The Limits of Diplomacy; A Response.



This article is an examination into The School of Life’s How to Be Diplomatic. 

Introduction
One of my favourite YouTube channels is The School of Life due to its look at human virtue in practical situations. Aristotelian virtue ethics is one of my favourite areas in philosophy and the channel and website embraces this ideology. However, this does provide some limits to what they can achieve in a practical sense. This particularly applies to its video of “How to be Diplomatic”. Therefore, this essay will examine the particular issues with the approach it takes.

Strengths of a character based approach.
Before delving into the issues presented in the article, I want to highlight the importance of character within diplomacy. I particularly agree with the articles focus on noticing humanity’s flaws. All humans have limitations within their character and insecurities about themselves. By acknowledging this, it allows us to act in such a way which brings out the best in both parties and allows successful diplomacy. However, this is not a conclusive look into the needs of successful diplomacy. This is by no means a criticism, the School of Life’s essay/video focuses on character, not the general themes as a whole. However, this essay will delve into this area and extend the article into a more general discussion about diplomacy.

1. The article is one-sided. 
The article states that “Diplomacy is the art of advancing an idea or cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions of tensions.” However, this definition is too focused on ourselves. Diplomacy is about the relationship between two people and furthering a mutual benefit. If this is not the case, then it allows for diplomacy to be used merely out of manipulation, which is counter-intuitive. There is also the issue that it doesn’t hold the other person accountable for there values. We could be the most diplomatic person characteristically but if the other person is not willing to make some compromise, then there is no room for diplomacy. This will always be a criticism of a character-based approach as it focuses merely on the virtues of ourselves and not the other’s around us. This can make a diplomatic situation difficult, as we see below.

2.Diplomatic nature is beyond our control. 
The importance of appearing imperfect when delivering criticism is emphasised within the article in the line “For a diagnosis not to sound like mere criticism, it helps for it to be delivered by someone with no compunctions to owning up to their own shortcomings”. This is one of the strengths of the article, as, by following this theory, it prevents the self-righteousness which sometimes undermines the diplomatic process. However, there is a limit to this principle because sometimes how others perceive our criticism is beyond our control. For instance, we may be able to joke about our shortcomings, but if someone else is already consumed with envy or jealousy then this will have no impact. If someone else has a predisposition to our intent, then no matter how much we highlight our own shortcomings the other person will feel defensive and unwilling to align themselves with the diplomatic process. This highlights the problem of the article being one-sided, as despite developing virtue, the diplomatic process may be inhibited anyway.

Furthermore, achieving this ability may be impossible. In order to be diplomatic, we must ourselves overcome the flaws which plagues humanity. We too have our insecurities and our buttons. In order to be diplomatic, we must be able to view the wider picture of what is going on. However, a God’s eye view of a situation is impossible as we can’t step outside of what or perception is. Therefore, the diplomatic nature that is needed may be beyond the control that we have. This is a consequence of a character based approach which the article fails to deal with.

3. It relies on practical wisdom. 
This is a similar criticism to that which can be applied to virtue ethics. There is a lot of contradictions within the article. For instance, at one point the article condones the telling of lies. At another, it emphasises the brutal honesty that is needed in order to burst any hope. On one hand, this series of contradictions can be used to emphasise the point above, that the diplomatic nature described in the video is unreachable. However, this can be responded to by the Aristotelian approach to ethics, which argues that the demonstration of particular virtues must be demonstrated at the right time to the right degree. This means that at points in the diplomatic process, it is appropriate to demonstrate the virtue of honesty, while at other points, it is not.

However, despite it going someway to solving the issue of contradiction, it develops the issue of practical wisdom. In order to make the decision of what the appropriate demonstration of virtue is, we need to have past experience of similar situations which culminates in practical wisdom. However, if we do not have enough experience, then we can’t demonstrate the appropriate level of virtue in the current situation. Therefore, we reach the same conclusion above, as the diplomatic nature is beyond us until we have enough experience to show the appropriate level of virtue.

4. There is no sense of self-preservation.
The article places value on being able to “be serene in the face of obviously bad behaviour.” But to what extent should we do this? It is one thing to acknowledge that one cross word or breakdown is not part of the person’s personality, but there are times when people use this to their own manipulation. People can be purposefully manipulative or spiteful in order to got their own way. It’s most often the case that they are insecure which results in this. However, this doesn’t make it right and we must acknowledge that at some point or another we must set boundaries in place so we don’t put ourselves through unnecessary trauma. Even if it does not, it may hurt someone else. Therefore, at some point we must stand up against bad behaviour and walk away, even if it does mean the sacrifice of diplomacy.

5. It undermines the truth.
This is one of the issues which arises from the focus on a single person within a diplomatic relationship, as it makes it seem that small lies are ok. This is not the case. Relationships are far stronger when they don’t rely on lies, as if the other party finds out the truth then the relationship breaks down preventing diplomacy. In fact, relationships rely on respect, which is only created if complete honesty is used. This requires maturity from both groups in the ability to accept their differences and the truth, but the most successful diplomatic processes function on this respect, not lying.

6. It ignores when main aims don’t align.
The article acknowledges that there will be differences between parties within the diplomatic process. However, sometimes these are not small differences, like the article suggests. Sometimes the key principles which the parties wish to gain are contradictory or non-compatible with each other. In cases such as these, we must accept that there are limits to what can be achieved as diplomacy is based on the similarities between parties. This is a necessary condition for successful diplomacy, the fundamental core of why it occurs. Therefore, diplomacy is pointless without it.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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