What diplomacy might teach our politics

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A student recently asked me and my fellow panelists, three other former senior diplomats, what we consider to be the essential qualities of a good diplomat. Spontaneously, all four of us put “listening” as the first quality. Why? And how might this relate to the current domestic political situation?

The answer requires understanding that the first job of diplomacy is to get foreigners to adopt our positions on issues and to do so because they are convinced that the resulting agreement also represents their interests. The latter is important because diplomacy never ends. A country can be forced to take a position if the pressure is great enough, but there will be other issues and other times. The resentment incurred through pressure alone will build and make it increasingly difficult to acquire agreement in the future. Of course, such mutually based agreements are not always possible, but the objective remains.

This simple truth is why listening is the first characteristic each of us pointed to. One listens in order to understand. What are the objectives of the other? What fears must be dealt with? What goals are of overwhelming importance to the other party? One need agree with none of the answers, but only when one understands these things can one begin to shape arguments to convince, and positions — and yes, compromises — to bring everyone together. Sometimes there may be no middle ground. But often one can find enough to agree on to go forward to solve some problems, even if one cannot solve everything. And to the extent that one can find mutual agreement on some issues, one may build a basis of confidence to tackle more difficult issues in the future.

Why is this relevant to America’s domestic situation? There is much talk from President-elect Joe Biden and others about the need for “healing.” But healing does not mean just taking a nicer tone while forcing through one’s own position. Too often as I have heard winners discuss politics after an election, it seemed to mean that it is time for the losers to compromise. But a stable democracy cannot be built on the notion (falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson) that democracy is a system “where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.” That approach only fuels anger and the desire to retaliate after another election. That way does not lead to healing.

Yes, healing does require an end to insulting the intentions and personalities of one’s adversaries.  But that is insufficient if it means only that force will be shrouded in a velvet glove. This is particularly true after an election in which more than 70 million Americans have voted for President Trump, and an even larger percentage have voted to retain Republican senators and representatives or to replace Democrats who were swept into office two years ago.

Thus, healing will need to begin with listening in order to understand. What are the fears and the desires that led fellow Americans to vote as they did? What differences conceal areas of possible agreement? This is a process that goes on all the time in local governments, as people of goodwill but differing ideas find ways to solve issues from trash collection to the management of public space.

Some differences may not be bridgeable. But we won’t know unless we first listen and reflect. A recent issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs contained two articles on ideas for dealing with climate change. One was by former Republican Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz, with Ted Halstead. Another was by prominent Democrat John Podesta and Todd Stern. The ideas differed, but there were points of overlap on which we could build. I am not advocating one of these approaches, or even that the two articles encompass the full range of possibilities. But they serve as an example of how getting beyond broad slogans to the discussion of details and differences can begin to shape directions for agreement.  

If there is to be healing and progress on specific issues, it will need to begin with listening. As my mentor and former Assistant Secretary of State Hal Saunders used to say, “Listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.” If the victors of the 2020 election — and remember that victors in the Congress include both parties — want to heal our deeply divided nation, I sincerely hope that they might pay some heed to this lesson from diplomacy.

Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. Follow on Twitter @AcadofDipomacy.

Tags 2020 election America divided Diplomacy Donald Trump Joe Biden partisan politics

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