At the end of August, US President Donald Trump memorably declared on Twitter that “talking is not the answer” to resolving the situation with North Korea, for the “US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years.”
The Chinese have had two months to argue a much softer position, with China’s official China Daily arguing against both the US and North Korea that the UN sanctions should be given time to work.
In effective diplomacy, true statesmen must be prepared in any crisis to seek compromise, something that can only be done coherently when possessing both vision and responsibility, nor is a little humility out of order. This is a truth that transcends the transition from an older diplomacy to the new seeming non-diplomacy of the present extended crisis.
Whatever the global rhetoric, actual diplomacy cannot be conducted on the basis of a priori doctrinal systems — for instance, communism or neoliberalism — that produce irreconcilable assumptions long before any negotiation or investigation. Talking — not shouting, not declamation — must be the only answer.
In the present situation, obtaining this desired position requires leaders, especially those of the US, South Korea and China, to make statements that do not stray too far from the pathways that are relied on to be actual diplomacy.
Is it realistic to hope that diplomacy is being conducted behind the scenes, as sufficiently now as in the past, to avert global tragedy?
The case that springs to mind is that of the Cuban missile crisis in the middle of October 1962, from then-US president John F. Kennedy’s world broadcast on the evening of Oct. 22 — when he threatened clearly and calmly that if the USSR prohibited the total blockade of Cuba, then US armed forces would invade Cuba — to the Russian agreement on Oct. 28 to withdraw the missiles and dismantle the launching sites.
There was no bluster, the UN was kept informed and primed for actions to facilitate withdrawal, and an underground of a fairly stable diplomacy was established and basically trusted.
Few of those conditions now exist; certainly their existence should be reasonably doubted.
The “fire and fury” declarations of Trump in August, all-encompassing, but entirely vague, were more reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (which were “told by an idiot”) than they were of Kennedy’s more precise manner and statement.
However, Trump is much better known as a tweeter than as a coherent talker. Trump’s famous book The Art of the Deal from 1987 was ghost written by Tony Schwartz, who claimed that his subject has “no attention span” and cannot follow a detailed argument for any length of time.
This seems to be true of Trump’s own arguments in that book, such as they are. Of the 11 steps that Trump advocated for effective business success, he seems now to be adhering to only “use your leverage” and “get the word out,” abandoning all of “thinking big” (or, indeed, thinking at all), “protecting the downside” or “delivering the goods” and “containing the costs.”
Put in terms of those who want to talk — supposedly South Korea, Japan and China — lesser regional players, such as Taiwan, do as the UN and most democracies worldwide are doing.
The people who do not wish to talk, as personified by their leaders, are the two major protagonists: North Korea and the US.
Of course, it is naive to consider slanging matches as directly representative of a more silent diplomacy. Consuls, foreign offices and ministries, and presidential palaces all over the world are certainly being made to set up room for negotiations, compromise and possibilities of retraction without too much loss of face.
However, for the first time in a long period, this distinction between the political rhetoric of so-called statesmen and the underlying diplomatic relations has fissured, and is probably widening. Closing the gap between the rhetoric of leaders and the actual work of practical diplomacy is becoming more difficult by the day.
The more important basic question, which can at least be investigated, is as follows: What conditions are in place that might narrow the gap between the rhetoric of politicians and supposed statesmen on the one hand, and the real work in the world of diplomacy on the other?
First, leaders are needed who can speak to each other without spluttering invective.
Rarely have US presidents run way ahead of advisers on indicating the possible parameters of debate or the regions of possible compromise.
The 1962 crisis is a clear example of radical action by a president that was within an agreed diplomacy inside the US, but Trump appears to be going his own way on a daily basis and using the technology of social media effectively in the process. This is simply unique, beyond the context of any history of diplomacy, anywhere.
There is little likelihood of experienced diplomats infusing their calm, pragmatic and sensible advice into top-level thinking or negotiation at White House meetings.
When Trump dismissed his chief adviser Stephen Bannon, many considered this a good move that would quiet things down at the top level and reasoned that his replacement, former US Marine Corps general John Kelly, might introduce an improved environment.
However, there has been no evidence of improved procedure or orderliness, and the president seemingly remains close in touch with Bannon, who has now returned as chair of far-right commentary Web site Breitbart News.
As US commentator Elizabeth Drew has summarized: “Trump likes disorder; that’s how he had run his business, and he doesn’t take well to being managed.”
Second, most diplomatic procedures postulate both time and secrecy and at least a high degree of responsibility, loyalty and experience amongst the major agents of diplomacy — diplomats, bureaucrats, political leaders and elements of the public media. However, this is no longer to be assumed.
The boundaries of social media are fuzzy and wrapped up in software rather than situated in known institutions with agreed identities and responsibilities.
As a result, any politician’s statement of intent that needs to be pulled back when danger mounts, can seldom return through proper channels. There is not enough time, so the inflammation of difficult situations — such as the second firing of missiles over Hokkaido — is rife, with escalation easily following.
Third, diplomacy requires clarity of position. At present, the diplomatic positioning is confused.
For instance, “clearly” South Korea is an ally of the US and operating within the general democratic accord, but in fact the recent history of that nation has been one of autocracy, rogue leadership, anti-democratic institutions and prohibitions on freedom of speech and movement.
Similarly, North Korea appears to share very strong similarities and sympathizes with its communist neighbor, China.
However, the antagonisms between them are large and have been increasing. The growth of the Chinese economy on the basis of more liberal economic institutions rubs constantly against the power-mongering of its Korean neighbor, its military irresponsibility and its threat as an environmental disaster to China.
Fourth, most past diplomacy was couched in terms of knowing the contours not only of the antagonists concerned, but also of the weapons most likely to be used when diplomacy broke down.
In light of which, it should be noted that North Korea boasts the possibility of deploying chemical, biological, and electromagnetic sub-nuclear weapons against South Korea, as well as special strength in high-tech conventional artillery and rocket forces. The panoply of possible military threats makes negotiating between nations on the verge of military conflict extremely difficult.
Finally, there needs to be at least a corequisite of an agreed period of an absence of declared threats. So far, there has been no breathing space, which means no space for reflection.
The US military has staged bombing drills with South Korea over the Korean Peninsula, this was followed by Russian and Chinese naval exercises, all just before a UN General Assembly meeting in which North Korea was bound to be a major topic for discussion. Such juxtapositions do not make for a global setting for considered diplomacy.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the international journal History of Technology.
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