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Rethinking diplomacy in current times

By Daniel Levin | | Updated: 2021-11-19 16:12
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Among the many statements incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill, former British prime minister, perhaps none is as frequently quoted as his alleged quip on diplomacy as “the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions”. This is hardly the only witticism for which there exists no evidence that it was ever uttered, but it nonetheless contains a deeper wisdom that seems to have been ignored in current times.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his United States counterpart Joe Biden have just held a summit, via video link, which focused less on producing dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs and more on the need for mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.

In light of recent tensions between the two countries, which perhaps was in some instances more of a perception of recent tensions, reaffirming these fundamental principles of international comity and esteem was important and in itself a worthy goal for the summit. It didn’t hurt that the two leaders, who have known each other for many years, share a mutual personal affinity.

Balm for the soul

Even though the summit’s avowed principles inhabit somewhat of a lofty, abstract space, they were balm for the soul of those observers who have been rightly alarmed by a recent corrosion in hitherto unchallenged axioms of the relationship and the coarsening of tone in communication, often exacerbated by not particularly prudent remarks of certain officials on sensitive issues that carry loaded, even combustible meanings and a heightened potential for unintended consequences.

It should go without saying that the main challenges for the interconnected world we live in today — climate change, pandemics, regional wars, large-scale refugee migrations — no longer can be addressed without a high degree of cooperation and synchronization among countries. And yet, despite the insipidly obvious nature of such observations, this international cooperation too often does not occur. The current era has been recognized as the age of globalization, and yet countries often behave as if they were disconnected islands.

Ordinarily, this is where diplomacy should kick in — diplomacy as the art of building bridges and of identifying common interests and fostering them, yet also as the art of honestly assessing areas where interests cannot be aligned and marginalizing them in order to prevent a poisoning of the common well.

This requires intelligence of both the intellectual and the emotional kind, as well as the understanding that no single country has been put in charge of maintaining the world order or enforcing “global values” — not only because to assume otherwise would manifest dangerous hubris, bordering on outright folly, but also because the concept of “global values” gets overused by those rarely representing those values and inflated to the point of meaninglessness, just as no country should claim to be “the greatest country in the world” without expecting disbelief and ridicule.

Yes, all human beings strive for security and well-being, and all human beings dream of happiness, but each country is different and has the right to determine its own values and policies based on its own history, culture, and social norms.

Given the global challenges and threats we are all facing, the need for effective diplomacy is evident. And yet diplomacy is failing. Why is that? Because diplomacy is no longer thought of as a vital instrument to address disagreements among countries, to detoxify rather than poison a relationship, and to find win-win solutions to intricate obstacles.

Instead, diplomacy has become a political tool, deployed principally — and rather nonsensically — for domestic consumption. It no longer is a platform to resolve disagreements between countries and bridge differences of opinions and interests. It has become a battering ram, used to demonstrate toughness and prove nationalistic credentials to a domestic audience.

This is all the more damaging, even dangerous, because we are living in times where the lines between patriotism and nationalism are being blurred, leading to radicalized societies that view other countries with suspicion and contempt — emotions that are being constantly validated by ignorance and amplified through an ever more toxic social media.

No wonder current political trends produce ineffective diplomats who substitute quiet, solution-oriented, and effective dialogue with exercises in grandstanding drenched in loud, maximalist demands that ignore one of the most sacred principles of diplomacy: the perfect is the enemy of the good!

Rather than having intelligent negotiations based on a comparison of interests and their relative value to each side, diplomacy all too often degenerates into shouting matches with the nuanced aesthetics of mud-wrestling.

Compromise is a sign of strength

Compromise should be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness. It is a goal, not a dirty word or a punchline. Diplomacy should stand for something — principles, values, relationships, and solutions — and not against a country or a person. It should always promote dialogue, not wallow in condemnations or nation-bashing for the sake of petty headlines, no matter how tempting those may appear to some protagonists.

Real solutions are not developed in front of cameras and microphones, and not in press statements or tweets. They require quiet, discrete discussions in safe, leak-free environments, where the participants can speak openly and propose creative solutions without having to worry about reading their words on Twitter or Facebook.

There certainly is a place for formal, official meetings and conferences, often referred to as “track 1” diplomacy, with all the pomp and circumstance accentuated by full media coverage. But intractable problems and sensitive situations, which carry the risk of serious escalation and a dangerous deterioration of relationships, call for intimate negotiations in a safe and trusted environment that provides the participants the security of confidentiality and plausible deniability, referred to as “track 2” or “track 3” diplomacy.

Lost is the art of diplomacy that aims to anticipate and prevent hostilities, rather than — at best — merely mitigate them. Lost is the understanding that a wise person finds a way to avoid problems, which a smart person may perhaps know how to solve.

Diplomats would do well to heed the sagacity of Bian Que, the famous Chinese physician who lived more than 2,000 years ago and was renowned for his extraordinary medical skills and ability to heal the most devastating of illnesses. When asked by the king which one among him and his two brothers, who were also doctors, was the best physician, Bian Que replied that his oldest brother was the best, next came his middle brother, and only then, at the bottom, came he, describing himself as just average.

The king expressed surprise, given that Bian Que was by far the most famous of the three physician brothers. So Bian Que explained to the king that his oldest brother believed in prevention and was able to detect the source of an illness before it manifested itself, while his second brother treated people at the first sign of disease, before the symptoms worsened. He, on the other hand, only treated people once they were severely ill. Because once in a while he was able to save someone’s life, he was the most famous of the three, but in fact the least capable doctor. If only the wisdom of Bian Que were impressed upon aspiring diplomats!

Every once in a while, a dangerous conflict erupts or threatens to erupt, which requires immediate de-escalation between the countries involved. Increasingly, it turns out that trusted channels of communication have not been established by the necessary means of diplomacy — channels that should have been built through relationships that were developed and nurtured over many years or even decades.

But once the conflict has blown up, it is too late. Diplomacy cannot be rushed; it has to be seeded, watered, and fostered for a very long time before it can be called upon in an emergency. Or, to stay with the medical theme, a surgeon needs to stick an infusion in the patient’s arm before the surgery, because once the surgery has begun, the blood pressure can drop and it might be very difficult to find a vein.

Trust is built over years, consistently and persistently, and the act of engaging in diplomacy should never stop — not in good times, and definitely not in bad times. In that respect, it is like riding a bicycle: if you stop, you fall off.

The author is a member of the Board of the Liechtenstein Foundation for State Governance.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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