Why Foreign Policy is Difficult

Foreign policy is difficult because of the interactive and interconnected nature of diplomacy.

Countries have leaders, who have ideas about how to advance or preserve what they believe to be in the interests of their country and/or their country’s people. There are many things that a country’s leaders can talk about and act on, but they have to act in ways that take into account the situation of their country.

When a country has multiple neighbours, that the complexity of those considerations multiply. A country can have multiple things to act on, with other countries, and those other countries in turn have other issues to act on, with other countries, and so on. The concept map below tries to capture some of that interactive complexity.

A big power has many ways to act and influence any particular country. It can influence not just a country directly, but it can also influence the surrounding countries to influence the target country, if it so chooses.

A small country is then subjected to more influences. A small country is not only subjected to the direct influence of the major powers, but also from the other surrounding medium-sized powers. The situation with Qatar in 2017 is a clear demonstration of this interactions. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf are attempting to blockade Qatar diplomatically and economically and logistically, by closing borders and restricting airspace. At the same time, Qatar still receives support from both Iran, and from the United States (in the form of the Central Command HQ there). Qatar is trying to play a delicate balancing act, and sometimes small countries cannot be successful all the time. They must, as Qatar has done, to make use of its resources and build the capacities to stay resilient against challenges when they come. In this case, Qatar’s economic wealth has been translated into spare capacities for food and some military power.

The situation regarding the North Korean standoff also has some of this complexity. The two Koreas have relations with a major power — China with North Korea, and the United States with South Korea. US and China also have complex ties with each other, and their relationships could affect the Korean peninsula. Perhaps North Korea sees that it cannot trust in China, and so went ahead with its ballistic missile programme. South Korea could also be uncertain about the United States security commitment, and constantly wary about Japan rearming itself, even if Japan is also a treaty ally of the United States.

The various countries in different parts of the world are thus affected to different degrees, although the interactions are certainly more complex in Southeast and East Asia, where China and US both have deep and complex engagements in. In Eastern Europe, the interactions will also be complex between European countries and Russia; in Central Asia, the interactions are complex due to Russia and China. Southwest Asia/Middle East interactions are very complex, owing to Iran and Saudi Arabia acting as the regional powers, overlaid with US-Russia interactions.

Imagine doing this for all the medium-sized countries (say, from 20–100 million people) and all the small countries, and you begin to see the problem — foreign and security policies — they are a multi-dimensional chess game, in which one small action can ripple across the entire network, and occasionally (though unlikely) cause great change.