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Why diplomacy is an art

Published on 04 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Engineers are a proud and self-confident lot. When challenged to create a robot that could walk down a busy sidewalk they took to the challenge with earnest enthusiasm. Building the hardware was not that difficult. It was the software, however, that stymied and baffled them.

They needed to teach the robot “common sense”: the rules we use every day to negotiate the myriad of social situations we encounter as we walk along. In the city of Bern, for instance, most people have a habit of “going with the flow”. So people tend to use one sidewalk for “going”, and the other side of the street for “coming back”. But this rule is not strict, so there is a trickle of counter-flow. How to avoid collisions with the upcoming person? Does one veer to the left or right? It depends on the relative trajectories, of course, but also on which hand is holding a bulky package that may force a wider detour. Whether the person coming towards you is a woman (what age? how pretty is she?) or an invalid, an ill-disposed bully, or someone just distracted, makes a difference. Eye contact helps or distracts – if you use the fleeting glimpse for a whiff of a flirt. And so on and on – in layer upon layer of complexity. The rules seem to be structured hierarchically, but with shortcuts, exceptions and crossovers from other “decision trees” – I’d call them structured fragments. These rules furthermore may vary subtly depending on the time of day (rush/non rush hour) or the day of the week.

To make matters more amusing, these rules may reflect multiple purposes. Intended as rough and ready traffic rules, they may evolve also to express subtle rituals that celebrate and reinforce group or sub-group belonging. In small Italian towns there used to be a street where “everyone” at dusk walked – while the mamma cooked the dinner. “Everyone” meant social class, age-group, sex, trade or skill – you name it. Breaking the rules of place and time brought covert or overt ostracism.

We are forever inventing such “rituals”, or changing them. Is this a problem? No – once we have learned as children the “basic rules”, we can readily spot the divergences and adjust – or be misled: shaking of the head in Western culture means “no”, yet a similar movement in India means “yes”.

To finish the robot story: the engineers gave up. There were just too many situational rules, too many exceptions. “Common sense” rules are enormously plastic, complex and changeable. Explicating these rules and programming them in way a computer could handle proved beyond the capability of the best software minds.

Our mind learns these situational rules unconsciously – it is “learning by doing”. This process is twofold: we learn the “what” as well as the “when” – the rule and the exception. This knowledge is ordered by emotional markers. These markers tell us “what to do”, but not “why”. Should I be asked: “why did you steer out of that person’s way”, I’d be hard up to explain – mostly I’d fabulate from available evidence (many experiments prove this last point).

In critical situations the unconscious interrogates the conscious brain, and the latter may override the instinctual reaction – often leading to collisions because its decision is not expressed concomitantly through appropriate body-language the oncoming person may decrypt as she approaches. Hear my swearing at that “lout”, who rudely set his course across the crowd in pursuit of his willful goal. See the affectionate smiles of people surrounding me, who reinforce my judgement and provide in-group reassurance.

Only experience allows us to learn the rules, and only experience yields the “emotional markers” that permits us to navigate the rules correctly, and effectively. That’s what is called “know-how”. In other words, this learning process is transformative.

When social rules stabilize, one can review and even order the “know-how” and extract behavioral rules and default assumptions. Vainly one may call them “theories” – pretending that they can “predict” in any specific diplomatic situation. Diplomacy is all about social situations: in the end it is people, the negotiators, who decide. Of course these real people “represent” abstractions – the state, economic interests, ideologies and worldviews. Of course it is important to understand how these impersonal forces impinge on the persons.

Theory may explain why people rush along the sidewalk. That’s not enough for a robot to weave its way among the crowd. The successful diplomat finds interstitial spaces between opposite interests and aims, on which to build a compromise – and navigate successfully the sidewalk toward his own ends. That is the art of diplomacy.

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