Face-to-Face: The Diplomacy of Showing Up

AMUN Executive Director Shannon Dunn

Opening Remarks, 2016 American Model United Nations Conference
By Shannon Dunn, AMUN Executive Director

Sometimes it seems like we’re living in the future. As a child, I loved the cartoon The Jetsons and its fantastical, imaginary technologies. Maybe some of you have heard of this cartoon; maybe some of you have even seen it—I know I’m dating myself. But many of these once-fantastical technologies are now a reality (although I’m still waiting for the robot who cooks and cleans). Today, I can communicate with people all over the world with ease—with an Internet connection and a computer and smartphone, I can host video conferences, talk to someone on FaceTime, send e-mail, post on Facebook and Twitter or send a snapchat, and asynchronously edit documents. All of these things would have been nearly-unimaginable when AMUN first started. And in so many ways, this has made life and work so much easier—more convenient—more collaborative across time and space.

But at the end of the day, these technological advances and capabilities can facilitate but can’t replace meeting face to face. Think about the nuance in body language and tone of voice that allows you to know if someone’s getting it or not or whether the room is receptive to a new idea. Think about how a simple touch or gesture can diffuse a tense situation or make a personal connection. Think about the energy that fills a room—like the one we’re in right now—when a group of like-minded people gather for a single-minded purpose.

Within the international community, face-to-face interactions are a lynchpin of diplomatic negotiations and processes. There’s a reason that high-level talks happen in person—though now the in-person meetings often take place after extensive one-on-one phone calls. Diplomats form long-lasting relationships with each other, and these personal relationships are instrumental in pushing through some of the obstacles and challenges that can often make reaching consensus and agreement so difficult.

And this phenomenon is a constant in the history of international relations. Historically, we can look at the foundation of the modern state system created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 as evidence of the importance of face-to-face diplomacy. More than 100 delegations were involved in these complex negotiations. In the field of military history, we see an example in the agreements of 1813 and 1814 between Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, which, after more than a decade of fighting Napoleon on their own, without any real coordination, finally were able to come together to form the so-called “Sixth Coalition” and defeat France at the Battle of Leipzig–also known as the Battle of Nations.

In the more recent past, the recent U.S. opening with Cuba was only made possible through several years of secret, in-person meetings hosted by Canada and the Vatican. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, in a memo to President Barack Obama, wrote that interpreters were, perhaps, more important than any officials in a negotiation because they would be responsible not only for interpreting the words that were being said but also the “desired emphasis, nuance, and tone.” And right now, we see the positive results of tireless diplomatic legwork and face-to-face negotiations by heads of state and foreign ministers in pursuit of reaching the Paris Climate Agreement.

Some scholars have suggested that face-to-face diplomacy actually creates signaling mechanisms that encourage cooperation over competition. Face-to-face meetings encourage empathy and reduce uncertainty and distrust. Emotions are generally easier to read in face-to-face interactions—you can tell whether someone is fearful, disgusted, angry, surprised, happy, or sad. Now, to be sure, there are incentives in diplomacy to dissemble and mislead—perhaps even to lie outright, and realist scholars have long asserted that intentions are impossible to discern. But more recent work in social psychology and neuroscience has suggested that intentions and emotions may be discernable or at least more discernable in face-to-face interactions. At the end of the day, it seems that scholars and theorists are reaffirming what practitioners have always known: It’s not just what you say, but it’s also how you say it. And we also know that institutions are critical in developing the emotional and affective ties that are required for successful diplomacy.

The United Nations is, perhaps, the greatest celebration of this ideal. Whether in Geneva, Nairobi, Bangkok, Beirut, or New York, the United Nations brings people together. The United Nations, by insisting on the sovereign equality of all states, sends a clear message: you get a seat at the table. Your voice matters. Your problems and ideas matter.

And this approach makes a difference, as the Millennium Development Goals demonstrate. In the 25 years between their adoption in 1990 and 2015, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day dropped from 1.9 billion to 836 million. Almost two-thirds of the developing world achieved gender parity in primary education. The child mortality rate and the maternal mortality rate have both been cut in half. The number of people with access to clean drinking water more than doubled. These are tangible results of diplomats engaging in face-to-face conversations. Of listening. Of engaging.

Harry Truman is thought to have said, “Decisions are made by those who show up”—though you might be more familiar with its utterance from Jed Bartlet or CJ Craig from the television show West Wing. And I think there’s some truth to this. You have to show up. Be present. Listen to each other. And together, talk through some of the challenging problems the world faces. And when the conversations get difficult—when there doesn’t seem to be common ground—when you haven’t had enough sleep or enough coffee and it seems easier to just give up or to retreat back into a more comfortable space. Keep showing up. Keep talking. Keep working. I’m tremendously excited to see what you’ll come up with in the next four days. And I think if we all pledge to keep showing up, we will take lessons from this place and this conference that far outlast the four days we spend together.

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