Diplomacy is not war by alternative means

March 17, 2022 09:43
Photo: Reuters

What does it mean to engage in diplomacy?

Is it to wage war via alternate means? For that sure seems to be the case as we speak today – with elaborate peddling of conspiracy theories and half-baked, stylised facts on one hand, and the touting of vitriolic and flagrantly belligerent rhetoric on the other. We imagine diplomacy to be civil and constructive, or – at its worst – strategic and conniving, yet never bereft of basic decency. Sadly, much of this seems to be little more than mere wishful thinking at an age of performative theatrics.

Engaging in an in-depth dissection of what diplomacy currently looks like, would be a rather depressing and futile exercise. Name-calling, lie-disseminating, smearing and ensnaring through rhetorical and political death-traps. Knave-like language and callous weaponry, wielded to secure the self-interested gains of a singular and singly-fixated party. When thinking about what diplomacy could look like a century ago, few would think that we’d be doomed to repeat the very same mistakes that culminated at the fateful four-year war lasting between 1914 and 1918 – World War I.

So I raise here an alternative proposition: one through which we examine what diplomacy could look like, where we consider the possible paths forward for brokering genuinely constructive dialogue and change amidst a sea of antagonism. The first rule of thumb is straightforward – eschew misinformation, disinformation, and selective information. We see politicians telling stories and engaging in stylised “factoids” as a means of securing domestic victories and mass popularity – diplomats, on the other hand, have a higher cause to answer to and for: the enabling of some modicum of functioning, comprehensive understanding (an entente, if you will) between countries. It shouldn’t be the case that diplomats sprout or engage in fake news, especially not when it comes to mindless and unhelpful speculation concerning others’ domestic and internal affairs. To engage in an information war may be tempting – but it equally sets a dangerous precedent, for a world where international negotiations are rendered infeasible by a media-press environment that favours eyeball- and attention-grabbing, sensationalised half-truths, over rigorously presented and dissected propositions.

The second rule is less apparent. Here, the question concerns rhetoric – a matter of subjective judgment, and a matter of finesse no less. We do not live in an era where mistakes and slip-ups could be tolerated and rectified through subsequent redactions; we live at an age where first impressions count and matter. How diplomats present themselves to one another is not purely a professional or customary question, but one that concerns the very core of diplomacy itself. If diplomacy is set up as an exercise in which the most vociferous, the most cantankerous win out, then surely, no good can ever possibly follow from such a counterintuitive and self-defeating approach, especially when it comes to refined negotiations over delicate situations.

The third rule is this – diplomats owe it to their denizens to repair and defend their country’s interests overseas. They do not possess the perversely assigned and emphasised, allegedly extant responsibility of pleasing domestic audiences. The goal of diplomacy is to persuade, engage, and transform the attitudes of “other sides”, through aligning otherwise-divergent incentives and facilitating targeted collaboration. The moral obligation is accrued and owed towards the public, but the best means of discharging said obligation is via identifying and expanding the common ground between countries, as opposed to exaggerating and proffering the existence of “irreconciliable” differences across states. For far too long we have allowed the politician and the diplomat to be conflated – it’s high time that we separated the two, and called a spade a spade, an aggressive speaker aggressive, and a diplomat someone whom we’d expect to mediate, not agitate.

Diplomacy is not war via alternative means. Diplomacy should provide as much an antidote as a response to war – and equip us with the necessary skills to reach across the aisle, both within and outside our country, in order to settle disagreements amicably, without eliminating all the guardrails that have been installed in the past to preclude things from getting out of hand. Treat diplomacy as a war, and one could well find oneself disillusioned and disingenuous, in both parts.

Make peace, not war. And diplomacy serves as a pivotal tool in rendering that possible.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review