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The diplomatic ‘context specialist’ – an impossible ‘dream job’

Published on 20 May 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

When I was involved in free trade agreement negotiations we would land, one afternoon, in the potential partner country, and begin the “exploratory talks” at once. I still remember driving into then war-scarred Beirut. The windows of buildings were gaping black holes, the corners chewed away by enemy fire. I wondered what my colleagues would make of it – they didn’t, and went on to read from their standardized briefs – oblivious to the context.

In a negotiation I’d distinguish three overlapping phases:

  • General discovery phase: the goal is for both sides better to understand the future partner’s political, legal, and socio-economic context. The negotiators also get to know each other.
  • Interest discovery phase: the negotiating aims and limits (political sensibilities) are revealed. While none of these “border conditions” is unmovable, they set the general framework within which the negotiation will take place.
  • Negotiating phase: mutual concessions are exchanged, until a viable compromise is obtained.

The most complex phase was, in my experience, the first one. Mutual ignorance of key legal and political parameters could lead to misunderstandings – and mutual suspicion. These obstacles were removed as they emerged, in a haphazard and uncoordinated fashion. It was both painful and exhilarating – but always time-consuming. The matter was made worse by the prejudices about the “other” – snippets of reality one had picked up on the go, from newspapers, tourist blurbs, whatever. Just enough to give one a sense of false security as one ventured out on thin ice.

Once these misunderstandings were out of the way, the accommodating game could commence. Both teams were professionals, and able to skate around most difficulties. Progress was fast – until one got to the “sensitive issues”. Jaw-boning, and complicity worked wonders in the end – if the political will existed.

This brings me to the impossible “dream job”: the “context expert”. She would be a senior diplomat tasked to ensure that the opposite side has from the outset the necessary understanding of one’s own country.

The reason I’d use an “old hand” is that we are confronted with the task of presenting in compact narrative fashion three types of information:

  • Imagined (identity) elements: these are stories – myths if you will – which we tell about ourselves. They may have little to do with the reality on the ground, but these imagined elements move people (and politicians)[1].
  • Objective” elements: I include here institutions, political and economic forces, and “cultural[2]” elements.
  • Silent elements: in a society many things are so self-evident as to be “silent” – never verbalized. Such “silences” are oftencountry- or culture-specific and may lead to misunderstandings[3]

Putting together such an “identikit” or “self-portrait” that can be useful to guide the negotiations is no mean feat – hence the need for experience in “persuasion”. The challenge lies in what to include, and how to formulate it so that it “travels well” to the other side. Once in place, adaptation is easier.

Prior to the exploratory talks the “context expert” would organize for the other side to be briefed on elements which, from past experience but also from his own soundings, would prove to be crucial information.

The human side of the negotiation would be crucial as well. While negotiations usually include “excursions” aimed at providing direct insight into the country as well as informal personal contact, these aspects should be targeted for effectiveness.

The proposal might be looked at as “luxury”. It is not. Given the potential for wasting time on misunderstandings, clever organizing may save untold hours – and critically improve the process.

Bilateral visits today are often organized within the constraints of a busy schedule. I’ve witnessed a state secretary visit alone, for 36 hours a distant major power. This again is recipe for disaster. In between jet lag and cultural shock the visit yielded no gain. The “context specialist’s” task would be to make sure that such visits are meaningful, i.e. deepen reciprocal understanding, and not just a topical “exchange of views”.



In rely to Jovan’s comment, let me ask you a question. You have all seen a photo of Venus of Milo, now at the Louvre. The arms are missing. Ever asked yourself what the arms may have held? Here a quite likely reconstruction, taken from Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER (1995): Women’s work – the first 20,000 years. Women, cloth, and society in early times. Norton.


Surprised? You should not be, for over 50% of household time was spent on weaving. In fact, the first technological breakthrough was the string, already present at Lascaux, over 15’000 years ago. Weaving is a fancy way to organise strings – others are nets for fish and game. These tools allowed humankind to roam continents – and stay warm. The eponymous wheel? A late addition – after domestication of draft animals. Nobody speaks of weaving though – too obvious to notice…


[t1] See: Benedict ANDERSON (1991): Imagined communities. Verso, London.

[2] “When individuals socially learn to a degree that different populations [or social groups] develop different ways of doing things, (biologists) now speak of culture. Michael TOMASELLO (2009): Why we cooperate. MIT Press, Cambridge. This definition is rather crude, of course, but rightly focuses on “social learning”. I narrow slightly this definition to include learning that is explicit. Learning that has become
“implicit” and self-evident is “silent”.

[3] For a introduction to a complex world see: Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2004): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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