Tuesday, March 11, 2003

"It is not really responsible behavior. It is not well brought-up behavior....They missed a great opportunity to shut up."

--Jacques Chirac, President of France

"Shut up, you minion, you agent, you monkey."

--Izzat Ibrahim, Vice Chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council

It would be easy, of course, to use this juxtaposition of quotations to poke fun at the French president. (And heck, it's not as though he doesn't deserve it.) But there's obviously no valid parallel between an elected French politician and a terrified subordinate of a monstrous-but-soon-to-be-deposed dictator. How, then, did two such different statesmen end up making such similarly jarring, embarrassing remarks? Why are such conspicuous breaches of diplomatic niceties so rare and shocking? What (presumably unusual) conditions lead to their occurrence? And why do they seem to be on the increase? We cannot answer these questions until we have clarified the nature and function of diplomacy itself.

Diplomacy is built on an ancient truth: that international politics is transacted between people, and that interpersonal skills can therefore be applied to it. The simplest, most obvious example is that of brokering a negotiated agreement between two (preferably non-democratic) world leaders; there is little that distinguishes such a scenario from, say, the negotiation of a deal between two businessmen. The tools of the art of diplomacy-cum-negotiation--flattery, verbal craftsmanship, "atmospherics"--are thus naturally applicable to such cases. And just as naturally, diplomats the world over strive, in their own interest, to create both the illusion and the reality of their tools' applicability whenever and wherever they can. Thus the proliferation of diplomatic protocols, formalities and conventions, all of which serve to nurture the belief that--to paraphrase the feminists--the interpersonal is the geopolitical, and any dispute can be treated, in effect, as a social one.

As often as not, though, international relations are governed by hard facts, of the kind that are not amenable to the diplomat's soothing social skills. For example, when one is a high official in a regime whose lifetime (and hence, in all probability, one's own) is numbered in days, there is little to be gained by respecting etiquette, and much (well, perhaps a few more days' survival) to be gained by being seen to spare no effort in defending one's ruthless master.

A more common case, though, is that of the representative of a democratic government. In a world where democratic politics--including international politics--is carried on in front of cameras and beamed around the world instantaneously, there is little room left for the personal touch. These days, a diplomat's foremost concern is often not, "how do I word this reply so as to sway my negotiating partner?", but rather, "how do I word this reply so as to appeal to my party's constituency back home, or my counterpart's party's constituency back in his (or her) home country?".

Of course, bodies politic are not always best pandered to with gentle words about foreigners. Jacques Chirac, for instance, is not likely to lose many French votes by being rude to the Bulgarians. And the Bulgarians are in turn unlikely to be swayed by soothingly diplomatic words from the French president; they are asking their leaders for concrete results, not cheap talk. Chirac was thus much more likely to get their attention with a blunt threat to stall their EU membership quest than a gentle admonition that their pro-American stance was "unhelpful".

As democracy spreads, this shift in the diplomatic environment--and in the diplomat's role in it--away from the traditional one, will gradually intensify. Future diplomats would do well to study public relations as much as international relations, and domestic politics as much as geopolitics, if they are to serve their employers effectively. The era of the diplomat as fawning courtier may well be over.

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