Raising Diplomats

This week’s news headlines run something like this:

Russia, U.S. Disagree on Iran Sanctions
Israel Vows to Respond to Rocket Attack
China Declines APEC Meeting With Canada
Bush Warns N. Korea on Nuclear Transfers
…and so on. Notice anything missing?
Diplomacy is an artform that has never been well understood by most, and in recent years has all but vanished, under the increasing tendency to view anything less than full military force as the arena of the ” weak”.

“All war represents a failure of diplomacy” — Tony Benn

Where do we expect this policy of tough talk and fast action to take us? In the movies, the Good Guys are usually able to take out the Bad Guys with one carefully planned excursion, perhaps a massive shootout, and some classy dialogue followed by single, well-aimed bullet. But out here our roles are not so clearly defined, and the stunt guys just don’t fall down when they are supposed to. Somehow, in spite of everything we have been taught to believe, the Bad Guys just keep coming back, and violence just keeps breeding more violence.

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your way.” — Daniele Vare

Does anyone really believe that bombing Iran is going to make them shut up and behave? Ahmadinejad is, here in the United States, commonly referred to as madman. The same goes for pretty much every international leader with whom we strongly disagree. Madmen don’t generally back down when you call their bluff. They can, however, be swayed from a given course of action by someone with the right skills. This is why we used to have people called “diplomats”.

“A diplomat tries to arouse the nation whereas a politician lulls it to sleep” — unknown

Come to think of it, it seems we could use a little diplomacy here at home, too. Even in domestic politics, we seem to have fallen prey to the notion that the most brazen in their defense of controversial policies will triumph over their opponents. The American political arena has become a Colosseum, where only the most bloodthirsty will triumph. There is no subtlety, no panache, and most importantly no compromise.

In the name of doing something to address the problem, I recently had the very great pleasure of taking nine homeschooled teenagers to their very first Model United Nations conference. Yes, I know the United Nations is in need of an overhaul, and that was certainly one of the topics discussed in the many classes to prepare for the conference. What these kids were really learning, though, was the art of diplomacy.

Standing in the parking lot of the hotel before the conference, watching the other kids file in from their schoolbuses, our blooming diplomats seemed a bit shaky. One of the girls actually had hives and was sick to her stomach. My husband and I gritted our teeth and assured them they would be fine, all the while worrying that we had not given them everything they needed to be prepared. We watched the other kids filing in to enact the simulation while muttering under our breath about who was going to give them a run for their money, who was obviously as nervous as our kids, and whether our kids were cuter than theirs (it’s a nervous thing). Then the opening statements were done, the kids broke into committees…and all we could do was peer through the windows and wait.

Agendas were set, positions and resolutions were debated, caucuses were voted in…and then the first one of our kids decided to get up and speak. The kid who had hives. And then another. And another.

During breaks, they babbled excitedly about various nations and their agendas. They talked about allies and enemies and how they were working with the one to work around the other. They talked about the problems I argue about all day, and they did it intelligently. They worked toward solutions.

And then the other shoe dropped. Two of our girls (freshmen) were being harassed by some senior boys in their committee, complete with rude notes and provocative comments. Infuriated, I offered to intervene. They assured me they could handle it. Two hours later, I saw them again and asked if they were having more problems.

“Well, those boys sent us another note,” one of them said.
“What did it say?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” came the response, “I looked over at him and ate it.”

An unusual form of diplomacy, perhaps, but as Ahmadinejad knows, the appearance of insanity can be an effective deterrent. Problem solved.

Over the course of two days, I watched with growing pride as these kids took on the problems of the world and tackled the additional problem of difficult, annoying, possibly mad people. And I started to hope. They managed to get an agreement on the definition of a terrorist (more than I have ever seen here). They talked about ways to help women achieve equality. They tackled global epidemics, disarmament, and the economic devastation of countries hit by natural disasters. And they found ways to work on them.

These kids are not diplomats, and many of them will never be. But they are all coming back for another conference in the spring. Even the most cynical of them found themselves caring, found themselves trying to effect a change. Every one of them learned the first steps in how to “let someone else have your way”. Without a doubt, every one of them has a greater comprehension of the complicated issues of our world, and what their place in it will be. In that, I find the seeds of hope for the future. Perhaps someday the diplomats will come back, after all.

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