The Art of Diplomacy
July 31st, 2012
Word is that South Africa’s Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will need all her experience and skills in the art of diplomacy to heal the rifts between African states that were created by her bruising election battle with Jean Ping of Gabon for the position of chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission. The history of diplomacy goes right back to the ancient Greeks and it has a pretty chequered past.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists two main characteristics of modern diplomacy. The first, dealing with the relationships between different nations, is “[t]he art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations for the attainment of mutually satisfactory terms.”
The second, which hints at the wider use of the term to include relationships in society in general and between individuals, is “[a]droitness or artfulness in securing advantages without arousing hostility: address or tact in conduct of affairs.”
In the American judge Jacob M. Braude’s Speaker’s Encyclopedia there is also the following wonderful definition of a diplomat as “a man who has learned that you can’t bend a nail by hitting it squarely on the head.”
But it is, when we go searching for the origin of the term, that the darker side of the term is revealed.
The word diplomacy derives from the Greek word δίπλωμα or diplono which means to fold (as in folding a document). In ancient Greece, a diploma was a document certifying completion of a course of study, typically folded in two.
The Romans adopted the word as diplomatis to indicate official travel documents, such as passports and passes allowing travel on imperial roads. These documents were stamped on double metal plates.
Later, the meaning was extended to cover other official documents such as treaties with foreign tribes.
The word arrived in the English language in the late 1700s via the French word diplomatie.
It arrived hand in hand with a revival of the system of formalised conduct in relations between the states as they existed in classical Greece. The revival started in medieval Europe and grew in importance in the relations between the city states of Renaissance Italy and the emerging states of post-Reformation Europe.
But the first diplomatic figures recorded in history are in Greek mythology where Hermes, the brother of Apollo, was known for his charm, cunning and trickery. Zeus employed Hermes for the most sensitive diplomatic missions and Hermes became the intermediary for the other gods between the upper and lower worlds.
In the Christian tradition St. Christopher -- whose commemoration date is 25 July -- became the patron saint of travellers because it was his task to assist people to cross a dangerous river.
In the ancient Greek legend Hermes had a similar task. His task was, however, somewhat broader. He was regarded as the patron of not only travellers, but also of merchants and thieves!
Maybe it is against this background that Benso di Cavour claimed, “I have discovered the art of fooling diplomats; I speak the truth and they never believe me.”
According to an article by Dr. George Voskopoulos, Senior Research Officer in the South East European Research Centre at Sheffield University, the first official diplomats were “the heralds of the Homeric period ( 8th century BC). The heralds were, among other things, official agents of negotiation and were chosen for such qualifications as a good memory and a loud voice.
As relations between the Greek city states became more sophisticated, so did the qualifications for diplomatic representatives. By the 6th century BC, only the best orators were chosen to be ambassadors.”
The revival of the system of formal diplomacy in Europe, which started at the end of the 18th century, culminated in 1815 with theCongress of Vienna. This regularised a system of permanent diplomacy between states.
The great powers exchanged embassies and ambassadors, while relations involving smaller powers were conducted through legations and ministers. A recognised diplomatic profession started to develop, characterised by the aristocracy of its members and the secrecy of its methods.
A tough task
How tough Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s task is going to be is well illustrated by an assessment of diplomacy in the article on the answers.com website:
[I]n practice, diplomacy reflects strongly the European tradition: diplomats represent to their home government and to their host government the views and interests of the other and, in negotiation, attempt to reconcile the two. The diplomat is thus always liable to be misunderstood; popularity at home spells unpopularity with the host or, the more frequent case, vice versa.
Her task is further complicated by the fact that she is not supposed to represent the interest of a “host” country but the whole of Africa and all the member states of the African Union. But many of the member states are suspicious that she will mainly represent the interest of South Africa and the Southern African region.
She is bound to be regarded by some as a St. Christopher and by others as a Hermes.
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