The need for diplomacy

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 30 March 2022

Diplomats do not make decisions for their nations, but they can help their leaders to make less unwise decisions.

Normally most of us might yawn when told about the International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. We would see it as of a Day of interest only to specialists in the public service. It evokes the vision of professional diplomats in dark suits representing their various nations, speaking eloquently to justify the position taken by their nation, far removed from the everyday life on the streets of their cities, and producing statements that cloud over the real differences between nations. We might even suspect them of selling out their people in order to appease the powerful. After Chamberlain’s short-term agreement with Hitler, of course, appeasement became synonymous with cowardice.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has emphasised how important diplomacy and negotiation are in opening or keeping open paths towards peace. War is horrifically destructive of people and of the earth. It also fosters hatred between peoples and makes even more difficult the task of minimising the effects of climate change. In times of conflict war and the destruction of the enemy can come to be seen as the only justifiable course of action. Leaders then cannot allow themselves to be seen speaking to one another.

In such situations it is vital that knowledgeable and trusted representatives of their nations are able to agree on such immediate needs as safe passage for refugees and the treatment of prisoners, and so to keep open conversations about an end to the war and the resolution of disputes that led to it. Diplomats do not make decisions for their nations, but they can help their leaders to make less unwise decisions.

The skills of diplomacy and negotiation are valuable in all human relationships, not just in relationships between nations. When conflict arises in families, groups and nations, it usually divides people into two camps – enemies and allies. We feel called to choose, to take a stand, to hate one and love the other. His or her friends become my enemies. The conflict becomes entrenched, sometimes for generations. It would be better for people at war with one another to have spoken to one another directly or through a mediator trusted by both parties, to have looked calmly at their relationship and at the effects of breaking it, and to have found some common ground.

In our society and in the world, it is better to promote contact between people and friendship across differences than to feed hostility. It is better to address conflict early and to avoid demonising people of other races, religious beliefs and colour. Negotiation and diplomacy are needed when trust breaks down. But it would be better if the differences that lead to the loss of trust had been balanced by earlier efforts to build good relationships between peoples.

In programs of restorative justice we have come to appreciate the value of negotiation and diplomacy, particularly in the Group Conferencing where young people who have been found guilty of offences meet people whom their behaviour has hurt. This can help the young person take responsibility for their actions and the damage they have caused. It can also help the people hurt to work through their anger and pain.