I have just completed a five week course in diplomacy with the University of London and I have the certificate to prove it. It was quite enjoyable but to be honest I learned much more about diplomacy by binge watching over 100 episodes of Madam Secretary on Amazon Prime TV. I had to binge watch since my free membership ended after 30 days.
One of the episodes of Madam Secretary is called ‘A Break in Diplomacy’ and sees Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord break Philippine President, Datu Andrata’s nose after he sexually assaults her while they are in a one to one negotiation session.This leads to President Conrad Dalton telling her, ‘Breaking the President’s nose is a whole new form of diplomacy’. To be fair this is not typical of her approach. The programme which runs to six series covers the whole gambit of international diplomacy in a very realistic if slightly optimistic way. When Conrad first appoints her, he says ‘You don’t just think outside the box You don’t even know there is a box.’ I haven’t had as much fun since the West Wing.
The political diplomat is still a key player in the modern world alongside the professional civil servant and the Ambassador, although the American Secretary of State position is fairly unique in that it is a senior political post in the administration but by appointment not election.
Modern diplomacy continues to rely on the age old components of all diplomacy - negotiation, communication, goals and objectives, compromise, determination, cultural empathy, patience, restraint, sense of timing. These are constants whether we are looking at traditional diplomacy at state level or in a less formal setting of problem solving within the family, between friends or within community organisations. How do we know whether diplomacy is working or not. There are no right or wrong answers to this as some look to specific outcomes like the end of conflict, a treaty sign off, formal agreements, while others see successful diplomacy as simply keeping them talking and avoiding everyone walking out.
What should I look like if I am to be a ‘good diplomat’? There is a view that I shouldn’t look like anything. The ‘good diplomat’ is the ‘invisible diplomat’. He or she should be inconspicuous, in the background, hardly noticed as the process unfolds. A counter view is that the ‘good diplomat’ should be dynamic, skilled, intelligent, bringing their weight to bear on the big issues to help reach agreement.
There has been a shift in modern diplomacy away from just the traditional nation states to a wider range of polities. Negotiations today are as likely to involve the UN, the EU, Council of Europe, Arab League, African Union as Russia or China alone. There are also big players now involved from commerce and business as well as international pressure groups, NGOs and charitable foundations. There are also other dark players to be considered such as insurgency movements, terrorists, armed opposition groups.
We have all been involved in diplomacy up close either in our work or circle of family and friends. I have fond memories of my time in local government trying to set up a single independent advice service for the people of North Ayrshire. It took several years of diplomacy and negotiation to bring together the diverse agencies of the Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Unemployed Workers Centres and community information services. Alongside all that we also had the council’s own advice services to factor in - welfare rights and debt advice. The process was successful in the end. However, as in most negotiations, some organisations faced greater compromises and concessions than others and tensions continued within the new structures.
On the national scale, one of the best examples of multifaceted successful diplomacy is the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. It ticks nearly every box of what is involved in diplomacy. It has its source in history, the tensions between Ireland and Great Britain over many years. Resolution of one problem, the fight for Irish home rule, led to partition of Ireland, the creation of Northern Ireland and tension between the two religious communities Catholic and Protestant. The armed struggle by the IRA and political violence by Protestant para military organisations made this a classic conflict situation. It may not have reached the proportions of many modern international conflicts but it certainly proved polarised and intractable. Like many theatres of diplomacy, negotiations spanned many decades. It was often impossible to engage all parties at once. Much of the negotiation had to be bilateral. The Good Friday Agreement was in some way facilitated by a parallel development elsewhere in the U.K. The Labour Government of Tony Blair establishing parliaments in Scotland and Wales as part of its devolution strategy enabled the Protestant Unionist leadership in Northern Ireland to view the proposal for a Northern Ireland Assembly and some form of British/Irish institution as part of a unionist solution across the U.K. and not a slippery slope to a United Ireland. When it comes to identifying the ‘good diplomats’ there is a very long list. Probably not enough credit has been given to the work that went on while John Major was Prime Minister. There was contact at a security service level with the IRA and political negotiations with the Unionist political establishment. The resulting Sunningdale Agreement would have seen a power sharing NI Executive, an Assembly and all Ireland Council. As often happens in diplomacy the time was not right and opposition to implementing what had been agreed proved too great. Two impediments to successful diplomacy persisted - IRA violence and an Ulster Unionist boycott. SDLPs Seamus Mallan, the first Deputy First Minister of the Assembly, called the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. When the Good Friday Agreement was eventually signed candidates for the diplomatic prizes included - Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble, SDLP’s John Hume, PM Tony Blair and his Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, the Women’s Coalition Leaders, Bill Clinton and James Baker. As often happens, it was the ability of two figures at the extremes to eventually find a way of working together that helped cement the success of the agreement -First Minister DUP’s Ian Paisley and his Sinn Fein Deputy, Martin McGuinness. There were three distinct strands to the negotiated agreement - a Northern Ireland Assembly, a north/south Irish Council and a British/Irish Council bringing together Ireland and the devolved nations of the U.K. Of course, diplomacy is judged over the long term and the outcome in Northern Ireland has been uneven with the power sharing executive and the Assembly closing down for over three years but it has been reestablished and the agreement continues to hold.
In contrast to this, an example of how not to do diplomacy in modern times is the Trump Middle East Peace Plan. This is really a bilateral proposal to secure Israel’s national interests at the expense of any acceptable outcome for Palestine. Diplomacy can involve negotiating separately with only one party at a time in the room. But this plan was unveiled with only one party involved and present -Israel. The full weight of US Diplomacy was used instead to frustrate all efforts by the Palestinian President to raise his concerns and win any support at the UN. Israel/Palestine and a two state solution has many parallels with the Irish conflict but although there have been times when a breakthrough seemed possible there has not been the kind of resolution that the Good Friday Agreement brought.
There has been even less success in solving the Syria crisis. The conflict in Syria is as fascinating as it is depressing. The timeline of negotiations and initiatives to seek a resolution and an end to conflict goes on and on. Different key players have taken the lead at different times but always without success. This is partly because they do not have shared outcomes or goals in mind. Patience and perseverance are key to good diplomacy and no one has exemplified this more than former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He was appointed UN Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria after stepping down as General Secretary. Even he ran out of patience with the failures of all UN efforts to bring an end to the conflict in Syria. He resigned. We should always keep in mind that diplomacy in modern times, just as in history takes many forms but sometimes we are left with no choice but to walk away. When that happens the voice of diplomacy can still be heard saying ‘we’ll be back.’