His point is that medieval, or at least “pre-Westphalian”, diplomacy was a more fluid and informal affair, and closer to the spirit of Davos, than stiff modern nation-to-nation diplomacy.
Khanna takes up an idea the WEF has of itself as a nimble, networked institution, suited to dealing with modern complexity, and without a bureaucracy, and connects it, rightly or wrongly, with something pre-modern.
“The formalized, bureaucratized foreign ministry as we know it today is a legacy of French nobleman Cardinal de Richelieu, who as an adviser in the court of King Louis XIII established a Ministry of External Affairs in 1626 and dispatched the most extensive professional diplomatic corps in Europe.”
Let’s ignore the detail that Richelieu is “pre-Westphalian”. And Khanna needs to explain better what he means by medieval diplomacy and how it worked. Perhaps he does in his new book. Those things said, modern diplomacy was defined by international relations, and the world still tries to address complex multilateral problems in that way.
In the last year or two
“a global economic ‘G-2’ of the U.S. and China was proposed to sort out the imbalances between savings and deficit countries; the United Nations General Assembly devoted several days in September to the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ that address hunger, poverty, and other socio-economic ills; grand summits were held in Copenhagen and Cancun to craft a global climate treaty; and experts [Nicholas Kristof] spoke of a ‘Grand Bargain’ to freeze Iran’s nuclear program.”
But effective modern diplomacy is about public-private, as well as public-public, relationships – and
“‘private-private’ interactions which circumvent the state altogether. Think of the Environmental Defense Fund dealing directly with Wal-Mart to cut the company’s overall emissions by 20 million metric tons and install solar panels at 30 new locations. The diplomats at Cancun could only dream of such concrete measures.
“All three of these combinations of negotiating partners thrive at Davos and in all WEF activities, which range from mini-Davos-style regional conferences to year-round multi-stakeholder initiatives in public health, climate change, anti-corruption and other areas. The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow ‘coalitions of the willing’ to organically ‘grow and go’ – incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.
“[...] The WEF’s founder, Swiss-German academic turned businessman Klaus Schwab, first declared a ‘Spirit of Davos’ in 1983, claiming that the WEF annual meeting had become ‘one of those increasingly rare international events where formality can be dispensed with, where personal contacts can be made, where new ideas can be tried out in complete freedom, where people are aware of the responsibilities involved in belonging to an international community, where we have time to look at really important issues rather than everyday pressures.’ [...]
“Surely Davos does not correct the ‘democracy deficit’ afflicting the world’s power structures, but what it does better than any other is correct the ‘diplomacy deficit,’ giving anyone it invites the right to represent themselves without interference or manipulation. NGOs speaking for the world’s oppressed, social entrepreneurs, and all manner of others seeking attention and funding get unobstructed access to the world’s richest companies, governments and philanthropists. Davos is where money and megaphones come together.
“Davos is reflexively dismissed as ‘waste of time’ by those either not invited or not interested in making contributions to the world beyond their own bottom line. But with the G-20 far less than the sum of its parts and the U.S.-China ‘G-2’ more a nightmare scenario than solution, Davos represents a fluid yet far more resilient division of labor for the world. Nobody can stop the entropy that is diffusing power in the world. Instead, we need more Davos-like congresses to harness all the new power centers, from presidents to entrepreneurs to activists. [...]
“Global governance is not a thing, not a collection of formal institutions, not even a set of treaties. It is a process involving a far wider range of actors than have ever been party to global negotiations before. The sooner we look for new meta-scripts for regulating transnational activities and harnessing global resources to tackle local problems the better. Davos continues to be a good place to start.”
When Schwab made that statement in 1983, the WEF still saw itself primarily as a convener and facilitator. Only in the late ’90s did it begin to see itself as part of the flow of action. That slight shift has led to its remarkable development in the past ten years. It, too, at times has made the grand, empty pronouncements which characterise nation-to-nation diplomacy.
A sense of history is what distinguishes Khanna from most writers on international relations. It isn’t a marginal interest: he can’t keep away from it. His new book is How to Run the World: Charting the Course to the Next Renaissance. I commented on his The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century here.