Between 1814 and 1815, ambassadors from five great European countries sat together in the Congress of Vienna to find a balance of power in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. They succeeded, and set a model for diplomacy and managing state interests that persists to this day. The paradigm included territorial trade-offs, and the premise that rational men - and it is almost always men - trading interests can find answers to contests of power.
Two hundred years later, in a far less august setting, in a business school in Madrid, a young man asked speakers discussing the geopolitics of the Middle East whether they could not get beyond grand narratives of power, and consider paradigms that would actually meet the needs of people. Some criticised him for talking out of place, and diluting a debate on the battle of nations, but his question haunted the rest of the discussion, casting an invisible shadow on whether classical geopolitics and traditional diplomacy can meet people's basic needs.
Today, beyond lingering problems, such as the open wound in Palestine and the tensions in North Korea, Syria continues to disintegrate, Ukraine is shaken from Donetsk to Crimea, and serious tensions are rising between China and its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. More globally, the most recent report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that, if we do not shift massively away from fossil fuels, tripling global use of renewable energy sources, global temperatures will rise by 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. That's a mere 16 years away. The likelihood that 19th century diplomatic habits will resolve any of these tensions and challenges is low.
Case in point, the senior diplomat of the largest global power, US Secretary of State John Kerry, is exerting enormous diplomatic energy and incurring vast movements across the globe with tepid results. All the pushing and pulling with the Russians signify no end to the Syrian tragedy, only an agreement on chemical weapons that leaves all other means of killing available. All the efforts in Israel and Palestine are to get the parties to the table, not to conclude durable solutions for Jerusalem, and the long-suffering refugees. The jury's out on Iran and the nuclear file, but agreements with China over the disputed islands are very unlikely, and any geopolitical deals over Ukraine to satisfy Russia's anger and pride (justified or not) risk ignoring the interests and needs of the large majority of Ukrainians.
Lanxin Ziang, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, has called this obsession with balance of power the "Thucydidean Trap" and blames the US for falling into it against China. Yet, none - neither China, nor the US or Russia - appear to show any capability, or desire, to avoid this habit.
The chance that trade-offs between states will resolve the larger global challenges of our time, such as water and food shortages, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, economic inequalities and climate change, is close to nil. From energy security in Europe, to tensions in the western Pacific to the very lives of millions of Syrians, the classical process of diplomacy seems insufficient. National interests are too entrenched, and national obsessions too self-serving to permit the necessary greater gains. Political trade-offs and arguments inside countries are often as problematic as those between nations. Even if solutions are found, who is to say that the sum of the compromises will equal the required solution to an issue as critical and complex as climate change?
National interests are too entrenched, and national obsessions too self-serving to permit the necessary greater gains. Political trade-offs and arguments inside countries are often as problematic as those between nations. Even if solutions are found, who is to say that the sum of the compromises will equal the required solution... ?
Another dark force also haunts international relations. Diplomacy is a clever game, for the clever, by the clever. Indeed, it can be so much so that diplomats get lost in its attractive labyrinths, forgetting their original virtuous purpose. Some point to the intelligence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Game Theory and encourage others to beat him at his own game. Meanwhile, as the game of power reels on, the real world erodes and people continue to suffer by the wayside.
The tragic situation in Syria is instructive. All involved - Syrians, regional parties and beyond - are stuck in an international geopolitical gridlock, unable to move forward or backward in a congested intersection, as the Syrian people are crushed in the process. It is an understatement that traditional diplomacy and its twin, geopolitics, have not helped on this issue.
Is there a way forward? No one can envisage being rid of geopolitics or gamesmanship; however, a new reality must also set in. National powers and governments must shed the pretence that they have the power to meet the needs of their citizens on matters of global import and complexity. Today, there may simply be challenges which nation-states cannot handle in the classical manner of the Congress of Vienna - some national powers must be given up for a greater good, as well as for the welfare of the very citizens national powers claim to protect.
Interests and excesses
Secondly, leaders and citizens must differentiate between interests and excesses. Is it in Syria's interest for President Bashar al-Assad to destroy his country in order to save it? Do Russia's damaged pride or US fears after 9/11 warrant creating havoc in other countries? The case can be made that these cases involve excess more than interest, and citizens, above all, must recognise that difference.
Indeed, although a rare leader may seize these imperatives, the citizen ultimately has the decisive role. Desmond Tutu has recently said regarding climate change that "people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change". So citizens must also vote out governments that don't deliver on such a crucial file, and call the bluff of leaders who use jingoism as an excuse for not pursuing real solutions. The traditional notion that each nation can get through the coming problems by just banding more and more together is an illusion that citizens can start to see through.
Thirdly, regarding the practitioners of diplomacy, Dag Hammarsjkold stated they "must not seek the appearance of influence at the cost of its reality". The "game", as appealing as it is, is only useful if it serves a larger human interest. The young man in Madrid was right. The old paradigms do not efficiently serve people's needs, material or emotional, and political systems are in need of redesign towards that end.
There is another hidden quality built into the game of power and geopolitics. Classical diplomacy often works when context permits it to, ie, when the circumstances shift and provide space for it to settle the score. To cite two examples, it is no coincidence that the Congress of Vienna succeeded after the tribulations and agonies of the Napoleonic wars, and peace between Egypt and Israel came after the 1973 war. The historical change permits the success of classical diplomacy, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, we cannot afford to wait for such future agonies in order to solve our problems. They may be of a scale and complexity previously unexperienced. We cannot let the ineptness of an old habit remain our master when other roads are possible.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.