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Circumstances: the great persuader

Published on 27 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

For over two thousand years we have celebrated heroes – in war and in diplomacy. By din of skill and savvy they changed the circumstances in their favor. People who argued otherwise – like Lev Tolstoy – were called “revisionists” (a sulphorous group). Of course, you also had people who believed in agency hiding behind agency – they had “conspiracy theories”.

And then we started to pay attention to circumstances. This was far from easy. We needed statistics and computers to tease out evidence from the chaos of circumstance. Evidence emerged that some of these heroic tales were epiphenomena – in short, they were “tall tales” we tell ourselves and others.

I have found in the New Yorker the story of Ron Johnson. On the strength of his success in creating the Apple Store he was called to turn around J. C. Penney, a struggling venerable retailer. Here is the link https://nyr.kr/14o7PmT It looks as if Ron Johnson failed.

The article concludes: He’s become the living example of one of Warren Buffett’s keenest observations: ‘When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.’ ”

Circumstances made the difference between success and failure for Ron Johnson. Amb. Holbrooke, a gigantic personality and a highly skilled negotiator, was a success in the Balkans, but failed in AfPak.

Circumstances make a difference – studying circumstances may be the best way to make the best of circumstances. This is adaptive diplomacy.

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