DIPLOMACY, TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Nobody would accuse the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of being diplomatic. His bombastic and inflammatory rhetoric toward, in particular, Israel and the United States, was meant to keep Iran’s alienation from those nations intact. On the other hand, not a few voices in America wisdom wayaccuse President Obama of being too diplomatic. This was especially true when he formally reached out to Iran in 2009, in an effort to start building bridges, and in 2013, when he chose diplomacy over military action to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Ahmadinejad was following in the steps a long list of state ideologues who are blind to their coarse ignorance of the world. They have nothing to learn from adversaries. They know it all. For them it is: My way first, last, and always. End of story. When Obama reached out to talk in 2009, Washington and Tehran had not had embassy-level diplomatic relations with each other since 1979. Thirty years of formal diplomatic non-history is a “long time no talk,” and when adversarial states are not talking, gross misunderstandings arise.

So one of the parties chose to reach out diplomatically to get some face-to-face dialogue going to start clearing up misunderstandings. It was a wise gesture, skillfully done. Washington and Tehran still do not have an embassy in each other’s countries, but now that Obama has an interlocutor in the more diplomatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, we my be seeing at least some thawing of relations.

Diplomacy, and its most important activity, negotiations, dates back to times of villages and tribes, when, even then, spaces for cooperation and the exercise of goodwill between them had to be built. Treaties and other forms of agreement were needed, and then those had to be managed, adjusted, and sustained if conflict and war was to be avoided and trade promoted. Later, with the rise of the so-called great states of the ancient Near East, such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, more formalized diplomatic relations developed. Although adequate to the times, we would see it as rudimentary, and perhaps not as developed as it could have been if travel and communications had been as easy as it is today.

Amarna letterNevertheless, a fascinating work of scholarship, Armana Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations, discusses an unusually large cache of diplomatic letters found in Egypt at the ancient royal city of Amarna. The letters detail a remarkably long period of cooperation among Egypt and other the great powers of the time, three to four centuries before the founding of the kingdom of Israel.

Today, as then, ambassadors, diplomats, negotiators, mediators, and relevant others need great skill in communications, a deep knowledge of each other’s cultures and politics, and a good handle on the actual problems if they hope to get the parties to Yes. They must, for instance:

  • exercise boundless sensitivity to the parties’ problems and exercise great tact and pacing when working toward an agreement of mutual benefit;
  • demonstrate a professionalism that submerges their own ideologies to the good of the negotiating parties;
  • show themselves evenhanded, gaining the confidence of all sides, while helping the parties see reality as it is and adjust to it;
  • help negotiations to reach midpoints that both sides can accept, often by challenging what has been called the parties “comfortable myths”;
  • show empathy for the suffering and needs of the parties, helping each side “get” the other’s grievances;
  • have enormous tolerance for frustration, take setbacks in stride, not make provocative statements, but stay focused and keep going.

In short, they must be diplomatic. Imagine, for instance, the disastrous outcomes if foreign minsters of adversarial states met in crises to vent polemically or demonize each other.

We do not generally explore the biblical text for diplomatic insights, but in this series of posts on the first half of the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6), we have been trying to do just that. As a high-level official in the royal court of Babylonia, Daniel’s political career takes places within the diplomatic culture of the great powers of the old-world Middle East.

Although the Daniel text does not show us a Daniel conducting negotiations for Babylonia with his counterparts in other nations, we have no reason to doubt that he functioned in that capacity from time to time during his decades of government service in successive Babylonian governments. What is explicit in the text, however, is Daniel’s diplomatic skill in the royal court, especially as a negotiator. These are skills he certainly would have taken with him on the road for the king, were he sent to negotiate treaties.

Key elements of Daniel’s skill as a diplomat and negotiator correspond to those in the above list. We have insights into them from his life amid the intrigue of the royal court. We will look at these in the next several posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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