The Lost Art of Diplomacy

The Trump presidency may have changed the art of diplomacy forever. Negotiating real estate deals and conducting international diplomacy are entirely different. Bargaining in business is not the same as communicating through back channels with defiant coalition partners in the shadow of severe mistrust or hostility. As the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world,” America’s hope for a better planet would have been better served had Trump left diplomacy in the hands of those who actually know how to do it.

In its origin, diplomacy was an effective strategy for improving relationships between nation states. When egotistic leaders meet head on, the odds of infuriating one another increase. This is why more patient, skilled and less inflammatory emissaries are traditionally sent to smooth troubled waters. The objective is not to threaten the other side into accepting your solution, but to use every resource available to knock down or remove the barriers that often make conflict intractable and unsolvable.

In diplomacy, you don’t try to beat or obliterate the other side; you endeavour to reach a deal that works for both. Trump’s approach in business was typically more about “I win, you lose … and be grateful I didn’t ask for more.” The consequences of his lack of knowledge, hence inability, to make deals on the international stage was evident from the beginning, especially for those who know why and how diplomacy fails.

Diplomats understand the critical necessity of genuine and respectful dialogue at the higher levels of leadership. They know acknowledgement doesn’t imply agreement, that reassurance is more powerful than force, and that self-effacement is the precursor to building trust. Diplomats are not addicted to either indiscriminate falsehoods or heroic, self-aggrandizing truth telling. They’re serene in the face of wild accusations and temper tantrums.

Diplomats don’t take attacks on their character personally. They seek reason in the storm of disagreement. They wait for openings in counter arguments and pick the times when they’ll be heard. If harsh, unfair or demeaning criticism is directed their way, they may nod in partial agreement and say they’ve occasionally described their own behaviour in a similar manner. They’re attentive, self-aware listeners who are rarely cornered into non-productive conversations. They mix politeness with frankness, are experts in the human condition and thus willing to admit that they too are vulnerable, flawed and, at times, muddled and unreasonable.

Does this description of the essential traits of a diplomat apply to the man who boldly announced he would make America great again?

Preconditions and ultimatums have never worked in diplomacy. You don’t make deals by walking out when a country rejects your unilateral parameters (as was done in the Iranian nuclear negotiations). In diplomacy, you don’t seek “amazing” deals; rather, you want implementable deals. Multiple times in different negotiations, Trump has said he would not have approved a single concession made by his predecessors but would have brought home “even better” deals by giving back nothing. In diplomacy, if the deal is perceived as unfair by the other side, it is flatly rejected.

During the run-up to his election, Trump repeatedly boasted that he “beat China all the time” and promised to “beat Mexico,” “beat Japan,” and every other nation that might have the audacity to challenge his peculiar art of deal making. When Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox announced with force and profanity that his country would never pay for Trump’s wall, the response was “The wall just got 10 feet higher.” This tactic may work in poker but it’s pointless in diplomacy. His belief that negotiation is a zero-sum game is dangerously misplaced in complex international relations.

When you demean, disparage and vilify elected politicians in a bi-partisan arena, you become more than just an adversary. All you do is encourage similar behaviour in response. With the bigger picture in mind – the good of a nation – the job requires a willingness to be a partner and the goal must be to help the other side think creatively and, as importantly, sell the agreement to their constituents as much as your own. Diplomats help their opposers save face. Even if the deal you offer is a good one for them, it will be refused if they can’t promote it as a victory for their people.

Diplomacy is not the same as making hiring decisions on The Celebrity Apprentice. In today’s world, insults only lead to escalation and ultimatums result in impasse. The art of diplomacy does require strength and toughness but also humility, empathy, patience, an ability to build sustainable coalitions and a resolve to de-escalate conflict. Without those attributes, it is simply destined to fail.