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The diplomat’s vocation

Philip McDonagh - The Tablet - Thu, May 20th 2021

The diplomat’s vocationMust international relations be only a game of power, or is there a role for diplomats as builders of a shared civilisation in a world where people disagree?

My understanding of diplomacy goes back to a moment of epiphany when I was a student. I was reading passages in Thucydides which compare the breakdown of a shared sense of justice to the spread of a pandemic. Suddenly I was in tears. I had encountered the profoundly true, a vision of how evil makes its way in the world.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals commit us to “reaching the last first”. During the Covid pandemic, citizens have been making sacrifices for the community. There is increasing recognition of our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations. All over the world, we glimpse new horizons, even in the literal sense, as pollution lifts. What should happen next? Can we build a world inspired by a shared vision of human values? With three friends, I have just published a book proposing six axioms of the historical imagination, which point towards practical steps in the realm of methodology and orientation.

In Thucydides’ language, the connection between words and reality is fragile. Commonality of meaning, if it is to be achieved, requires a discourse sustained through time by actors who remain in relationship to one another, even where they disagree. Building a shared civilisation in a plural world requires frameworks of engagement not unlike the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the North-South dialogue and the peace process in Northern Ireland, all of which I was involved in over many years. Post-Second World War, the strengthening of social security and international cooperation drew on a great depth of cultural sources; we can do something even more ambitious in the twenty-first century. We can work towards an age of ­sharing even as we recognise our different national interests in day-to-day negotiations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights relates human dignity to life in community: “Everyone is entitled to a social and inter­national order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised” (Article 28). One of the founders of the European Union, Robert Schuman, asserted that Europe “will be built though concrete achievements that first create a de facto solidarity”. But how do our frameworks of engagement offer pathways towards a shared life at the regional or global level?

In Geneva in the 1980s, when I was a young diplomat, the French ambassador to the UN, Stéphane Hessel, invited me to take part in a play. Rehearsals were outdoors. We actors became aware that our host and patron had an extraordinary backstory. Hessel had been an agent of the French Resistance – waterboarded by the Gestapo in Paris, and a prisoner in Buchen­wald. He told me that he had never expected to survive. An agnostic, he sent his wife a Shakespeare sonnet by way of a farewell letter. We found ourselves reciting it together: “No longer mourn for me when I am dead …” In 2010, Hessel’s little book Indignez-vous! – translated into English as Time for Outrage! – became a best-seller. He urged young people to fight for their future, arguing that the great barrier to social action is the sense of the inevitability of how things are. Moral discouragement today is passed off as “realism”. Hessel was then 93.

Within the UN, Hessel was a leading figure in the very technical negotiations on a “common fund for commodities”. Unfortunately, the North–South dialogue had become compartmentalised. The agenda excluded debt, the monetary system, the role of state trading enterprises and a number of pivotal issues. The salient remaining item was the stabilisation of some 20 commodities markets. Even then, the sums of money available were small compared to the operations of the markets. Hessel – friend of René Cassin in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a pioneer of European recon­ciliation – had been pitched into a struggle for justice that was unwinnable from the start.

Working in Vienna with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the last decade, I came on a similar structural bias. The OSCE, like the CSCE before it, is conceived as a new form of peace project based on common principles, high levels of cooperation and dialogue. The three “baskets” or “dimensions” (broadly speaking: arms control, economic cooperation and defence of human rights) provide a basic logic or architecture. Some western countries are slow to engage with the economic and envir­onmental dimension, arguing that the OSCE lacks “comparative advantage” in the economic sphere. This undermines the balance between dimensions which is the ethical foundation of the process. “Realism”, as a value in foreign policy and international relations, should begin where Thucydides begins, in contact with reality. We should examine the patterns of our behaviour and the scope of our negotiating mandates in the light of all that we ought to know and can know. A post-secular sensitivity alive to the historical imagination will engage with the most consequential issues. It will “image” peace and see that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. It will make room for the personal vocation of trusted representatives like Stéphane Hessel.

When I served as deputy head of delegation at the Stockholm conference on “confidence and security-building in Europe” in the mid 1980s, my Soviet counterpart was Vladimir Erefeev. Much my senior, Erefeev had once been Stalin’s personal interpreter. During the endgame of the negotiations, a discussion got under way in a drafting group over what had or had not been agreed. I heard myself intervene in support of Erefeev. Shortly afterwards, the Swedes included me in a high-level working lunch at which Erefeev, seated opposite me, picked up a piece of bread and held it in my direction. Not quite understanding, I laid down my fork and used my free left hand to accept the bread. Erefeev held fast to the bread until we broke it between us. Then he said: “I am baptised. It is something for your information.”

Later on, I learned that Erefeev had been an internal critic of some Soviet policies and that his son, the novelist Viktor Erefeev, was a dissident. Seeking an opening for good within a system that needs to change is not an unusual predicament: it is the definition of the diplomat’s vocation. To understand this and the other factors that accompany healing in a wounded social structure, we need the quality of mercy. I often thought of Erefeev when my fellow diplomats spent precious working hours pricking down the names of individuals on whom to impose sanctions over Crimea. I again think of ambassador Erefeev when I read about the mutual excommunication by Christian communities that was such a potent factor in the First World War.

During the build-up to the Good Friday Agreement, I had a meeting with Gusty Spence, whose organisation had specialised at one point in killing Catholics. By way of starting a dialogue, I commented that the loyalist ceasefire declaration had used the word “remorse”. “Abject and true remorse,” replied Spence. “That’s what I feel, abject and true remorse.”
I asked him how his interest in reconciliation had begun. “Have you heard of William Redmond?” he asked. I had. Redmond’s last speech to the House of Commons in spring 1917 begins: “We who are about to die salute you.” An Irish nationalist MP in his fifties and a Catholic, Redmond could readily have secured an appointment behind the lines. He remained in the trenches in the hope of future reconciliation between unionists and nationalists – and here was Gusty Spence telling me that his father had been present at Redmond’s death and could never speak of him without tears in his eyes. “You’re saying there’s a direct connection between Flanders and the loyalist decision on a cessation of violence?” “Yes”, replied Spence. In the whole of the Great War, the offensive at Wytschaete in June 1917 was the only time the Ulster Division and the Irish Division advanced side by side, and the only time the wounded Redmond could have been carried behind the lines by stretcher-­bearers of the Ulster Division. From deep in family lore, a phrase loved by my mother came to the surface: “God spoke last.” Spence repeated slowly: “God spoke last.”

The taking of power to ourselves, in one form or another, is at the root of the suffering of hundreds of millions of people. Diplomats must take human and cultural values seriously in foreign policy planning and peacebuilding. Only “the culture of encounter” – one of Pope Francis’ favourite phrases – founded on the humility to listen can restore the resonance of great fundamental words: mercy, discernment, justice, trust and hope.

Philip McDonagh is the co-author, with Kishan Manocha, John Neary and Lucia Vázquez Mendoza, of On the Significance of Religion for Global Diplomacy (Routledge, 2020).

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