Defending diplomacy


Defending diplomacy


Sunday, November 03, 2019

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On October 7, 2019, the Jamaica Observer published a wide-ranging and thought-provoking presentation under the hand of Mr James Moss-Solomon headlined 'Diplomacy highly overrated'.

It was a generally enjoyable review concerning diplomacy, which also touched on rural funding arrangements in Jamaica, the looming Lumi problem, and the question of Maroon sovereignty.

Law of the Sea, etc

Mr Moss-Solomon's approach to diplomacy requires further comment. He proceeds on the basis that diplomacy is essentially pointless, and that diplomats may be more comfortable arguing about the pros and cons of fine wine than in resolving major inter-state disputes. I offer three points in response to Mr Moss-Solomon's stimulating commentary.

First, although it is easy to identify international issues that remain unsolved across the years, it is also easy to cite instances in which diplomacy has resolved problems.

To offer but one example, the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention has effectively regulated almost all aspects of navigation and maritime resource exploitation by states. Every ship that handles Jamaican imports and exports, and every enterprise drilling for offshore oil is operating in accordance with the Law of the Sea treaty a product of diplomacy.

Needless to say, other examples could be cited; for, in the areas of international air transport, treatment of nationals abroad, extradition, human rights, international business and investment, among others, state behaviour is primarily guided by rules of law formulated by diplomatic representatives. Built by the labour of diplomats, one could say.

No Assessment

Secondly, Mr Moss-Solomon lists areas in which diplomacy may have failed, but gives no assessment as to why diplomacy has not worked in any of the given situations. He mentions, for instance, “America/Cuba”, but does not consider the underlying reasons for this problem. Arguably, this is not a failure of diplomacy at all.

In my view, the long-running Cuban embargo represents political decisions in the USA and Cuba at the highest political levels. If anything, the problem rests in the hands of the American and Cuban leaders, including, in the case of America, the Congress which maintains economic sanctions through legislation.

Even a diplomat with a magic wand cannot solve disputes in situations where the principals are not ready or willing to bring the matter to an end. This comment applies to all the examples of failure cited by Mr Moss-Solomon.

It should also be noted that Mr Moss-Solomon offers no alternatives in diplomacy in his listing of international disputes. The truth is that some of these disputes are of such fundamental interest to the states involved, they could descend into war. But, as Harold McMillan noted long ago, “Jaw jaw is better than war war.”

We are left then with having diplomats negotiate the way to a solution, no matter how long this may take. If we believe that might is not necessarily right, and if we accept the rules against the use of force in the United Nations Charter, we really have no practical alternative to jaw-jaw among principals and diplomats.


Thirdly, Mr Moss-Solomon characterises appointment of a diplomat to the UN as a comfortable “holiday posting”, and further describes diplomatic work as comprising “endless cocktail parties” and the exploration of wine expertise. This, I daresay, is an exaggeration.

The diplomat's primary duties are to convey her or his government's position to the receiving state on matters of importance, to receive information from the receiving state, and to analyse political and other developments in the receiving state for the benefit of the home country. The diplomat should also work to ensure the protection of nationals overseas, promote economic development, and raise the profile of his or her country in the receiving state.

In some instances, the diplomat's functions are not confined to fostering positive bilateral relations. So, for instance, the Jamaican ambassador to the USA also carries out multilateral duties as the country's permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS).


In the latter context, the Jamaican diplomat is called upon to present Jamaican perspectives on a range of pressing hemispheric matters including, for example, “America/Cuba, America/Venezuela, Venezuela/Guyana” from Mr Moss-Solomon's list.

Still within the OAS, Jamaica has also been called upon to address matters such as the movement of migrants across borders in the Americas, the Haitian nationality question in the Dominican Republic, the Falklands/Malvinas dispute, the Belize/Guatemala territorial dispute, Julian Assange/Ecuador, human rights issues in various countries, and the question of marijuana.

If properly done, then, the diplomat's job will leave little time for wine-swilling. But, the mistaken perception that diplomats are splendidly idle or at least that diplomacy is highly overrated persists. Mr Moss-Solomon is not alone in his analysis. For this reason, I express the hope that others will join in the effort to rebut the ill-founded presumption of diplomatic idleness. In the meantime, I thank Mr Moss-Solomon for his thought-provoking presentation.

— Stephen Vasciannie is a former Jamaican ambassador to the USA and permanent representative to the Organization of American States

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