The pitfalls of diplomacy

May 14 1984

The pitfalls of diplomacy

May 14 1984

The pitfalls of diplomacy


Abba Eban, considered by many to be Israel’s most experienced and articulate international spokesman, recently published The New Diplomacy, a highly acclaimed book on international affairs. The book, which describes the radical changes that have taken place in international diplomacy since the Second World War, reflects Eban’s broad diplomatic experience, first as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations (1949 to 1959) and to the United States (1950 to 1959), and later as Israeli foreign minister (1966 to 1974). For the past seven years Eban, 69, has been the opposition Labor party’s foreign affairs spokesman and he is likely to be Israel’s next foreign minister if the Labor party wins the general election in July. Maclean’s correspondent David Bernstein spoke with Eban at his home in the exclusive Herzliya township north of Tel Aviv.

been the most diplomatic


Maclean’s: What has revolutionary change methodology?

Eban: Diplomacy used to be marked by reticence. It is now wide open to the media. This is by far the most revolutionary change. Negotiation has to be carried on simultaneously with public opinion and with the negotiating partner. That transforms the whole nature of the process. In classical negotiation one had to create fictitious extremes in order that one’s real position would appear moderate. But when your fictitious extremes are demonstrated to the public, the public enters the discussion. In democratic countries especially, the negotiator is thus deprived of a great deal of tactical freedom because he is urged to make concessions not only by his negotiating partner but also by his own constituency. Soviet diplomacy, of course, does not labor under any such difficulty—Soviet negotiators are in the advantageous position of dealing with their negotiating partner and that partner’s public opinion, not with their own.

Maclean’s: What other major changes have you noted?

Eban: The shift to summitry—to put the level of negotiation higher and higher so that meetings between heads of state and government, which used to be sensational and rare, have now become almost routine. One of the consequences is a certain erosion of the status and function of ambassadors, who are much less plenipotentiary than they used to be simply because their principals like

to enter the scene, usurping not only negotiation but also the symbolic aspects whereby nations celebrate their relationships. Some ambassadors complain that the situation has reached a point at which whenever there is a negotiation, there arrives either a president, a prime minister or a special en-

‘Ambassadors have a tendency to let prime ministers and presidents believe that they are born for diplomacy9

voy, reducing their involvement in the negotiating process to studying the timetables whereby they come and go. Maclean’s: Surely there is something to be said for the direct involvement of leaders in the negotiating process, because they are the people who ultimately have the authority to make definitive decisions.

Eban: There are two sides to it. Of course it is easier to reach agreement at summits because those capable of definitive decisions are there. On the other hand, ambassadors often have a deeper understanding of events in the country to which they are accredited than the casual visitor. Before the Second World War, French ambassadors were on record as, warning their government that the Soviet Union was going to make a deal with Hitler. They were dismissed as lunatics. And, more recently, the British and American ambassadors in Tehran were warning that the shah was not quite as stable as he was supposed to be, long before he was overthrown. Also, since all presidents and prime ministers think they were born for diplomacy, there is a tendency for ambassadors to tell them what they want to hear.

Maclean’s: In your book you talk about multilateralism, the increased tendency toward international organization. Eban: There was always a great myth that international organization is a panacea. It is incredible to read the utopian language in which the birth of the United Nations is surrounded, as though this very agency would make alliances, balances of power and spheres of influence obsolete and nation-states would more or less relinquish their authority, including in matters of securi-

ty, to an outside agency. That was not realistic at the time, but it was entertained with such rhapsodical faith that international organization, which was really an instrument, became a cause. In actual fact, any movement that takes international authority beyond the nation-state has had a much harder journey than anybody imagined. In the United Nations there is a total unwillingness to surrender national discretion on matters of sovereignty. If you take the European Community as a dream of a united Europe, it has now come down to an acrimonious discussion about agricultural policy and the price of grapefruits.

Maclean’s: Are you optimistic that evolution toward a world community will

make progress despite the failures of the past few decades?

Eban: If one takes a rather eschatological view, it is almost inevitable because the nation-state is losing its relevance as an economic unit. The groping for world community is significant but it is obviously something to be enacted across decades and perhaps generations.

Maclean’s: How has the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union affected international diplomacy?

Eban: The two superpowers have come to tower above all others so that most of international politics seems to be a description of their conflicts and accommodations. Even with the rise of China and the Third World countries, and the move toward European unity, in strategic terms international politics are still bipolar. What is more, the main arena of the diplomacy of the great powers is their relations with each other. They enter Third World conflicts with an eye

on each other and not on the merits of the case. They look for each other in every conflict. You see it now in Central America and in Lebanon, where the Soviet role has been relatively passive and the U.S. role pathetic.

Maclean’s: Is not the obsession of the two superpowers with each other extremely dangerous, given their potential to destroy each other and much of the rest of the world?

Eban: The general effect of nuclear weaponry, however unattractive, has been to inhibit conflict, to prevent confrontation between the forces of the nuclear powers. It makes them rather anxious to limit and localize conflicts when they break out, to avoid escalation. So I might say that Winston Churchill’s def-

inition of security—that it is the handmaiden of terror and that the world lives more by fear than by hope—is basically true. I believe that by balanced deterrence—the fact that the great powers have the same fears even if they do not have the same aspirations—they can be trusted to avoid the final madness. The fact is that 40 years have passed without any engagement between the superpowers and that all other wars have been kept under restraint in space and time. If the idea is to avoid catastrophe, then I am optimistic. If the idea is to have a stable international order, then I am rather more sober. Until such an era arrives, diplomacy has a defensive task—to avoid explosion, to put out fires, to make limited settlements, partial settlements, temporary settlements, not to be contemptuous of anything that seems to delay the conflagration. The job is not to offer salvation, but to offer survival.