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Drudging Diplomacy. Appreciating Multilateralism

Meet my candidate for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize: John Kerry. I am not nominating him because he broke the record for travel by a Secretary of State in April 2016. Not because he has toppled Condoleezza Rice from her top position by sitting in airplaines for 2300 hours (96 straight days). He also surpassed the 1.06 million miles limit, outbidding Hillary Clinton in distance traveled as well. Still, he does not deserve to be laureled just for the feat of visiting 80 countries in 467 days. No, Kerry deserves the Nobel Prize for his unparallelled and unflinching belief in practices that have become distant, ghost-like memories over recent years. Kerry deserves a prize for his staunch and unwavering support for multilateral diplomacy.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Behind the scenes

In affairs of war and power, so-called ‘second-tier officials’, the men and women running diplomacy behind the scenes, are almost always overlooked. They are left to go about their businesses outside of the limelight in which more theatrical or powerful leaders bask. We only heard about Kerry when he did something out of the ordinary. Say, when he broke a travel record. Or more poignantly, when he recounted how his pleas for the deployment of force against Assad ‘lost the argument’ to an obstructive Congress, as transpired recently from leaked recordings.

Notwithstanding their lack of attention-seeking behaviour, the overlooked men and women are the real oil to the world machinery of peace and security. They do the opposite of pandering to populism. They do not come up with outrageous and unproductive ‘solutions’ in the shape of Walls, Exits or Perpetual Wars. They tend to be the opposite and antidote to the fact-free, (male-)chauvinistic politics of saying ‘nyet’ and sending cluster-bombs. Instead, they cling to that great security valve invented some 200 years ago and stubbornly hanging on to a multilateral diplomacy that has come to seem useless but is actually increasingly effective.

President Nixon conducting shuttle diplomacy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

President Nixon conducting shuttle diplomacy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In her seminal work on diplomatic history, Jennifer Mitzen’s argues that the world has forgotten the value and the salience of multilateral diplomacy as a problemsolving and warpreventing tool in international relations. During the Cold War, with its string of summits and ‘talks by the fire’, governments and citizens still accepted that state officials can solve problems by sitting in a room together and talking things through in a more or less civilized fashion. Now, this kind of personal diplomacy (like between Reagan and Gorbachev, or Kissinger and Gromyko) and the accompanying multilateral, institutionalized ‘strategic talks’ have come to seem outdated. Some even tend to see them as trifling or cowardous exchanges of words, words, and nothing but words. The political maschismo of actual bombs, talk of bombs and intimidating falsehoods has instead emerged as the new ‘normal’ in diplomatic relations and summits.

Horseback diplomacy

200 years ago, the victors of the Napoleonic Wars traveled side by side during last exhausting military campaigns of 1813-1815. For years, they had huddled together in rain and heat, trailing Napoleon’s armies, and when they finally besieged and defeated him (twice), they knew that peace required more than just a treaty. It demanded ongoing platforms of control and dialogue. Out of these years of horseback diplomacy an insight was born: peace could only be secured through repeated conferences, congresses, ambassadorial councils and standing commissions. Through endless meetings diverging interests were merged and smouldering conflicts were extinguished or contained. All this talking acquired a dynamics of its own. Through these ongoing conferences, relationships were forged between Alexander I and Castlereagh, Metternich and Wellington, Richelieu and Pozzo di Borgo. People knew each other and thereby rendered the unpredictable world of international politics and crises less hazardous.

In his book Summits, David Reynolds argues that ‘real’ multilateral diplomacy only took shape in the 20th century, that it depended on the invention of airfare, television and ict-communication. Only through these technological innovations did international summitry achieve the comfort that would render diplomacy effective, he claims. However, vis-à-vis today’s shuttle diplomacy, the drudging diplomatic experiences of the 19th century should not be understated. Reynolds lists the conditions that make summits lasting and fruitful: excellent preparation, good teamwork on all sides, and, most importantly, the ability to push aside personal hubris and find common ground. That insight held as much truth then, in the 19th century, and after 1945, as it does now.

Meeting at Vienna: Emperor Francis I, Tsar Alexander I, and King Friedrich Wilhelm III. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meeting at Vienna: Emperor Francis I, Tsar Alexander I, and King Friedrich Wilhelm III. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Social media and anti-diplomacy

Nowadays, playing to the public by staging shows and orchestrating fears, attracts voters, likes and re-tweets, but stubbornly pushing for compromises does not. It might just be that the social media revolution has spawned a new form of anti-diplomacy. A practice based on the urge to pander to the like-minded, to use the diplomatic stage as an echo chamber for in-group slogans. Kerry does not do that. Instead of retaliating against the endless series of ‘nyet’s’ or quipping back 140 characters at a time, Kerry clings to optimism and tries to carve out common ground – even when his Russian counterparts in Syria push him to the brink of despair.

Kerry’s only ally in this uphill struggle seems to be Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on the Syrian crisis. Although he described a meeting of the International Syria Support Group in September as ‘long, painful and disappointing’, De Mistura added that he wanted to believe that ‘Russia and the United States are serious about brokering peace’. With this statement, he desperately tried to conjure up a collective identity against all the odds of widening rifts and clashing interests. His move may seem hopeless, but at least it’s wise. Given the recent bolstering of Putin with the parliamentary majority for United Russia, not treating Lavrov and his delegates as constructive partners, would probably only helps the ‘hawks’ in Russia to gain further traction.

Neither De Mistura nor Kerry are naive followers of wrongfooted idealism. They actually are the ‘real’ realists. They are politicians who read their history (Kerry was a protege of Yale’s history professor Rollin Osterweiss), who know about the wraths of war, about the generations of traumatized peoples that it spawns. History’s succession of wars and crises, of arms races and disputes that have spun out of control thanks to politicians overtaken by hubris proves that the men and women behind the scenes are in the right – at least the ones who ‘want to believe’, even in situations of seemingly insurmountable differences. As heirs to the statesmen of 1815, 1945, and so many Cold War-peace brokers thereafter, Kerry (and perhaps also De Mistura), deserve the limelight they themselves avoid so dutifully.