13 May 2021, The Tablet

The diplomat’s vocation

The diplomat’s vocation

Philip McDonagh


Must international relations be only a game of power, or is there a role for diplomats as builders of a shared civilisation in a world where people disagree?

My understanding of diplomacy goes back to a moment of epiphany when I was a student. I was reading passages in Thucydides which compare the breakdown of a shared sense of justice to the spread of a pandemic. Suddenly I was in tears. I had encountered the profoundly true, a vision of how evil makes its way in the world.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals commit us to “reaching the last first”. During the Covid pandemic, citizens have been making sacrifices for the community. There is increasing recognition of our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations. All over the world, we glimpse new horizons, even in the literal sense, as pollution lifts. What should happen next? Can we build a world inspired by a shared vision of human values? With three friends, I have just published a book proposing six axioms of the historical imagination, which point towards practical steps in the realm of methodology and orientation.

In Thucydides’ language, the connection between words and reality is fragile. Commonality of meaning, if it is to be achieved, requires a discourse sustained through time by actors who remain in relationship to one another, even where they disagree. Building a shared civilisation in a plural world requires frameworks of engagement not unlike the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the North-South dialogue and the peace process in Northern Ireland, all of which I was involved in over many years. Post-Second World War, the strengthening of social security and international cooperation drew on a great depth of cultural sources; we can do something even more ambitious in the twenty-first century. We can work towards an age of ­sharing even as we recognise our different national interests in day-to-day negotiations.

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