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Why Persuasion? Reflections after 50 years of practising, teaching and studying diplomacy

Year: 2013

The functions of diplomatic missions and therefore of the diplomats are described in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as representation of the sending State, protection of the interests of the sending State and its citizens, negotiation with the government of the receiving State, collection and transmission of information regarding the receiving State and the promotion of friendly relations between the sending and receiving States. This list is a reflection of diplomatic relations between sovereign States, the only ones generally accepted until recently. Today, diplomacy is seen as a multi-facetted interaction involving States, international organisations and a host of non-governmental actors at national and international level now called stakeholders. This has reduced the importance of the elements of representation, gathering of information as well as promotion of friendly relations and enhanced the importance of the element of negotiation.

It is submitted that negotiation however is only part of a broader function which I call persuasion. The diplomat, whether he represents a State or any other entity or stakeholder, is there to persuade with a view to furthering the interests of the sending entity, reaching an agreement with the receiving entity, or avoiding or ending a conflict between the two entities. In a multilateral context the diplomat must persuade the other actors or at least a number of them of the position of the entity he represents. Finally, the diplomat may exercise persuasion as a mediator between two or more conflicting entities.

To effect persuasion, the diplomat may act unilaterally, engage in bilateral negotiation or participate in a multilateral negotiating process, or as already said, he may act as mediator.

To achieve persuasion, the diplomat uses arguments. These may be logical, emotional, ideological, religious, legal, economic, political or a combination of several. In most instances, such arguments are reinforced by considerations of power. Such power may be at the disposal of the sending entity or the diplomat must muster support of that entity’s position from others. Where persuasion appears to fail, the diplomat may have recourse to threats, including that of using force, provided the sending entity has the necessary capacity. Where force is already in use, the diplomat may use persuasion with a view to ending violent conflict.

Persuasion only works when the arguments or threats used convince the destinatory of the diplomatic effort. To achieve this, appropriate knowledge of such a destinatory and its representatives is required. In the case of States, their history, culture and national sensitivities must be studied, including preferably their language(s). In the case of organisations, their organisational aims and culture should be understood. If the requisite knowledge is achieved, mutual respect and empathy may be the result and thus a situation may emerge which greatly favours the effort of persuasion. On the other hand, a diplomat who does not care to understand his interlocutor, or worse, thinks that the latter does or should think and react like his own sending entity, is bound to find persuasion other than by threats difficult if not impossible.

Efforts at persuasion can be public or take place in a closed and confidential context. Unilateral efforts are the ones that characterise public diplomacy. Heads of State as well as diplomatic envoys and representatives of various stakeholders proclaim their views to the public at large, directly through the media or in public appearances. There is also a noticeable trend to publicise ongoing negotiations and debates in multilateral fora. This makes compromise much more difficult and helps explain why so many well publicised diplomatic efforts misfire.

One aspect of persuasion, when the diplomat has to justify the results of his action, has been particularly affected by attempts to bring everything before the public. Instead of just reporting to his superiors, the modern envoy is asked to attend hearings before parliamentary bodies, many of them public, to give interviews to the media and to write articles and even books to present his action and his views. Such exposure may adversely affect his effectiveness and credibility when facing his interlocutors.

From the faraway days when representatives of fighting tribes tried to arrange for a truce, thereby risking their head, to the often derided endless discussions within present day international frameworks, the common aim of diplomacy has remained persuasion. The better a diplomat is at persuading, the more successful he will be in furthering the cause he represents.

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