Thinking, Speaking, and Acting Diplomatically

AMUN Executive Director Shannon Dunn

Opening Plenary Remarks, 2017 American Model United Nations Conference

One of our AMUN t-shirts issues a directive: “Think Diplomatically.” And I really like this idea. That simply thinking about diplomacy and defaulting to thinking diplomatically—rather than thinking confrontationally, aggressively or selfishly—is more likely to accomplish something. We could easily add to this ideal: speak diplomatically and act diplomatically. After all, that’s what we are here to do: to learn about diplomacy, to practice the skills required of diplomats and to work together to reach consensus—or at least a better understanding—of a broad range of issues facing the international community.

And diplomacy, at its best, can accomplish some pretty incredible things. Diplomacy has ratcheted down incredibly intense crisis situations—for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or the ceasefire negotiated in 1982 between Israel, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy has been the key to reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, and it has been responsible for major international agreements such as the Law of the Sea and the Geneva Conventions. Recently, we have seen the triumph of diplomacy in the incredible consensus that emerged with the Paris Climate Agreement—where there are 197 Parties to the Convention and 170 have already ratified it.

The Paris Agreement is notable because conventional thinking argued that a global agreement to mitigate climate change was impossible—that raw national interest would prevail and scuttle any agreement. The best diplomatic thinking manages to do improbable or impossible things. It manages, despite the odds, to build consensus, peace and respect for human dignity.  

Being diplomatic isn’t just about thinking. It is just as much about speaking and doing. Good diplomats understand what to say and when, as well as what is better left unsaid. In the run-up to the thaw between the United States and Cuba, both teams of negotiators kept quiet to protect the delicate deliberations. Similarly, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech in December 2016 on Peace in the Middle East was notable for what he said and how: his careful wording conveyed a strong message: “the United States … cannot be true to our own values—or even the stated democratic values of Israel … if we allow a viable two state solution to be destroyed before our eyes.” His message was clear, succinct and, most of all, diplomatic.

But sometimes, even the professionals don’t live up to this ideal in their words and deeds. Everyone knows about some less-than-diplomatic behavior from world leaders and others at the United Nations. Who doesn’t have a crystal clear image of Nikita Khrushchev and the shoe in their head right now? Or maybe you’re recalling one of Muammar Qaddafi’s fiery, rambling speeches before the General Assembly. And of course, we can all recall incidents where diplomats have abused privileges of diplomatic immunity or where breaches of diplomatic protocol have caused friction between countries and leaders.

In a Model UN context, while we strive to replicate the United Nations, it’s important to remember that we shouldn’t necessarily emulate the bad behavior—even if it might seem to be “in-character.” You can be impassioned. You can disagree. You can have wildly different approaches and ideas. You can even be a little angry or righteously indignant. But you must always strive to be diplomatic. You must aim to speak tactfully, even if pointedly. Sometimes, saying less and speaking quietly can send a tremendously powerful message.

Diplomats must master the art, as well, of speaking truthfully and signaling their message and their intent to their colleagues. There’s a little-known example that illustrates this point rather well. In the 1980s, after decades of an ongoing border dispute, Libya invaded Chad. The United States captured images of this incursion via satellite and made a rare move of releasing the images to the Security Council. When confronted with the images, the Libyan ambassador was brought before the Council to explain. He explained to the Council, after consulting with his government, that “Candor compels me to tell you that we have no troops in Chad.” But everyone in the room knew exactly what this meant. The Ambassador had been officially instructed to tell the Council there were no troops in Libya, even when the truth was plainly visible and known. Diplomatic communication does not rely solely on words, and words can carry weight far greater than their literal meaning.

So as you go off to your committees this evening and over the next few days, I want to encourage you to think, speak and act diplomatically and to take those same ideals and apply them when you leave as well. Perhaps if we all remember the principles of diplomacy and remember what diplomacy-done-right can accomplish, we will be motivated to continue to address issues of personal, local, national and global concern and approach them with an eye toward constructive, constitutive change—even when the changes required are radical. Thinking, speaking and acting diplomatically is not synonymous with incrementalism or weakness; rather, it acknowledges the power and radical change that can come from committed individuals working together to find and achieve common ends.

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