutions, the desire to look at world issues in the round and put a premium on international negotiation and diplomacy.
President Biden’s decision on Afghanistan has created severe doubts throughout NATO!
But President Biden’s decision on Afghanistan has created severe doubts throughout NATO. Not so much about the fundamental decision. I for one sympathise with a desire not to perpetuate an unsuccessful policy indefinitely. But the execution of that decision, the use of abrupt and unrealistic deadlines, and the absence of any consultation with America’s allies like the UK and Germany all undermine the objectives Biden set for his Presidency. Meanwhile America’s internal divisions and the increasing extremism and harshness of its politics continue to make it difficult for the US to maintain a consistent leadership role in the world based on long term US interests. It’s too soon, a month after the fall of Kabul, to know exactly how this will play out.
America’s allies hope that President Biden will opt back into the activist internationalism he promised.
But America’s allies hope that President Biden will opt back into the activist internationalism he promised and will resist those who believe that America can or should retreat from the world.
Keyword diplomacy: Digitalization, social networks and new actors in the field of international diplomacy reflect the reality of foreign policy in the 21st century. Do we have to rethink diplomacy?
Nigel Sheinwald: In my experience over nearly four decades as a British diplomat, diplomacy in the modern age can never afford to stand still. Today feels different because of the speed of and confusion caused by instantaneous global digital media.
Diplomacy in the modern age can never afford to stand still!
But changes such as the end of the Cold War, the rise of China and India, the increasing multipolarity of the global system, the rising concern over global health and climate policies are at least as important as the changes in communication alone. Diplomats now have to be adept communicators themselves, which means they inevitably get drawn into today’s sometimes coarse domestic politics.
Diplomacy and populism: Populist politicians in government offices are changing world politics. Has there been a change in the way foreign policy decisions are made under populists, and if so, how lastingly?
Nigel Sheinwald: Diplomats today need to cope with a world where international policies are often just as contested as national, and where populist movements try to undermine evidence-based policy making, negotiation and diplomacy.
Populists tend to rely on swagger and assertion, not on analysis or facts.
Populists tend to rely on swagger and assertion, not on analysis or facts. But the public will realise, sooner or later, that they have not been well served. The question is how much damage is done in the meantime.
Numerous experts see the climate crisis as an aggravator of conflicts and expect battles over territory, water and food as a result of extreme weather phenomena. To what extent is the EU prepared for future streams of refugees?
Nigel Sheinwald: Technically, no doubt the EU learned some practical lessons about coping with refugee and migrant inflows after the crisis of 2015.
The fundamentals in the EU and UK remain the same: immigration remains a highly sensitive subject everywhere!
But the fundamentals in the EU and UK remain the same: immigration remains a highly sensitive subject everywhere. In the EU it is very difficult to forge a common position given the wide differences of view among member states and the adoption by some of xenophobic and restrictive policies; and cooperation and trust, for example across the Channel between Britain and France, are difficult to maintain. Climate change will change the problem massively for the worse, and it’s difficult at present to be optimistic about Europe’s ability or willingness to think ahead and then adopt cooperative solutions.
The global security architecture is becoming increasingly complex and faces a number of new challenges. What contribution does Chatham House make to world peace, security and stability?
Nigel Sheinwald: Chatham House is one of world’s top international think tanks. We provide analysis and policy options independently of governments. We have a distinctive mixture of programmes, some dealing with global themes such as security, climate and health, and others drilling into regional problems in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as Europe and North America. We excel at analysis of international order, or the absence of it, and the strains in the international system. We have the depth to cover all major issues, new and old, and bring a respected array of experts and commentators to bear on the world’s problems.
We are lucky that London naturally provides a diverse and vibrant pool of interested participants who populate our debates.
We are bringing younger people more and more into these debates and are lucky that London naturally provides a diverse and vibrant pool of interested participants who populate our debates.
Sir Nigel, our seventh question is always the same: What three trouble spots are in your opinion currently the most dangerous and what measures do you suggest to de-escalate conflict and stabilize peace?
Nigel Sheinwald: I’m not going to answer this by naming trouble spots themselves. I’m going to give three examples of countries whose roles will be critical in the years ahead. The first is obviously the United States.
For those of us who want the international order to be based on liberal values and practices, America remains indispensable.
The world is no longer and probably was never fully unipolar, but for those of us who want the international order to be based on liberal values and practices, America remains indispensable, and is at a difficult and decisive moment. My second choice is the UK, buffeted by Brexit and Covid. We have a theoretical blueprint for what Britain’s place in the world after Brexit should look like, but execution remains elusive, not helped by the vagaries of American policy and the Government’s desire to avoid close UK-EU cooperation at least for now.
All eyes are on Germany this autumn!
Third, all eyes are on Germany this autumn, not least at Chatham House where we have over many years looked at Germany’s role as a global influencer and in particular its relationships with the US, Russia and China and role within the EU. We will be applying our analysis to the elections and German foreign policy after Chancellor Merkel. We have a number of partnerships in Germany. For example, our Europe’s Strategic Choices conference (known colloquially as the ‘Berlin Conference’) has been held successfully in the city for a number of years and is a major event in the Chatham House calendar.
This year’s partners include Kiel University, the German Aerospace Industries Federation (BDLI), and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). The importance of Germany to any appreciation of the future of European foreign policy-making, and to post-Brexit Britain’s links to the European mainland reinforce our commitment to the Germany-Chatham House link.