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September 2009

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Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations
Review by Peter R. Beckman, Ph.D.
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Daryl Copeland, Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009; 311 pages, ISBN 978-58826-955-2 paperback, $26.50

Guerrilla Diplomacy promises much.  Its basic premise is that the changed conditions of the world need to be met by fundamental changes in our understanding of diplomacy, in the work of the foreign ministry, and in our expectations of the diplomatic service.  Daryl Copeland served in the Canadian diplomatic service for nearly thirty years, with postings in Thailand, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and Malaysia, and in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa, working particularly on communications and policy planning.  He thus brings a practitioner’s eye to his topic and the passion of an individual who believes that there has to be--and that there is--a better way.

For Copeland, globalization is the central challenge facing the world, posing a particularly severe challenge in the underdeveloped world because the past imposition of neoliberal reforms such as “welfare reductions, program cuts, privatization, [and] marketization” now collide with wrenching structural adjustments, contributing to “the desperate circumstances that, in combination with population pressure and resource scarcity, give rise to currents of extremism” [p. 48].

In his view, the old but discouragingly common militarized responses (particularly by the United States) are not only wrong-headed but also dangerous.  Rather, the goal should be one of development.  And in the pursuit of that goal, “diplomacy, the foreign ministry, and the foreign service …remain the most efficient tools with which to identify, and ultimately address the daunting range of economic, social and political needs worldwide, and in so doing, make the planet a more secure place.”

Copeland underpins his argument for making development central to foreign policy by reaching back some forty years to dependency theory and its central tenet that the wealthy in the developed nations create a necessary under-development in the periphery.  From this perspective, he argues that we should abandon the “first world” and “third world” concepts.   (History fortuitously melted the second or communist world.)  Rather, we should think in terms of four grouping that he collectively calls the ACTE worlds.  (Copeland, incidentally, is fond of initials.)

The A (or advancing) world, for instance, comprises the economically advanced nations along with the economically advantaged elite in less developed countries (the basic argument of dependency theorists).  The C (contingent) world comprises the emerging developed states (like Turkey and Malaysia) or groups (such as “the cloth merchants of Old Delhi”).   The T (or tertiary world), on the other hand, comprises much of the dependent, underdeveloped “third world,” but as Copeland points out, it encompasses, among others “the uninsured poor in the United States (such as those who suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)” and pockets of poverty in other states.  The E (excluded) world includes “the most primitive and remote peoples” as in Amazonia as well as “significant areas of sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.”

Along with offering the ACTE re-conceptualization, Copeland makes a special pitch for consideration of science and technology (S&T) as a common component of both the threat to individual and national well being in each of the ACTE worlds, as well as the bearer of possible solutions.  In his scheme, S&T-savvy Foreign Service personnel are essential.

The ACTE and S&T discussion takes up the first half of the book, presumably to persuade the reader that governments need to re-conceptualize the world they work in and to rethink their diplomatic practices and structures.  The reader’s perspectives and tastes will likely determine how convincingly Copeland makes his case.  I suspect, however, that the reader will be impatient as s/he works through these pages, looking for the proposed solutions.

Copeland’s proposed response centers on public diplomacy (PD) and a more extreme, perhaps more powerful form of PD, which he labels guerrilla diplomacy (GD).  In his view, these orientations and their associated activities are the best--and the indispensable--responses to the challenges of globalization and the wave of hostility it has engendered.  Unfortunately, it is in the discussion of PD and GD that Guerrilla Diplomacy failed for this reader.

Copeland’s basic point seems to be that states such as Canada and the United States must make “human-centered development” paramount.  To do so, their Foreign Service personnel must connect with a broad range of individuals, not just counterparts in various ministries.  PD and GD therefore seek to have contact with societies, to understand them, and to influence them. 

Public diplomacy, of course, is not unknown in Washington.  Judith McHale, the newly sworn in Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs spoke in June of two key components of public diplomacy: “First, communication. This is the air game, the radio and TV broadcasts, the websites and media outreach that all seek to explain and provide context for U.S. policies and action.  And second, engagement, the ground game of direct people-to-people exchanges, speakers, and embassy-sponsored cultural events that build personal relationships.”  She went on to say, “As we communicate with people around the world, we must move beyond messaging. We need to listen more and lecture less. We have to learn how people listen to us, how our words and deeds are actually heard and seen.”

This echoes some of Copeland’s discussion of PD, a discussion that relies on a repetition of catch phrases such as networking and advocacy, branding and maintaining the credibility of the brand, creating networks of communication with individuals in the other society, and most importantly, creating a “genuine dialogue” where one listens as much or even more than one talks, “connecting with a population rather than a state,” and providing intelligence back to one’s own government about the concerns and interests of others.  And, almost as an after-thought, this PD also confronts one’s own government when its behavior does not match the brand’s promise.

As for GD or guerrilla diplomacy--that turns out to be PD kicked up a notch, a “sharper, faster, lighter” version of PD.  Copeland turns to GD in the penultimate chapter, although he has dropped hints in the preceding 187 pages.  But in this full chapter, GD becomes a series of catch-phrases and exhortations as well: It consists of diplomats with the skills of invention, of improvisation, of taking initiatives without awaiting orders, but with the street smarts to avoid offending the local government, but it is out in the street, “mixing it up with the locals,” “interacting with friend and foe alike, building relationships, focusing on issues.”  And it is not much more specific than that.  In passing, Copeland refers to Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor in Teheran in 1979, Raoul Wallenberg during World War II, and UN representative in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello as demonstrating some of these skills, but there is little of substance in his analysis.  Indeed, the longest discussion of real people doing real things can be found on pages 148-49 when Copeland relates how Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin staged a successful PD campaign against Spain’s fishing practices.

In sum, what Copeland’s analysis really needs is a presentation of PD and GD at work, with extensive case studies--or if those are too sensitive (or unavailable), then with extensive fictional illustrations of what PD and GD might look like on the ground and how the results might feed into policy formulation and implementation, or into building a persuasive brand.  They should suggest in some detail--even fictional detail--how PD and GD are likely to have a meaningful impact on dealing with development and globalization issues.  Such illustrations would also give Copeland the opportunity to discuss how PD and GD would cope with critical issues or questions that he generally avoids such as:

  • How information collected by PD and GD processes would be superior or significantly different from that provided by more traditional sources;
  • How the quality of national decision-making might be enhanced by PD and GD, rather than paralyzed by bureaucratic struggles by components of a nation’s foreign ministry with competing worldviews and information sources;
  • How PD and particularly GD would occur without many host governments becoming hostile to such activities (as they would be seen by many as unwarranted spying and agitation by diplomats, particularly by governments where the consequences of underdevelopment are most severe);
  • How does one recruit a diplomatic cadre with the talents for PD or GD, and how does one judge a job well done?


Dr. Peter R. Beckman taught International Relations and American Foreign Policy for 30 years at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York and currently teaches part-time at Elon University. He is the author of World Politics in the Twentieth Century and a co-author of The Nuclear Predicament; Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear States and Terrorism; Women, Gender, and World Politics; and Women in World Politics.  He holds his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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