Heteropolarity, Wicked Problems, and Collaboration in Public Diplomacy

February 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

Over at GuerrillaDiplomacy.com, Daryl Copeland was prepping for an upcoming symposium at the London Academy of Diplomacy by unpacking his thoughts on the implication associated with the emergence of a heteropolar world. His thinking about the shift from bipolar to heteropolar world got me thinking about the shift from negotiation/traditional diplomacy to collaboration/public diplomacy.

I still believe as I stated in an earlier post this summer that “Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy.”

Copeland talks about a shift from multipolar/bipolar world that seeks balance of power based on similar power attributes to a heteropolar world where diplomats try to juggle the balance of differential powers. His description of mutlipolar to me suggests a communication environment ripe for negotiations. His description of heteropolarity may suggest a new communication dynamic: collaboration.

Let me unpack my thinking. Pardon the roughness, this is an idea still swirling.

From Mutlipolar and Bipolar – Negotiations

Here is Copeland on multi and bipolar. I am struck by the focus on power (over), stability, equilibrium, and balance…

“For the past few hundred years, high-level statecraft has been concerned mainly with attempts at balancing power in an ever-changing world. From the age of European empires through to the end of the Cold War, the indicators of national power – armies, navies, missiles, warheads, economies, populations, territories – were carefully calculated, and then balanced and codified in an attempt to engineer stability.”

And …

“From the Congress of Vienna through the Treaty of Versailles and beyond, the search for international security turned on the efforts of diplomats to calibrate power in a manner which produced a workable form of equilibrium. .. For the likes of Metternich, Castlereigh and Bismark, not to mention Churchill, Stalin and Kissinger, power was essentially a function of the ability to compel your adversary to submit to your will. Stability was engineered by fine tuning relationships within and between alliances, first in a multipolar, and then, following World War II, in a bipolar system dominated by the US and USSR.”

To me this type of communication environment is ripe for negotiation strategies and tactics. I am struck by the focus on power (over), stability, equilibrium, and balance. There are far too many books on negotiations to summarize any one here without doing injustice to all.

However, if one looks at the communication dynamics of negotiation they revolved primarily around separate players in a competitive give-and-take trying to safeguard and promote their national interests. Individual player. Individual countries. Individual national goals and interests. Individually-devised communication goals and strategies. Separate. Individual. Competition.

Heteropolarity – Shift in Communication Dynamics

When I look at Copeland’s description of heterpolarity, I see a very different communication environment. The stress appears to be on dissimilarity, diversity, differences.

“An emerging world system in which competing states or groups of states derive their relative power and influence from dissimilar sources – social, economic, political, military, cultural. The disparate vectors which empower these heterogeneous poles are difficult to compare or measure; stability in the age of globalization will therefore depend largely upon the diplomatic functions of knowledge-driven problem solving and complex balancing.”

Aligning Communication Strategy to Communication Environment

Whenever there is a new communication environment existing strategies – especially those that have worked so well in the past – need to be reassessed. The main thesis of Battles to Bridges of why post 9/11 public diplomacy was failing: the strategy was out of alignment with the communication environment.

Copeland ‘s explanation of his choice of heteropolar over multipolar makes the new dynamic – differences – even clearer. But it seems that the focus is still on competition to achieve balance.

“Among the commentariat, and in both the academic and scholarly press, the mainstream view is that world politics have returned to some kind of a multipolar dispensation. The prefix multi suggests the existence of multiple poles of more or less the same type, as was the case in Europe, for example, in the 19th century. From that observation it follows that traditional means can again be used to establish some kind of new balance, one based largely upon conventional assumptions about the nature of power and the use of influence.”

And, the focus appears to still be on individuals. Copeland adds:

“With the advent of globalization, international power and influence have become atomized.”

This is where the neon lights start flashing: “atomize”

Atomized Reduce (something) to atoms or other small distinct units “ – Merriam-Webtser Dictionary

The atom is the icon of the 20th century. The atom whirls alone. It is the metaphor for individuality. But the atom is the past. The symbol of the next century is the net.” — Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy

That is net as in networks.

Then there’s Stephen Borgatti and Pacey Foster  in their survey of organizational research they found “a shift in the second half of the 20th century away from individualist, essentialist and atomistic explanations toward more relational, contextual and systematic understanding.”

And, Thomas Malone, who described a shift from from hierarchies that “command and control” to networks that “coordinate and cultivate.”

 Atonomized Bipolar to Interconnected Heteropolar

Rather than “atonomized,” I would say “interconnected” heteropolar world.  A heteropolis is a world of differential powers that are interconnected and interpenetrating. In a heteropolis, negotiation as an individual, competitive communication strategy is difficult at best. This is why there may be balancing problems.

In an interconnected heteropolar world the goal is not stability, or balance and power over. If everyone is connected, the idea of competition, power over can be counterproductive. Submitting others to one’s often engenders resentment, which can be self-defeating in the long term.

Rather than balance, the goal is adapting to constant change and accommodating differences. And, rather than individual “knowledge-driven” problem solving, it will more likely be “relations-driven” problem-solving. Why? Because of the nature of the problems that need solving.

The True Beauty of Herteropolarity: The Diversity to Tackle Wick Problems

Added to the interconnectedness of differential power players in the heteropolis are the interconnectedness of complex “wicked” global problems. Lucian Hudson in his study “The Enabling State,” on collaboration for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, talked about how governments increasingly have had to join hands with corporate and nongovernmental organizations to tackle complex or “wickedly complex” global problems.

Complex problems may be the impetus behind Anne-Marie Slaughter’s suggestion of collaborative power.

Complex wicked problems, as Jeff Conklin explains, cannot be solved in a linear, individual manner in which one proceeds to study the problem, gather information, develop and implement solutions. Tame problems can probably be tackled through negotiations and solved by treaties. Wicked problems require ongoing monitoring because the problems evolve along with the solutions.

Wicked problems are so intertwined that trying to solve one aspect of ‘a problem’ creates new problems. Wicked problems also contain socio-cultural dimension. To address wicked problems one needs diversity. Differential perspectives and differential powers.

And this is may be the true beauty of heteropolarity: differences provide the differential power to solve wicked problems.


Daryl Copeland, “Heteropolarity, Security and Diplomacy: Not the Same Old, Same Old,” January 16, 2012 Guerrilla Diplomacy.com

Stephen P. Borgatti and Pacey Foster, “The Network Paradigm in Organizational Research: A Review and Typology,” Journal of Management 29, 6 (2003), pp. 991-1013. p. 991

Jeff Conklin, “Building a Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Rotman Magazine, Winter 2009, pp. 17-20.

Jeff Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity,” Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, (Chapter 1) October 2005.

Lucian Hudson, The Enabling State: Collaborating for Success, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, 2009.

Kevin Kelly, New Rules for The New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies For A Connected World (New York, Penguin, 1999), p. 9.

Thomas Malone, The Future of Work:  How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New Theory for the Foreign Policy Frontier: Collaborative Power, The Atlantic, Nov 30 2011.


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