International relations and diplomacy: How to make friends

June 08, 2021 10:00
Photo: Reuters

I went back and gave Dale Carnegie’s classic a (re-)read the other day – for three reasons:

Firstly, I was intrigued by the prospects of applying his prescriptions to international relations and diplomacy, especially given the downward spirals that characterise many prominent relationships in the world today.

Secondly, Carnegie’s book shed elucidating insights into human psychology – perfect for our times, which are increasingly characterised by atomisation and precipitous mistrust between individuals.

Thirdly, as someone who probably would benefit from learning how to make friends – and keep friends, there’s certainly a personal dimension to my perusal of the book.

With that said, here are the lessons Carnegie offered – applied to the context of modern diplomacy.

There are broadly six insights that I thought world leaders could use – and then some – in aiding them in liaising with statespersons from other countries. Full credit to Carnegie, I’m just the messenger:

1) How to handle people (or states)? One could start with avoiding criticising, condemnation, and complaining about others. Like human beings, countries – and their representatives – tend to be criticism-averse. To accept criticisms, especially ones brandished by perceived enemies or rivals, would be akin to admitting defeat, and internalising a (potentially problematic) narrative that one can be wrong. Fallibility is a given, but no one enjoys admitting – to the crowd and the public – that they’re in the wrong. If we start off diplomatic negotiations and dialogue by pointing fingers, chances are we’re not going to make any headway with the other side – unless they are genuinely convinced of their being in the red and wrong. And what are the odds of that happening?

2) Become genuinely interested in other people (states!). Think about their interests. Think about their wants. Recognise that there is much that can be reconciled – even notwithstanding the seeming disparities that divide countries. There is more that unites than divides, and, if that doesn’t hold true, it behooves the savvy and the tactful to find common ground. Think through the lenses of not only “Me! Me! Me!”, but “We! We! We!” Only then, could one lure others – or entice them, rather – to join one’s alliance and ‘camp’. The more, the merrier. Lasting friendships do not operate on purely transactional and short-term grounds.

3) Remember that a person’s name is likely to be the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Chinese, Spanish, English, you name it – it doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking; what matters is that diplomats get the “names” right. Not just in nominal terms, but also in paying due respect that is perceived by the other side as commensurate and required by their own stature. The tricky part of name-calling and name recognition, is that it only works if it’s intersubjectively and mutually agreed-upon. Having, forcing one side to call oneself ‘Brother’ does not render one therefore a Brother to them – if heeded unilaterally, ‘Brotherhood’ becomes merely a substitute for a coercive relationship. Remember the other side’s diplomats’ names – their interests, preferences, and values. It’ll come in handy.

4) If you’re wrong, admit it swiftly and vocally. What’s holding us back from improving our standing and esteem in the eyes of other states? None but the fact that we’re often wary of apologizing and accepting fault when presented with insurmountable evidence that we are indeed at fault here. This principle applies to any and all countries – large, small, medium, disputed or otherwise. It’s imperative that governments step up to frank and open interlocution over their flaws and defects. Hyperdefensiveness may please one’s domestic audience, but does very little in ameliorating international backlash. It also loses one far more friends than one would ever gain.

5) Use encouragement. Highlight how the fault can be corrected with minimal costs. Think positive – speak positive. Chastising and condemning could only get one so far – before one starts alienating and losing supporters, both domestically and abroad. A far more constructive approach to problem and conflict resolution entails the deployment of encouragement and positive incentives: make the case for the other side to correct its course; show that there can indeed be leeway and room for compromise – that would benefit the other side. Carrots work better than sticks, at an age where multilateral institutions and multiple poles – as opposed to a single, dominant hegemony – govern our world.

6) Let the other person save face. Mianzi matters – not only to the Chinese, but for all. Face, pride, hubris, arrogance, sanctimony – you name it. All countries care about their images, as well as how well they project their prowess and capacities. If one’s actions actively undermine the projected strength of other parties, how could one expect reciprocity and reciprocation. Saving face is not only a matter of political necessity for those whose careers hang upon their ability to deliver and assuage the worries of their audiences; it’s also a structurally embedded feature of modern diplomacy. A public dress-down may be cathartic in the short-term, but would only be sowing the seeds for retaliatory vengeance down the road. As the Chinese saying goes, yihe weigui (harmony is priceless).

Carnegie’s read is excellent – check it out, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised in terms of the applicability of its insights to impersonal, wider contexts.

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Assistant Professor, HKU