A New Diplomacy?

Oct 5, 2012 by

Much has changed since September 11th 2001. The international scene is very different. Firmly ensconced dictators have been swept away, America no longer feels as isolated from the rest of the world, we have waged two wars, in countries many Americans would have been hard pressed to find on a map ten years ago. We have been rethinking a great deal of our foreign policies and our diplomatic approach to other nations. But many things have not changed as much as we would perhaps like to think.

Sir Harold Nicolson served as a diplomat in Madrid, Constantinople, Persia and Berlin.

Sir Harold Nicolson was a British diplomat throughout much of the early 20th century. He served His Majesty’s Government in Tehran and again in Berlin just before the Second World War.  His observations on the workaday diplomacy of the Empire and the lead up to rearmament are a fascinating reminder that the more things change the more they might just stay the same.

As he saw it in the 1930’s the entire nature of the world had changed in his own lifetime: 1914. The First World War caused the rivalries of the 18th and 19th century to pale in comparison between the epic struggle between East and West. “Today we are faced, not with a clash of interests, but with a fight between ideologies, between the desire on the one hand to defend individual liberties and the resolve on the other hand to impose a mass religion” (Nicolson 244). Sir Harold is not referring to the conflict between Islam and Christianity but between totalitarian collectivism and Western style democracy. Nevertheless, the language of the 1930s is still as resonant post September 11th as it was then.

The enemies of the West will do whatever it takes to further their goals. “They strain towards this objective with religious intensity and are prepared to devote to its achievement their lives, their comfort and their prospects of happiness. Anything that furthers their purpose is ‘right’; anything that obstructs it is ‘wrong’; conventional morality…has no part in this scheme of things” (Nicolson 245).

The modern world values equality above all other ends. This has extended not only to the sphere of civil rights but also to international relations. “Today the masses are expected to take in interest in foreign affairs, to know the details of current controversies, to come to their own conclusions, and to render these conclusions effective through press and parliament” (Nicolson 245).

This is ostensibly just what we have seen in the wake of the Arab Spring. Diplomacy is no longer left in the hands of the professionals but it is the play thing of the masses. Democracy apparently demands that every time people in nations with limited educational resources, a curtailed press and a heavily censored internet hear third hand about a video that might be offensive, it is their duty to march to the nearest Western, preferably American, embassy and set it ablaze.

Western diplomacy should not attempt to bridge the East/West divide by speaking to them on their terms. Recently President Obama and Secretary Clinton condemned a video which they claim caused widespread protest throughout the Middle East. They spoke of the First Amendment in tones which sounded as though they consider it a vestigial nuisance, a thing to be tolerated. But Sir Harold recommends a different approach. The Eastern mentality is a difficult context for us to argue within. “let the straight and simple lines remain on your side of the argument; however much you may try, you will never be able to weave a pattern as intricate as theirs” (Nicolson 255).

The danger of course is propaganda. But Sir Harold counsels we can not be concerned about that. In his inter-war milieu propaganda was inevitable. “It is admittedly unfortunate that in the propaganda war the East appears to win all the battles all the time,” Nicolson laments (Nicolson 258). We are constantly on the defensive but must remain confident

"It is easy enough to convince uneducated people that they are being exploited or suffering humiliations and oppression. It is more difficult to preach to them the rewards of freedom." Sir Harold Nicolson

that the truth will emerge.

Our “actions will in any case be misrepresented; if they be based on demonstrable truth, then the misrepresentation will be apparent even to the least educated” Nicolson 255). The danger then is in back peddling or sending a mixed message as to our real intents and purposes. The radicals and demagogues will never be persuaded by anything we say and will only turn logic in upon itself if given the chance. We must persevere in our message and our actions must be consistent.

Rather than apologetically treating their citizens as Pre-Enlightenment troglodytes incapable of understanding the virtues of freedom of speech or in hinting that there is an equal exchange between ideas which we find offensive and murder, we should staunchly defend the virtues of the West. Nicolson advises Western diplomats to “stick always to the truth, in the expenditure of which he [the diplomat] possesses ample reserves” (Nicolson 255). When we purport to support the spread of popular sovereignty and the creation of a civil society while simultaneously poo-pooing freedom of speech, and all of its consequences, we undermine what we are attempting to accomplish.

“It is easy enough to convince uneducated people that they are being exploited or suffering humiliations and oppression. It is more difficult to preach to them the rewards of freedom. People who have been convinced that their rights have been disregarded will be glad to throw stones at windows or to overturn motor cars; the doctrine of individual liberty inspires no such acts of passion. We are at a disadvantage when it comes to applying propaganda to the have-nots. Dollars are not always enough; and the fact that our doctrine appeals more to the privileged classes is a fact which cannot be exploited or even avowed” (Nicolson 259). Freedom for Nicolson is not a democratic virtue. Safety is the only value of the masses.

Ultimately, we must do what we know to be right and avoid “placing ourselves in the wrong.” A difficult task when “there does not exist such a thing as international morality.” But we all know where the boundaries of right and wrong are. We must recognize that what is right for other nations is not right for us and Nicolson is convinced that by adopting this imperative we shall in the end prevail (Nicolson 262).

The world has no doubt changed greatly since September 11th. But perhaps it has not changed as much as we would like to pretend. In the brief interlude between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror we forgot that our own civil liberties are fragile, that our international position was nearly always tenuous, that propaganda machines are always working against us, and that the best way to ensure success is not to empathize with those who do wrong but to boldly assert what we know to be right.


Works Cited

Nicolson, Harold. Diplomacy. London, NY: Oxford UP, 1963. Print.

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