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The Psychology of Diplomacy

Published on 29 October 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

The world is full of diplomacies and diplomats – and in Denmark, the classic diplomat in the foreign office often has an educational background in politics and economics. But understanding emotions and human behaviour is an important skill to have if you want to be a modern diplomat in 2018.

Public diplomacy.

Panda diplomacy. Economic diplomacy. Tech diplomacy. Koala diplomacy. Public diplomacy. Intellectual diplomacy.

If you were to measure diplomacy by the vast amount of new titles that have come up over the last few decades, you would conclude that diplomacy is in its golden age.

Last year, Denmark appointed the world’s first tech ambassador, whose role is to promote Danish digital interests globally. In the same year, we received a panda as a gift from China during Prime Minister’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s state visit to the country. ‘Panda diplomacy’ has been China’s most famous way of making international friendships since the 1950s. And so political, geographic, economic, religious and strategic relations and questions have been the subject of diplomatic interventions for centuries as a way to be, function, and manage the world.

There is a whole infrastructure around diplomacy: ambassadors, consuls and their staff live and work abroad and serve their countries’ interests, and can be kicked out if a conflict between the countries arises, as was the case with Russia and a couple of European countries in April; and other diplomats, who are, for example, sent to work at international organisations such as the UN, EU and NATO and their missions abroad.

But who is actually a good diplomat? What is specific for diplomatic behaviour in 2018? What is diplomacy up to?

Diplo is neither the name of a bomb, nor of a Lego brick, but of a training organisation for diplomats based in Malta, with offices in other countries. Dr Jovan Kurbalija, a lawyer and former diplomat, is based in the Switzerland office. He has experienced diplomacy very closely – both at negotiation tables at the UN and in an – NGO DiploFoundation; a school for diplomats, established in 2002, which today also offers a Masters’s programme in contemporary diplomacy.

If asked what diplomacy means, Jovan Kurbalija answers that it has nothing to do with the typical associations we have with black limousines and luxurious receptions.

Diplomacy is a very popular word in public discourse. For example, in almost any city in the world, there is a hotel named ‘Diplomat’ or ‘Ambassador’. Diplomacy has a lot of meanings. But for me, the most relevant meaning of diplomacy is a collection of methods and ways for solving conflicts through negotiations, engagement and eventually reaching compromises, he says.

The question ‘what is diplomacy?’ opens a long discussion between Magasinet P and the former diplomat. The question ’what is the psychology of diplomacy?’ opens an even longer one. For Jovan Kurbalija, the role of modern diplomats – seen psychologically – is clearly an interesting and underexposed topic. Especially as negotiations are one of the most human-intensive activities, that require complex skills and knowledge. Besides reading emotions well and sometimes smartly using them, the ability to understand cultural and psychological differences is essential for a professional diplomat, according to Jovan Kurbalija.

What is the role of modern diplomats in 2018?

Modern diplomacy is on the hunt for its role today. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the world over, diplomats had the role of exclusive and important negotiators in society. That is no longer the case! Yet, diplomacy is becoming more and more relevant. And this is not only the case for ’traditional’ diplomacy. Diplomacy and diplomats in 2018 need to adjust themselves to a new ‘era’. What I mean is that today’s diplomats no longer have a monopoly on communication with foreign entities. We are just ‘a click away’ from others in the world. 100 years ago, a voice chat with others was a complex and expensive exercise – today, a Skype call is no problem. We can also observe that heads of governments and ministers communicate more directly. And it often happens that they bypass embassies. One can wonder, is this the end of diplomacy? The answer is, from my point of view, both yes and no. Yes, because traditional diplomacy will be challenged. No, because diplomacy will in fact become more relevant. In a world where we are increasingly dependent on each other, the use of military power will have limitations, seen from the foreign policy point of view. That is also valid for superpowers. Military conflicts and bombings cannot deal with problems in a strongly connected business and social network. So military strength has a limited use.

What are the most important skills of a diplomat today?

Diplomats should master a mix of traditional and new skills. Traditional skills include empathy and being a good listener. In addition, you should be able to adjust to and understand the context in which your partners operate. But diplomats also need a set of new skills. For instance, an understanding of the fast growing elites. Diplomats should also understand the communication and social skills of Silicon Valley elites. It is they who steer the power in the modern world today. National interests of the countries they represent will depend on how they can engage with the Internet industry. In the future, diplomatic representation in the Silicon Valley may become more important than in Washington DC, if you ask me.

What are the biggest challenges modern diplomats face today?

The biggest challenge today is to secure interaction between continuity and change. Here I am thinking mainly of interaction between the very complex international problems and ‘instant communication’ which constitutes one of the biggest challenges of modern diplomacy. Practically speaking, diplomats need to have a high degree of empathy and social skills, but today, they also need to understand modern technology. Diplomats should understand how the new generations deal with problems and perceive reality. That means that diplomats will need to deal with the new generations’ use of media, but also have an understanding of their limited ‘attention span’. It is important when you are trying to understand and analyse very complex diplomatic problems. The Palestinian conflict or the conflict in Ukraine, for example. These cannot be explained by social media or audio files. But the reality for modern communication is that these types of conflicts should be communicated in a very simple and condensed manner. That presents many challenges, from the diplomatic point of view.

Every war has its own psychology

But sometimes diplomacy fails. To the extent that everything ends with a war.

Johannes Lang is a psychologist and senior researcher at The Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS). For the last couple of years, he has researched the psychological mechanisms of war, violence and mass destruction, including the perpetrator’s psychology. Today he is especially aware of how psychological knowledge has been used in modern warfare.

He believes that emotions play a crucial role when it comes to the psychology of diplomacy.

I believe emotions play a major role in most situations and definitely in politics. Some feelings should be hidden, such as diplomatic disgust, disdain, and anger. And some emotions are to be cultivated, for example empathy and sympathy. I think that is absolutely crucial for a peace debate.

When I think of an ideal diplomat, I think of someone who is very rich in knowledge. It’s a cliché that they are very smooth and do not offend anyone. But there are different types of tasks. Someone should promote business, someone should negotiate trade agreements, some should resolve conflicts. The latter requires a high degree of social intelligence

Most negotiations are also a lot about timing. When do you see your chance? A skilled diplomat is good at seeing when it is the right time to get something through. It requires a strong sense of people and situations.

If you ask Johannes Lang what war is an expression of, he will tell you that it is hard to give a clear answer. Traditionally, war has been explained as an expression of aggression and power. Lack of trust of the enemy. Fear. The feeling of superiority. Or, war as self-defense.

It’s a historical and political question more than a psychological question if you ask me. Every war has its own psychology. Generalisation is a major weakness in most social psychological research; it’s ahistoric and too decontextualised.

When you take an a-historic perspective on social psychology, you find some mechanisms that explain human behavior, which are universal and timeless. For example, theories of group dynamics. It leads to a definite view of man and ultimately, a definite view of conflict resolution. For example, the idea that we can resolve conflicts by letting people work together towards common goals. That sounds fine, but what does common goals mean? Are not they often ideologically defined? We can not agree on common goals if we have completely different moral values.

To say it straight, Johannes Lang thinks that much of social psychological research has been historically naive and over-ambitious. Because it has tried to say something very general about conflict resolution. At the same time, he will not deny that a social psychological perspective on diplomacy and warfare is relevant and useful. ’But morals, history and politics are also important,’ the senior researcher explains.

A diplomatic kind of guy

Although any diplomacy may also have its own psychology, it is tempting to ask if one can approach a kind of typology?

’Social psychology can say something about certain trends and make suggestions on how to get things done’ explains Johannes Lang. But he also notices that was, and still is, a major discussion within the field about how to define the core of conflicts.

The theory of conflict (realistic conflict theory) was build on the idea that most conflicts stem from struggles over resources. It is a very materialistic understanding. It would require a form of diplomacy that finds out how we allocate resources in a fair way.

Conversely, the social identity theory states that this kind of realism does not look at the emotions at stake. There is a symbolic dimension to conflicts that the materialist approach can not accommodate.

And which is more important – a material or symbolic fight? Johannes Lang recalls that some conflicts are about the ownership of material resources, while others are far more symbolic, ideological or concerned with identity. And very often, it is a complicated mixture.

For example, genocides typically stem from struggles about identity, even though they originate in something materialistic. The genocide of the native Americans (Indians) was about the struggle for land – but also about the racist idea about ​​’white supremacy. If the core of conflicts is symbolic or ideological, it is not enough to solve it at the material level. This also sets special requirements for diplomats.

My guess is that the longer a conflict places itself on the identity scale, the harder it will be to solve. And the more ‘negotiating power’ it will require. It is important for modern diplomats to be aware of that.

Whether you are a diplomat in Switzerland, or senior scientist researching war, violence and mass destruction in Copenhagen, modern diplomacy in 2018 continues to be a lot about creating strong relationships. Also via your Iphone.

This blog post is a translation of an article in Danish by Ditte Darkó, psychologist and journalist, that appeared in PPsykologernes fagmagasin, republished here with permission. 


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