December 15, 2010

WikiLeaks: A Lesson in Diplomacy

We all have strong opinions about the recent WikiLeaks situation. For me, it has created a desire to understand the origins and definition of the word diplomacy. After all, people pay a lot of money to attend Ivy League Schools so they can guarantee themselves a fast paced, cut throat career in diplomatic relations. People use the term in business and to describe certain character traits of individuals. Certainly we each, at one point in our lives, must think about what diplomacy means as a character trait. We say things like “She showed great diplomacy when she talked her way out of the speeding ticket.” Or “It took a lot of diplomacy for him to negotiate that cut throat corporate deal.” What does being diplomatic really mean? Who made the rules and more importantly, is it a good thing or a bad thing? 

The word itself is from the Greek word Diploma, which started out as we know it today. Greek scholars gave Diplomas to certify a student’s completion of an educational course of study. The Romans used the word diploma to describe travel documents, creating another path of interpretation of the word. They later extended the meaning to include foreign documents ie: treaties between tribes. 

Diplomatic relations go as far back as aborigines who believed in protecting messengers when carrying important information to be delivered to tribal leaders. Romans, Italians and French all created variations of the word itself as well as established systems of protection for diplomats and protocol for interaction and negotiation with other political leaders of their day. This evolves in many ways throughout history right up to modern history. 

Modern history brings a few changes in diplomatic relations. Until World War 1, diplomatic relations were conducted between individual representatives of each Nation. In 1961 the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was written, paving the way for a new era and meaning of diplomacy; one that would lead to the establishment of a League of Nations, later to become the United Nations.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was adopted in 1964. You can read the 2005 updated version here:  This document doesn’t really touch on the meaning of the actual word diplomacy, but rather outlines all of the rules, regulations and immunities for diplomatic representatives to deliver and receive messages. After reading the document, I think about all of the heinous acts covered up and let go by individuals claiming diplomatic immunity. It seems you can get out of a lot more than a few speeding tickets as a diplomat. The authors have created a legally binding system in which to conduct business in secret, prosecuting anyone who disagrees with them along the way. 

So, from the word origins, we have come from  educational documents, to travel documents, to a system of negotiation allowing for immunity and secret dealings, protected by a legal system made up for capitalistic purposes. Let’s get back to the word itself for a moment. Today, Webster defines Diplomacy in two ways: The art or practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements and Tact and skill in dealing with people.

WikiLeaks consisted in part of many diplomatic cables outlining foreign relations. A lot of it was mere chatter, though it all sheds a very bright light on how representatives of the United States interact with each other regarding foreign leaders and their peers. The cables say German Chancellor Angela Merkel “avoids risk and is rarely creative”. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has thoughts that are “short of substance”. Afghanistan President Karzai is driven by paranoia and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.” After being called a Mafia State, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is compared to Batman and President Medvedev is named as his sidekick Robin. To me, it sounds as if we are stuck in a bad 80’s B-grade movie set in a dingy high school in no- name small Midwestern town. Did these diplomats simply misunderstand the definition of diplomacy? Do they have a different way of describing tact and skill in dealing with people? Is this how we want our representatives to act when using their keen negotiation skills in the name of the United States People? 

The whole story brings me back to my own reality as I ponder what I want diplomacy to mean to me. I decided to look to another word for inspiration. Manners. Official definition: The socially correct way of acting and the prevailing customs, social conduct, and norms of a specific society, period or group. Now, I am not one to be obsessed with good manners or bad manners, but reading the definition makes me wonder if maybe diplomacy wouldn’t be better defined if it somehow incorporated aspects of good manners. Is making petty negative comments about diplomats and foreign leaders good manners? I have an old issue of Highlights from my childhood with Goofis and Gallant saying not so much.

 This is what I believe we should think about as we follow the WikiLeaks stories. I am most certainly going to change the way I think about being diplomatic in my daily life. Maybe I will just try to have good manners and leave diplomacy to the professionals just like I left petty games back in high school. I can only hope those representing my Nation do so as well. The World just might be a safer place.