No Critical Thinking, More Failure in Diplomacy


Hans Blix, a Swedish diplomat who served as the United Nations chief weapons inspector, said that there was a severe lack of critical thinking by US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair when deciding to unilaterally invade Iraq. According to Blix, the decision from both Head of States “bred more terrorism there and elsewhere.”

Critical thinking is a concept that has become a major buzzword and can be found in virtually in any higher education program description. However, what does this actually entail, and where does its relevance lie for the work in international relations?

It is commonly agreed that critical thinking consists of two parts. These are cognitive skills (analysis, questioning, and evaluation) and personal dispositions (e.g. open-mindedness, creativity, attentiveness, self-efficacy). Acquiring critical thinking skills is both a matter of craft and reflection. When used appropriately, critical thinking increases the likelihood of producing logical solutions to a problem. 

Decisions such as the one to invade Iraq should be made with as much consideration as possible, which is why the importance of critical thinking is evident. The daily work in the field of diplomacy requires this skillset. For example, the spread of fake news and the development of media-editing technology makes it ever more important for professionals to process incoming information such as press articles correctly, in order to provide sound assessments of a political situation. 

So, what does critical thinking look like in practice? 

Take the speech by Karin Kneissl, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the 2018 UN General Assembly. Extraordinarily, Kneissl delivered the official Austrian statement in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, the four official UN languages. In a global environment of increasing nationalism, her speech is a good example of how to set the tone and create effective international dialogue. Her speech also displayed her command over cognitive skills of critical thinking. By contrasting the problem (e.g. conflicts in Syria and Yemen) with the solution so far, she came to a well-reasoned conclusion to offer more humanitarian aid based on a set of relevant criteria that put the well-being of people and peace first.


Learning to be critical and balanced requires practice. Here are some basic tools to consider.  

1. Visualize the multitude of arguments at stake. This will foster the ability to structure and compare different viewpoints.

2. Support arguments by hard evidence. By basing your decisions on real facts (not opinions) will improve your self-assertiveness and your professional credibility. 

3. Question different viewpoints, sources and argumentations. Do not contend with premade conclusions. 

4. Exchange your thinking process with others. Using the insights from others will enhance your ability to take different standpoints and to test the conclusions you make.

5. Reflect on your thinking process, as introspection will develop your ability to monitor your decision-making process.