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2d11 – Let’s get rid of diplomatic protocols!

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It was a complete break of diplomatic convention when Trump spoke with Taiwan, but should it? In this episode Sebastian and Dirk try to decide if diplomatic protocols are really that essential to peace and international conduct.


Image Source: CC0, Pixabay


Episode Transcript

Dirk – Welcome everyone to another episode of, the podcast of debates. My name is Dirk, I’m one of you two hosts, and I’m speaking with Sebastian who happens to be in Thailand today. Hi Sebastian! How are you doing?

Sebastian – I am indeed in Thailand and I’m actually recording outside in an alleyway between two rows of bungalows, getting bitten by mosquitos. It’s just to make conditions difficult for me so you have a chance to win today. I’m giving you a chance, I’m not saying that you will actually win!

Dirk – Alright, today’s motion is going to be an interesting one. In the wake of Trump’s conversation with Taiwan officials, we thought let’s discuss the value of diplomatic protocols. So our motion for today’s debate is: let’s get rid of diplomatic protocols altogether. And by the flip of a coin, we decided that I’m for this motion and you, Sebastian, you’re going to be against the motion. And I’m going to be second debater, you are going to go first. So it’s your your turn to make a good case, why we, well, should not get rid of diplomatic protocols, I guess.

Sebastian – That’s correct, I will argue against the motion.

Voice – Okay, let’s do this! Sebastian goes first and argues against the motion.

Sebastian – Your highness Dirk, protocols matter because if we did not have them, you would already have interrupted me or not respected the structure of this debate. In fact, this is my very first point: protocols offer some structure, it’s not about being politically correct. It’s a process so that people and various things actually happen as smoothly as possible. It’s an interface if you will. And if you speak in the IT language, it’s kind of an API if you will, so you can interface with different cultures, different languages, different habits. People are busy, they don’t want to lose their time and they want to get straight to business. Furthermore, protocols are usually the representation of the formal position of a country. They are allow to reduce ambiguity. If you did not have them, there is a risk that in some cultures specific aspects, specific gestures may be interpreted wrongly. For instance, when George Bush senior in 1992 went in australia, he did this V sign which is in the US is a sign of victory but in Australia, it’s equivalent to showing you the middle finger. So clearly when you’re traveling abroad, what someone said in this case, it will be best, especially in Australia, to wear mittens to understand different cultures, instead of just doing some V sign with your fingers. Additionally, as I was mentioning, you want to avoid cultural mismatch. You quickly want to discuss important matters. In Asia as you may know, it’s important to save face so you may not want to be very blunt in the way you can express things. Otherwise who knows what’s going to happen when powers and superpowers have nuclear weapons – if there’s a misinterpretation in a way that you communicate or you have which specific interface with another country, it may lead to some dramatic consequences. So for all these reasons I am strongly against getting rid of diplomatic protocols, which help alleviate any misunderstanding, any miscommunication and go straight to business.

Voice – Now, it’s Dirk’s turn, let’s hear his arguments.

Dirk – Not if you ever did one of the following: agreeing to terms of use without reading them; last thing about someone’s jokes despite not finding it funny; making someone a compliment without meaning it. If you nodded and I bet you did then you just heard examples that all have something in common: doublespeak. In case of the terms of use, you agree because you don’t have the time to actually read the thing and frankly you have no choice. Nothing about a bad joke: you’re polite and it means you have social skills. Still all the three mean you score points by saying or doing something you don’t mean to do. The same forces are at play on the international stage: we follow rules like a dance and call it protocol. In the end we are achieving too little and often not what we want. I say let’s try to be more honest and skip the doublespeak. And also by breaking protocol you have a chance to open new conversations, you have a chance to surprise people. Yes I know, in Asia, it’s important to save face but maybe saving face is not always the most important call to the order. Maybe every now and then you need to shake things up. As president Trump likes to say, if we feel it’s appropriate to sell guns to them, maybe also taking a phone call is something suitable to do. So I would say let’s get rid of the protocols and have real-world actions instead.

Voice – Now, it’s Sebastian’s turn. Let’s hear is rebuttal.

Sebastian – So let me go from the micro level to the macro level and to show that there’s a major risk in getting rid of diplomatic protocols which I am against. At the micro level, it is necessary to reduce the stress of the foreign missions, the foreign embassies which are present in every country. And this is actually something very practical, it’s not about being politically correct or doublespeak: it’s about allowing everyone to codify things, to make things more predictable. The worst thing that can happen between countries is to make things uncertain, to make things unpredictable. So providing this basic social framework which you mentioned yourself, this hierarchy to follow, it’s far from being something very stuffy or mysterious: it’s actually in fact based in pragmatic thinking, in common sense, in not only good manners but also good manners. I’m surprised you will quote Trump in this case when you say this is the way to have real things happen because let me go to the next aspect which is the macro level. When I say you want things to be predictable, we also talk about the long-term: the relationship between the US and China does not date since Trump was elected, will not end when Trump will be out of office in four or eight years. It will continue, it will carry on. So it is vital that these relationships continue on this long-term basis. Governments are temporary, administrations are temporary. But the relationships between countries are very long term and this is important for each nation to remain credible and certain of their actions. Otherwise indeed there is a risk of new not conversations but dramatic actions. This is my third point: that the risks are major. How often has it happened that missiles were sent for apparently exercise purposes by the US or by Russia or by China and another major power thought it was possibly an attack because that other nation had not respected the protocol to actually not maybe fire weapons in this specific zone. This is why it’s not about doublespeak: it’s about ensuring there is no misunderstanding, no ambiguity, and why the long term matters. You talk about new conversations. Which ones? Which ones have happened thanks to breaking protocol? Are you talking about berlusconi who talks about Obama and his wife as being particularly well suntanned? Are you talking about Cameron when he displays a poppy on his jacket in China which reminds the Chinese of the Opium wars in the 19th century which they have lost? Actually the Chinese have asked the British delegation to remove the poppies from jackets and you know what the British did? They refused! This is what you talked about opening new conversations and sparking new actions? I am sorry: no! And finally my last point here is: you cannot get rid of diplomatic protocols because that cannot be enforced. Who according to which super national law will you edict rule by which protocols have to be gotten rid of? In fact, this will not work because Chinese or Asians or specific countries will still expect them. So if Trump gets rid of them, the other party will not get rid of them.

Voice – Next up: Dirk.

Dirk – Well, I quoted Trump because he was a trigger to our debate, but you point to a larger scheme and you point to something that’s in fact my one of my counter arguments. You mentioned all the things that nation-states expect and cultures expect in terms of behavior. That has two downsides: one, diplomatic protocol sometimes even is assumed as being as close to actual laws as it can be and it’s fixing systems and power structures. So by breaking protocol, by not complying with it, you also express a certain flexibility, you enforce the negotiation of new rules – and come on, really, you say we were close to a nuclear war because people did breach protocol and stationed weapons on the wrong places, in the wrong time and shot on the wrong time. If really protocol makes a difference between war and not war, then maybe we have even more reason to look at protocols more closely. Second thing, if protocols like, I don’t know, the seating orders at the state dinners didn’t really decide over the the quality of the relationships we have, maybe there is something gone out of hand, maybe there is something that we need to look closer to – because we actually want to talk about issues and not about the imagery on jackets or the order in which people are seated or the order in which people are greeted. It’s having way too much weight. Third argument: diplomatic protocols are maintained by diplomats. This is a whole system created in times where travel took days, if not weeks, and where it was not possible to consult the sovereign or another state to interact directly. Today we have something crazy – the Internet – and we have something even more crazy — air travel — so it puts our officials, even our state leaders, within reach on a moment’s notice so if someone is offended by something, someone else is doing saying or stating, they can just give each other call. And I think protocols are at least to a large extent out of a time that this was no not possible at such an easy pace in such a short time. Getting rid of them or at least de-emphasizing them significantly frees up all that energy that’s frozen in those systems – and yes by all means, let’s do that, let’s have common sense in our interaction instead of some rule book that you need to study before you even start talking. Now last but not least, sometimes protocols are even causing their own problems if all of the sudden we have arguments over something that that may or may not have been protocol. Maybe breaking it forces a rethinking. For instance let’s go back to Trump in that case: I don’t like the guy but one thing for sure has been happening. People start discussing the relationship between the states, China and Taiwan, and that’s not necessarily a bad outcome.

Voice – Final statements.

Sebastian – We’re recording this just before Christmas Day and as you know around Christmas people actually sit around to have dinner. And people who also listen to our podcast may also experience this problem, indeed the seating arrangement. So you may not like it but it is actually a question everyone faces themselves when they have to sit for dinner. Why not make it easier? You have a protocol, you go more quickly to business, let’s go to the meat to the discussion without any pun. The poppies. You say there should not be a problem, at least should not be a reason for war or not war. But the thing is you yourself in your corner cannot decide this on behalf of others. You are being arrogant here by deciding that the Chinese cannot be offended. I’d like them not to be offended but they are and this is why we should understand that we need that interface, just like you have APIs in the IT language which allow you to work with different pieces of technology. You can’t decide what the other piece of technology will do on its own but you can interface with it. And finally indeed it is beneficial for everyone, not only an embassy, but also the major level, because relationships are longer time. It’s not just about Trump and his call to [Taiwan]. Maybe not the call is not enough, maybe it’s not appropriate. When you say you can just give each other a call, maybe this is a very Western attitude. Again this is a major risk to go out of the framework, to go out of a structure and I’m not willing to take that risk. So this is like I am not in favor of getting rid of diplomatic protocols.

Voice – Dirk.

Dirk – So you know what that is? If you have the right to be offended by something someone says or someone does and you by extension for others to adjust their behavior to not offend you, I call that passive aggressive and passive aggressiveness is not actually a good way to embark on any business. I also think if you forced to use other ways of communication, if you have to deal with your, I don’t know, embarrassments, your personal feelings and situations, that doesn’t necessarily mean it leads to disaster, it’s not always the risk to end in a nuclear war just because someone on the table is offended. And to come back to the seating arrangement example, if you are sitting around the Christmas dinner, placing Uncle Harry on the wrong side of the table, maybe that sparks a healthy debate and not a bad discussion and it’s different than you imagined it when you decided on the protocol on your side. So I’m for opening up, I’m for the motion: let’s get rid of diplomatic protocols and have adult honest conversation.

Sebastian – Thank you for listening as usual you can leave us your comments on our various social media channels, we have a Facebook group which is open so you can add additional arguments we may not have used or debate on that very motion which is debated upon. Don’t forget to vote also we have convinced you: go to our website you’ll find the thumbs up, thumbs down where you can vote whether you were convinced. Thanks for listening!

Dirk – Thanks for listening. As usual we had a ton of fun, we hope you add too.

Sebastian – I’m sorry I don’t want to have Uncle Harry sitting next to me, it’s going to be a nuclear war, Dirk.

Dirk – Uncle Harry next to you. When someone tells me they are offended in their religion or offended by I don’t know what I do in my spare time, I have that impulse in me to think so what. It’s like by just demanding that you are following a certain code to make it easier for me, I’m actually forcing myself on you.

Sebastian – I completely agree with you. Actually when I submitted this debate, for me my natural inclination is to get rid of any political correctness because for me this is what it was about, exactly what you were mentioning. I remember some issues between the French president and the Queen of England and you know that kind of stuff like what why we’ve been talking about this, this is so ridiculous. So that’s why I did my little research for this exercise which I’m not sure has completely changed my own opinion, I don’t know but I found that there was deeper value in it but certainly you gave me the wrong example with the seating arrangement because clearly I don’t want to sit next to specific people so.

Dirk – Yeah but I would also like to make that call myself. I don’t want to have anyone deciding over the seating arrangement. For me, tat statement of his that if it’s okay to sell 390 million worth of weaponry to Taiwan, it should be also okay to go on a phone call with them, he has a point. Try not to killed by mosquitoes on the way, during the debate.

Sebastian – I actually need to hold my timer in my hand, my microphone in my other hand and somehow with my mouth speak and hold my pen so I jot down my notes which are on three pieces of paper so it’s going to be fun! And my mother is taking a picture of me in the middle of the recording. You see the flash? That’s my mother taking a picture!

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