Paradiplomacy or Parrot diplomacy?

January 22, 2020

The World Economic Forum celebrates its 50th anniversary this week at Davos. The annual meeting and its profile have grown so large over the years that “Davos” now substitutes in the public mind for globalization and all the negative and positive elements associated with globalization. There is even a “Davos-man” (sic) who represents the global elite in both senses of word as representative, and representational.[1]

Delegates to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, 1987 (Copyright, WEF; Source: Flickr)

The concept of representation raises a question about Davos and similar gatherings: how do they rate in diplomacy? The term that is usually used to describe them is paradiplomatic. Which is to say, they fulfill a diplomatic role, but one that is non-traditional and non-specific.

“Paradiplomacy” as a term is also rather vague. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “designating or relating to diplomatic activities which are ancillary to those officially sanctioned or recognized; that is additional to or beyond the scope of normal diplomacy.” This definition is contingent upon some simple questions: who sanctions and recognizes diplomatic activities? How is sanctioning done? Who decides how far the scope extends? And who decides what activities count as ancillary?

The questions arise not only from a malleable notion of diplomacy but also of para-. OED defines the prefix primarily as “forming miscellaneous terms in the sense ‘analogous or parallel to, but separate from or going beyond, what is denoted by the root word.’” Thus, paranormal, paralegal, parapolitical etc. But if the root word – in this case, diplomatic – denotes more than it has in the past by including the roles played individually and collectively by non-state actors and others, then it would appear that we may dispense with “paradiplomacy.”

The aim of the NDH network has been to blur such lines in the cause of functionalism. Does that then mean para- is no longer needed?

Possibly not. A functional definition of diplomacy may allow for a broader inclusion of diplomatic actors, but it retains a precise attribution of aims: information-gathering, communication, and negotiation. Whatever their professional monikers may be, diplomats true to the profession must partake in all three activities.

Do the Davos-people do so? Obviously, some may do… but not all. What about the forum itself? A forum is a type of setting that is meant to facilitate diplomatic or other political activity; determining whether or not the forum itself performs such a role depends on the results of that activity and, to an extent, on how conscious the performers are of that role. The organizers of Davos certainly claim to perform it, going by the achievements noted on their website. They appear keen to show that they have never been just a talking shop.

When one listens to what is said at such gatherings, however, the distinction between the latter and the former is not so clear.

Critics refer to the gatherings as operating inside an echo chamber of egos and pet causes. That is not new or unique. As diplomacy and politics became more democratic during the nineteenth century, numerous congresses and conferences took place, and still do. Some even had little or nothing to do with diplomacy or politics. Today’s summits and forums continue the tradition of conflating the ostensible function of an international gathering with its structure. Thus, to return to the various definitions of paradiplomacy, one finds this one from the most recent edition of the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Diplomacy (eds. G. R. Berridge and Lorna Lloyd, 2012):

1) Generally, activity analogous to diplomacy (sense 1) conducted by anyone without diplomatic status, in particular a member of a non-governmental organization or private individual acting independently. See also personal diplomacy. (2) Specifically, international activity (typically lobbying) by regional governments such as the Canadian province of Quebec and stateless nations such as that of the Kurds. Paradiplomacy of this kind is sometimes prefixed with one or other of the following adjectives: sub-national, sub-state, or regional. See also federal state. By analogy with “paramedics,” “paramilitaries,” and so on, practitioners of both kinds of paradiplomacy are sometimes called paradiplomats, although the term is rare.

Both senses of that definition associate paradiplomacy with a democratic, representational culture, or that would appear to be the implication. But Davos and other such gatherings are infamously “elitist.” Their purpose was (and perhaps still is) to reach an elite consensus and only then to advertise it to others as being in their best interest.

The tremendous media attention which now accompanies Davos appears to belie that function. What, the reporters ask, are all the delegates doing there? It is no mystery. Some panels are broadcast online; delegates talk constantly to the media; the agenda and roster of speakers are made public. These events are increasingly carefully choreographed, to ensure “equal representation” (as the Davos man is joined by Davos woman), and talking points which are sufficiently tweetable. So if this is paradiplomacy, it almost certainly adheres to the Wilsonian diplomatic dictum of open covenants… openly arrived at.

Working Groups at the WEF Meeting, 1987 (Copyright WEF; Source: Flickr)

The problem here comes with the covenants. Traditional diplomatic meetings produce communiqués, treaties, and other agreements, or, if not, they occur in place of them. Paradiplomatic meetings nowadays appear only to fulfill the latter half of Wilson’s phrase: openly arriving at an ill-defined but passionate something. That something in turn appears to be being seen and heard for their own sake, delivering one’s lines on whatever one is best known for, and demanding the largest possible audience to hear the same words repeated over and over again.

To be sure, this depiction is a caricature of public diplomacy, para- or otherwise, as publicity; and the defenders of these gatherings make a legitimate point in claiming that many things also happen “behind the scenes.” Yet, once more, that too usually occurs at traditional gatherings, which anyone who knows about salons, bedrooms, and other paradiplomatic milieux, from Vienna to Vladivostok, can verify.

What makes Davos noteworthy, then, is not is not so much paradiplomatic as sociological. Over the past 50 years the Davos-people have become more publicity-conscious, more organized, and, in some ways, more sophisticated at communicating their agendas to a general audience, less for what those agendas achieve in consensus-building and related mediation than in what they represent for the brands of those delivering them, not to mention the brand of Davos itself.

If there is a diplomatic function to all that, it is not para- or private so much as privatized. That is to say, the public form and structure of a multilateral, global gathering have been appropriated by largely private interests, even if they ostensibly represent sovereign and other bodies, who claim to be serving the general interest of a global public.

What is the meaning of Davos? A once famous American reporter and self-described pillar of his country’s inbred political elite, Joe Alsop, owned a parrot. He used to let it join conversations with visitors to his house in Georgetown. It had three stock phrases: “well I never,” “dead wrong,” and “you don’t say.” Any if not all might be the best or only reply to give to the claim that Davos is representative of today’s paradiplomacy, or is the sign of things to come.


[1] See Bruce Mazlish and Eliott R. Morss, “A Global Elite?” in Leviathans: Multinational Corporations and the New Global History. Eds. Alfred D. Chandler and Bruce Mazlish (Cambridge UP, 2005), 167–86.