From Vienna to Cairo: lots more chairs, and a focus on citizen, not state, rights

IN 1814, a small group of men pulled their chairs around a table in the Hofburg Palace, which yet graces this urbane capital, and put Europe back together again. They met at the end of a turbulent era that began with the French Revolution and concluded with the defeat of Napoleon. Led by Austria's autocratic foreign minister, Prince Metternich, they restored Europe's old regimes, redrew the map of the continent, and went home.

That was the way diplomacy was done back then. Only a half dozen states in the world really mattered. They did their business unconstrained by public opinion, or worse, by intrusive journalists. They disagreed, but there was order. Everyone knew the rules of the ``balance of power'' system, and for a century those rules kept the peace.

If the Congress of Vienna is the measure of what diplomacy once was, the giant United Nations population conference earlier this month in Cairo is a measure of what it has become. It is something Metternich and his colleagues would have difficulty comprehending. Vienna was a handful of diplomats and a conference table; Cairo was 3,500 delegates and an entire convention center. Vienna was seven nations; Cairo was 180. Vienna was order; Cairo was controlled disorder.

Just how the world got to the new diplomacy is explained, in part, by the explosion of new nations after World War II, when European powers relinquished colonial empires. The evolution is also explained by the democratization of diplomacy following creation of the UN and by the more-open diplomatic process resulting from intensive international press coverage.

One other thing made Metternich's job easier: The range of his concerns did not have to extend beyond political Europe. Delegates in Cairo had the more demanding job of addressing everything impinging on world population growth, from intimate personal behavior to the global environment.

A final difference: the presence of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have come to play a major role in population, development, and environmental issues and may now be a permanent feature of the diplomatic landscape.

Because of the NGO presence, notes Egyptian writer Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, world diplomacy now operates at the level of the citizen. As powerful advocates of universal rather than simply national rights - and of strategies accenting local action or global cooperation - NGOs also challenge the primacy of the nation-state at the center of Metternich's political universe.

``The Cairo conference, like the 1992 Rio Earth summit, shows how vulnerable the concept of national sovereignty has become,'' notes population activist Sharon Camp. ``The conference is still focused on governments as the major actors, but that's no longer the whole story.''

The diplomatic machinery of Metternich's day was less ponderous, but not always harnessed to noble ends. In Vienna, the Austrian prince and his circle of dignitaries redrew national boundaries with reference to no interests but their own. In Cairo, thousands of mostly anonymous delegates did something more worthy of the diplomatist's craft, with the world's interests foremost at heart.

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