Diplomacy as distraction

The annual spectacle of the U.N. General Assembly is fast approaching. Much of New York’s East side will be shut down as world leaders rush to and from U.N. headquarters to deliver speeches that will be forgotten almost as soon as they’re uttered (Libya’s Qaddafi may be an exception here). Close behind the U.N. extravaganza ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

The annual spectacle of the U.N. General Assembly is fast approaching. Much of New York's East side will be shut down as world leaders rush to and from U.N. headquarters to deliver speeches that will be forgotten almost as soon as they're uttered (Libya's Qaddafi may be an exception here). Close behind the U.N. extravaganza are meetings of the G-20 in South Korea and NATO in Portugal. Fall, it turns out, is the season of international summitry.

The annual spectacle of the U.N. General Assembly is fast approaching. Much of New York’s East side will be shut down as world leaders rush to and from U.N. headquarters to deliver speeches that will be forgotten almost as soon as they’re uttered (Libya’s Qaddafi may be an exception here). Close behind the U.N. extravaganza are meetings of the G-20 in South Korea and NATO in Portugal. Fall, it turns out, is the season of international summitry.

For foreign policy realists, most of this conspicuous multilateralism is just shy of meaningless. The national interest, not multinational confabs, determines policy. John Mearsheimer, the dean of modern-day realists, has on many occasions demanded evidence that international organizations and institutions actually change the way states behave. I don’t think he’s ever received an answer that satisfies him. 

But there is another strain of realist thought that conceives of international organizations not so much as irrelevant but as insidious. These realists fear that leaders, and particularly those in liberal democracies, will become so entranced with constructing an elaborate international architecture that they will forget to mind their own fences. E.H. Carr’s dissection of allied policy between the world wars is a classic in this vein. And prominent post-World War II realists saw themselves as instructing the newly powerful United States on the "rules" of international politics (lesson 1: ditch Wilsonianism and its fantasies about international law).  This view is in many senses even less sanguine about international organizations, but it does open the door to an interesting possibility: that international organizations and the process of multilateralism more generally can itself change leaders’ mindsets and priorities. 

All of which leads to a possible theory about the value of extravagant and time-consuming multilateralism that has little to do with tangible outcomes: it keeps national leaders in meetings (or preparing for them) and out of trouble. This won’t be satisfying to those who insist that today’s challenges demand concrete and decisive action (and some of them certainly do). But in the wake of mankind’s bloodiest century, there’s an awful lot to be said for the strategic value of distraction.

Addendum:  The realist rejoinder to this would no doubt be that only certain kinds of national leaders from certain kinds of societies will allow themselves to be distracted by messy multilateralism and that other, more ruthless leaders will keep their eyes fixed on their concrete goals. So while Obama and Sarkozy sweat over Security Council resolutions, Ahmadinejad spins up centrifuges.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.