Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Diplomacy: the most difficult game in town

NINETEEN eighty-five promises to be a year of negotiations. The United States may well be sitting down once more with the Russians, continuing a dialogue with the Nicaraguans, and keeping alive our influence in the limping talks between Israel and Lebanon. Such an emphasis in our foreign relations will probably not be universally popular. For the fact of the matter is that a large number of Americans who extol the traditions of hard business deals and poker look with suspicion on diplomatic negotiations.

There seems to be a widespread feeling that we cannot win, that the diplomats on the other side are smarter than ours, and that, unless we have overwhelming and intimidating power, we should not get into discussions with unfriendly foreigners.

About these ads

It is true that, in our open democracy, our negotiators face circumstances that often make their task more difficult.

Except in rare instances where there exists a solid consensus in an administration and the Congress or where a president has sufficient power to impose a position, our diplomats must negotiate under a tight rein. Negotiators from the United States, possibly even more than their totalitarian counterparts, must look up and down the table at each move to be sure that their colleagues from other agencies are in accord.

The diplomat from Washington, moreover, is working in the glare of a free press.

It is little wonder that our diplomatic negotiators do not produce the dramatic initiatives and total victories that would make the game more popular at home.

There are other problems, also, in the American attitude toward negotiations. Diplomatic discussions are often drawn out, prolonged, complex. They are not played out within a time limit with a clear-cut conclusion. A prominent Texan, only half facetiously, once said to me that, in his part of the world, diplomatic negotiations were looked at in the same way as a Dallas Cowboys game.

We are bothered, also, because the other side does not appear to play by our rules. We seem constantly surprised that other countries seem to have a different concept of truth or may deliberately dissemble and mislead in a negotiation. Perhaps this is why we cannot easily transfer our love of bargaining and poker, generally played out under agreed rules, to the much more nebulous international arena.

The truth is that many other countries, both communist and non-communist, may have a different objective in diplomatic negotiations than we. We tend to assume that negotiations are designed to resolve a problem or to bring peace. Others may have no such intention; they may be seeking to win a political point, to play to world opinion, to test the resolution of the other side.

About these ads

We have a deep desire to feel that others will react as we do -- or, at least, -- as we think we do. A study of history or a closer look at current regimes will suggest differently. The deviousness and bruskness of Soviet negotiators are not markedly different from the tactics employed by prerevolutionary Russians. Latin American revolutionaries or Middle Easterners with a strong sense of their peril are not likely to react exactly as we do in a negotiation. We should not expect it; we should not be surprised at bald tactics and a disregard for the truth as we see it.

Diplomatic negotiations are essential if there is to be a reasonably ordered and peaceful world. Diplomats of the United States have demonstrated on numerous occasions, in the post World War II world, their capacity to negotiate and achieve significant agreements for the United States.

Diplomacy is the most difficult game in town, bringing together, to discover and refine common interests, two or more very different political systems. The United States has demonstrated the capacity to do this. That capacity deserves a greater public understanding of the complexities of negotiation, more recognition of the differences on the other side, and a stronger confidence in the discerning skill of American diplomats and of their fundamental appreciation of the interests of this nation.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.