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Editor’s Note: The below Op-ed is an excerpt from the book-LEFT BRAIN RIGHT BRAIN: Thoughts and Musings of a Servant by Amb. Milton Nathaniel Barnes. An insightful masterpiece on practical diplomacy.

The Three Proverbial Questions

My experience as a diplomat fueled an unquenchable thirst to understand the complex dynamics of foreign policy and the diverse interactions among nation-states. Comprehension and mastery of international subtleties enhance a nation’s ability to direct and manipulate events. History supports this. A few small nation-states have utilized their understanding and mastery of geopolitical dynamics, not only to foster their national interests but to elevate themselves regionally and influence global policies. Japan, Singapore and more recently, Botswana, are examples.

My basic strategic approach as a diplomat took a rather radical twist. Because I was not a “career diplomat,” I was not hampered by preconceived notions indoctrinated and acquired in foreign policy institutional training programs.

This allowed outside-of-the-box, unorthodox approaches towards my goal of affecting meaningful awareness and elevation of Liberia’s interests. Of course, I remained cognizant of the boundaries of “foreign policy” courtesies and protocols that ought not to be breached. Additionally, I had to ensure that whatever approaches or strategies I pursued were within the “Foreign Policy Framework” of Liberia which, was then and even now, to a large extent, is ambiguous.

My approach and methods were driven by several concepts, some of which followed mainstream foreign policy theory and practice, while others could be construed as unconventional or even radical.

Essentially, formulation and implementation of foreign policy depend upon a multiplicity of factors and dynamics that can be referred to as “building blocks.” Three critical building blocks are Domestic/National Agenda, Strategic Geo-Political Considerations and Global Dynamics.

These building blocks are based on several elemental strategic considerations which serve as the cohesive component in binding the building blocks created to accomplish vital national interests.

The critical strategic considerations are concentrated around three cardinal questions:

1. What do we want?

2. What must we do to get what we want?

3. Are we willing and prepared to do what we must do to get what we want?

While these three questions may, on the surface, appear as an overly simplistic approach to something as vitally important as a nation state’s foreign policy, careful contextual analysis will indicate that they do form the crux of any relevant foreign policy decision. If one does not know what he wants in any endeavor, it is impossible to discern a direction or purpose to pursue. This eliminates any likelihood of “success” in any framework. Conversely, if one has an inkling of what he wants, he must clearly establish what needs to be done to accomplish that objective; and, by logical extension, he must be willing and prepared to undertake whatever it may take to accomplish the stated objective. The building blocks encompass the following principles.

1. Domestic/National Agenda – National Direction/Vision

A key variable which must be incorporated in the formulation of effective, cutting-edge foreign policy is the National Strategic and Development Vision and Agenda of the Nation-State. A clear, concise, realistic strategic development plan should be the centerpiece and driver of a developing nation state’s foreign policy. A good plan should incorporate several key factors. First, the plan should comprise a current development model including the general direction, objectives and sustainability of the nation for security, stability, growth and economic prosperity. Such a plan should focus on remedies to overcome hurdles, impediments and other internal and exogenous factors such as capacity, resources and global influences that could affect outcomes.

The plan must be comprehensive and include a workable strategy for structural initiatives that would ensure reliable and efficient institutions, continuous development and expansion of human capital, strong policies that guarantee consistent wealth creation, savings and investment. To ensure sustainability, the plan must also include schemes for real, rapid and permanent technology transfer; empowerment and participation of all citizens and long-term programs that address the critical matter of backfilling exhaustible resources with renewable replacements.

Finally, and most critically, this development plan must be strongly supported with wide national commitment and strong political will. In the absence of these two critical factors, a development plan will not be worth the paper on which it is written.

2. Strategic Geo-Political Considerations – A Matter of Objective Reflection & Analysis

Any nation-state attempting to formulate effective foreign policy must start by initiating a comprehensive and thorough self-assessment and analysis of its own national strengths and weaknesses. This should incorporate an exhaustive list of the assets, strengths and characteristics that make it attractive to other nation-states in pursuit of their interests. Contrarily, such assessment should include those weaknesses, liabilities, limitations or deficiencies that potentially hinder effective and sustainable relations with other nation-states.

Some of the critical factors that must be incorporated in this crucial assessment include:

a. Geographic Location – Historically, a nation’s geographic location was considered strategic predominantly from a military perspective. For example, a nation like Liberia presented strategic value to the Allied Powers in World War II in their attempts to provide logistical support and the movement of men and materiel to the front in the North African Theater. More recently Liberia’s geographic location proved strategically important to the United States when its CIA needed a “listening post” and monitoring point for global interstellar communications and intelligence traffic. For many years, up until serious escalation of the Civil War in the 1990s, Liberia hosted a highly classified sophisticated operation in the outskirts of its capital, Monrovia, which met this specific purpose and effectively served the security interest of the United States.

Another excellent example of the value of geographic location in a non-military application is reflected in the scenario of the Government of Guinea’s attempts to exploit its vast deposit of iron ore located adjacent to the border with Liberia. Studies conducted by the Government of Guinea indicate that it would be economically unfeasible to construct a rail line covering hundreds of miles from the source to the Port of Conakry. The most favorable option would be the utilization of rail line running from northern Liberia border with Guinea (in close proximity of the deposit) to the Liberian Port of Buchanan on the Atlantic Ocean. Liberia could benefit if such an arrangement was bilaterally consummated, solely because of the advantage of its strategic geographical location.

The matter of the significance of a nation’s geographical location, in the foreign policy context, evolved as globalization altered the geopolitical paradigm. The new drivers of this factor spotlight how geographic location facilitates global trade contributes to the fight against global threats (terrorism, drug running, illicit trade, piracy etc.); and promotes the mobility of the world’s population.

b. Natural Resource Wealth/Reserves – The strategic value and magnitude of natural resources are basically measured in terms of scarcity and demand. Generally, the higher the global demand for a resource, the better could be the strategic position of the nation that owns (or controls) the resource.

Additionally, some natural resources are scarce but comprise an essential component of highly specialized products – for example, uranium, used in nuclear technology, or coltan, an essential element in the production of mobile phones. By their nature, such resources could strengthen the potential strategic position of nations possessing them.

It is important to note that within today’s modern dispensation, the definition of natural resources could transcend the traditional concept of mineral resources in and on the earth (and seas) to include human capacity, intellectual property, and specialized methods and practices.

c. Economic, Social and Political Significance – Economic strength, social motivations and political dispositions are all key variables in determining a nation state’s standing in the geopolitical foreign policy arena. Astute architects of effective foreign policy must remain cognizant that nations with weak, dependent and unstable economies or nations with “unorthodox” social/cultural practices (that may be perceived as nonconformist) are generally deemed either “unfit” or “undeserving” of a position in the global geopolitical inner circle. Those that find themselves in the circle despite being deemed “undeserving,” are usually there for other strategic reasons. For example, even though Iran is not considered an economic powerhouse, and is generally perceived and portrayed as unconventional in its social and political dispensation, it has been, in many instances, an active participant in important fora because of issues relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, basic tenets of diplomatic protocol dictate the utilization of certain courtesies of “inclusion.” However, in reality, key strategic decisions are made by the “real powerbrokers” to serve their own national interests. The classic example is reflected in the structure of the United Nations. The UN is comprised of six organs: The General Assembly, The Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Secretariat and the International Court of Justice.

Arguably, the Security Council is the most powerful and influential organ within the UN. The structure of the Security Council is a glaring manifestation of a principle I label as “inclusive exclusivity.” The general global direction and destiny, as prescribed by the United Nations, is in effect determined by an “Exclusive Five” aka the Permanent Members. The exclusiveness within the Security Council is assured by the provision of diluted powers to the remaining ten members with their Non-Permanent status.

This is the reality of the world. National self-assessment could provide architects of foreign policy a realistic reflection of their nation’s global standing and allow them to consider how they could use their country’s perceived strengths to leverage and improve their global standing.

3. Global Dynamics – The Art/Science of Exploiting Opportunities “Whenever I come to consider establishing diplomatic relations with another country, I always ask myself two questions. Can this country provide me with capital? Can it give me technology? If the answers to these questions are not ‘yes’ and ‘yes’; I will not establish diplomatic relations with that country.” (Lee Kuan Yew)

This landmark statement by President Lee encapsulates the essence of the concept of Development Diplomacy. Intrinsic to this statement is the cardinal principle of foreign policy and diplomacy:


Development Diplomacy is specifically the art/science of formulating and implementing international relations and foreign policy with particular focus on achieving development initiatives and/or specific national development objectives. The focus of Foreign Service Officers should be squarely on national socio-economic development – increasing exports, attracting FDI and improving the living standards of the nation-state.

Any nation-state, that holds development as its cardinal priority and interest should embrace and construct its foreign policy on a foundation of the principles of Development Diplomacy. Every meaningful aspect of the state’s foreign policy engagements should be compelled by the demands of its national development agenda and interests. The most crucial variable to the success of this strategy is the existence of a clear, concise National Development Roadmap which conveys national buy-in, commitment from a wide spectrum of the political leadership and citizens and the solid political will to accomplish its aims and objectives. Additionally, the plan must be understood and well-articulated by the state’s designated purveyors in global circles.

Consistent with this approach, a nation-state must consider and initiate strategies to deal with a plethora of complex, multifaceted issues and concepts. One critical challenge lies in deciphering the age-old adage:

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend and my enemy’s friend is my enemy.” This philosophy does not always apply in the case of a state whose foreign policy is driven by its National Development interests. In some instances, “one’s friend’s enemy does not necessarily have to be one’s enemy”. The underlying principle is that a state should engage and embrace other states that facilitate its interest which is, in this instance, development. Thus, a nation cannot “please all of its friends all of the time” and should anticipate losing some “battles to win the war.” This tactic requires focus, clarity and courage as the end justifies the means.

At the end of the day, a key principle in modern foreign policy dynamics is grasping and effectively utilizing what I describe as a theory of “Use and be Used.” In pursuit of military, economic, social, and political interests, nation-states solicit friendships or become allies (depending on their global disposition) in order to build consensus in enforcing certain policies, values or “rights.” These dynamic interactions result in some nations being used by others to build the requisite consensus in order to address a critical strategic interest. When the United States of America and Great Britain determined that their interest would be served by the ouster of Muammar Al Gadhafi, the former leader of Libya, they realized that even with their awesome global powers, they needed to pursue a different approach which comprised “using” the members of the African Union (of which Libya is a prominent and influential member) to isolate Mr. Gadhafi.

African nations were urged to sever official diplomatic ties with Libya. In essence, the African states had to concede to being “used” by America and Great Britain in pursuit of their interests. Once this isolation was accomplished followed by a well-orchestrated internal upheaval by disparate groups in Libya, Mr. Gadhafi was toppled and eventually killed in order to satisfy American and British interests. This particular scenario presents an intriguing question. How were those who conceded to being used benefited by their actions?

The aforementioned principles and concepts provided the guiding ideology behind my diplomatic career at the United Nations and the United States of America. All of my official interactions were, to a large extent, driven by this pattern of critical thought.


Lee Kuan Yew, President of Singapore. “Last Address to Commonwealth Leaders.” Kuala Lumpur, October 1989.


The New Dawn is Liberia’s Truly Independent Newspaper Published by Searchlight Communications Inc. Established on November 16, 2009, with its first hard copy publication on January 22, 2010. The office is located on UN Drive in Monrovia Liberia. The New Dawn is bilingual (both English & French).
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