Rethinking diplomacy: Here's an index that'll help you make sense of international relations

If the words 'diplomacy' or 'international relations' mean anything to you, you'll want to check out the Global Diplomacy Index (GDI) published on Tuesday by Lowy Institute for International Policy.

If those words mean nothing to you beyond being mere buzzwords, then you'll definitely want to check out the GDI.

For the uninitiated, Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think tank, is an independent, nonpartisan international policy think tank located in Sydney.

Using the metric of how many diplomatic posts — which range from an embassy or high commission to consulates and other representations — a country possesses overseas, a Lowy team headed by Alex Oliver, director of the institute's polling programme, has put together a visually impressive graphic depiction of the diplomatic networks of all G20 and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

And this is what it looks like:

Rethinking diplomacy: Heres an index thatll help you make sense of international relations

A screengrab from the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index website

It could be argued at this point that bigger isn't always better, and that the number of a country's diplomatic missions does not reflect its diplomacy. For example, a single glance at the screenshot above shows that India has a major diplomatic presence across Europe, and yet, India-EU relations are at best, stable. Remember the stalled India-EU FTA?

Nevertheless, it's also a fact that a country improves its chances of better relations with another by increasing its points of contact — a process in which diplomatic missions play a major role.

So what does the GDI say?

Unsurprisingly, the UN Security Council's five permanent members — the US, France, China, Russia and the UK — find themselves sitting atop the list, while India was ranked at a not-too-great but far-from-terrible 12th place.

But in order to make sense of the data, it's worth looking at these figures alongside other important metrics like a country's GDP and defence spending.

The following table looks at the rankings of the top 40 countries among the list identified by Lowy (unfortunately, Iceland and Luxembourg didn't make the cut) in terms of GDP and defence expenditure:

The GDP part is fairly self-explanatory. After all, a wealthy country can afford to invest more in diplomatic outreach, so by and large, a country's diplomatic efforts are proportional to its GDP.

But how does defence spending figure here?

Defence and diplomacy can be considered to be two sides of the same coin: While one is designed to avoid skirmishes and to promote peace, stability and peaceful relations with foreign powers, the other is a bulwark to defend one’s borders from international aggression. Not convinced? Then perhaps you'll take the word of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who in the 19th Century, described war as "the continuation of policy with other means" or Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln Clausewitz put it.

Closer to the present, former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, who in 2014, said, "Diplomacy is not an alternative to military force; it is the use of all elements of US force in a coordinated, cumulative way to achieve our results in other countries".

And as some auxiliary data shows, countries that invest more in defence also tend to invest more in diplomacy. Whether this is causality or mere correlation will require deeper analysis, but for now, this seems to be the general trend.

For example, the US topped both charts, while China, which has the second highest GDP and defence budget in the world, appears at third place on the diplomacy index. India has the ninth-largest GDP and the sixth-highest defence budget, but we drop out of the top-10 on the diplomacy front. A subtle hint perhaps at where we are going wrong? Maybe sending the prime minister around the globe needs to be buttressed by the establishment of more diplomatic outposts.

But there are some outliers. And India fares remarkably well when compared to the likes of Saudi Arabia, which has the fourth highest defence budget in the world, trailing only the US, China and Russia, but does so despite having only the 19th highest GDP in the world and being 27th on the diplomatic index. Heavily-militarised Israel comes 29th on both the GDP and diplomacy ranking, but manages to invest enough in its defence to be 16th on the list, just behind an economic powerhouse like Canada — the 11th richest country on the planet.

Here's a graph to help some of that make a bit more sense:

And on the other end of the spectrum lies a country like France that has the second most diplomatic missions in the world, but its defence spending puts it at fifth place worldwide. Brazil that has the world's seventh highest GDP and has the sixth largest diplomatic investment in the world, falls back to 11th on its military spending. Similarly, Turkey has invested quite heavily in its diplomatic initiatives — the eighth best in the world — which is especially remarkable considering its GDP is ranked 18th and defence spending 14th globally.

Here's another graph to help you digest all of that:

India — a country that has long eyed a spot on the UN Security Council's table of permanent members — has 172 diplomatic missions compared to the US' 270, France's 267, China's 257, Russia's 243 and the UK's 231. Despite being outnumbered across the world, where India apparently holds the diplomatic edge is in Afghanistan with an embassy in Kabul and consulate-generals in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad. In comparison, the P5 countries only have an embassy in Kabul as far as major diplomatic posts are concerned.

The importance of Afghanistan to regional and even global security cannot be understated and India will seek to turn its multitude of diplomatic points of contact into visible bilateral gains in the years to come.

As for the rest of the world, we'll need to wait and see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi's energetic foreign outreach translates into the establishment of more diplomatic posts across the world.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2016 15:37:34 IST

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