A masterpiece of persuasion
When I was invited to contribute to a book on the topic of persuasion, I naturally placed the issue in a diplomatic context. So, from the start, I had to put away all thoughts of various judiciary systems as well as the persuasion of juries and judges by legal and mainly procedural arguments.
I did so with the sincere regret that I would deprive myself of the opportunity to use a significant illustration of the persuasive power. I am alluding to the well-paid lawyers who made a jury believe that O.J. Simpson did not murder his wife. Notably, the rest of the American public is still persuaded that he did. The issue is no longer breaking news; other murderer was not found and ‘the trial of the century’ is just a banal Wikipedia file. People born recently may be persuaded that O.J. Simpson’s wife actually died of indigestion and not from being stabbed multiple times by her beloved husband. This is what I would call a masterpiece of persuasion.
Words and swords
It seems to me that persuasion is a very relative concept. Like beauty, persuasion is the eye of the beholder. Admittedly, persuasion does not exist in the absence of results. One can say that persuasion can be defined as such, if and only if it is effective and reaches its goals. If we accept this prerequisite, we may find persuasion where we least expect it.
For example, during the Dark Ages, the Inquisition was indeed very effective in persuading heretics and witches to stick to the right thinking. When soft techniques like interviews and frequently asked questions did not work, what could have been more persuasive than torturing the subjects and threatening to burn them at the stake?
Consulted by the Inquisition with respect to the conformity of their cosmologic doctrines to the astronomy and physics research undertaken by the four Evangelists, the academic world reacted differently. Giordano Bruno was not persuaded by arguments from the Church. He was burnt and he left us with his ashes dumped into the Tiber River. Galileo Galilei faked persuasion and escaped the fire. He left us with the famous quotation Eppur si muove.
The inquisitors had no mundane legal basis to respect. The rule of law was rather the law of the ruler. Nevertheless, highly educated as they were, they used to cite Psalm 73, paragraph 27 for their purpose: ‘For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish/ You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.’ And as Shakespeare’s character Antonio would say: ‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.’
Finding useful quotations from the Bible still remains an argument nowadays. Yet, not all books were quotable in the eyes of the Church. On the contrary, some books may have been be very persuasive and at the same time very stubborn in their convictions. In addition, the books did not feel pain and they were very resistant to torture. The Inquisitors had a revelation: burning books may be as useful for their purpose as burning people. Centuries later, Goebbels, despite being much less Catholic than the Pope, would bless the autodafé of non-aligned books in 1933 by saying: ‘The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.’
For the crusaders, persuasion by way of preaching and public speaking preceded more robust efforts to convince pagans to accept the holy claims of the Christian knights. Word in mouth and sword in hand were effective means of persuading indigenous people to accept the right faith and the wrong colonisation.
But let us move to diplomacy, which is after all our area of interest. Much to the credit of my noble profession, diplomacy was very creative in designing new tools of persuasion which were not exclusively based on word power. Honestly, gunboat diplomacy was quite an effective procedure used to persuade undecided interlocutors. Negotiations were faster, the boring speeches of heads of delegations shorter, the reach of compromise quicker. Just try to figure how nicely United Nations negotiations would go on tough questions in New York, if some handsome crusaders patrolled East River and displayed fireworks in the immediate proximity of the General Assembly hall.
Persuasion was also nicely exercised through big stick diplomacy. Judged in terms of efficiency, Theodore Roosevelt cannot but be praised for this practical and theoretical contribution to the art of persuasion with his idea of negotiating while simultaneously threatening military fire power. As progress is inevitable and the world continuously improves, dollar diplomacy came to diversify the soft means available for diplomats, or at least for some of them (those whose Central Banks could print more dollars).
The United Nations did not at all neglect robust persuasion in trying to find acceptable solutions to international conflicts. Economic sanctions have been often used to persuade authoritarian regimes to step down from power, but not before starving the innocent and the poor. But this was taken care of. The Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq came with its magic. It is true that some people continued to starve. Others got very rich indeed, precisely as a result of it.
Fortunately, recent sanctions try harder to focus more on the ruling regimes, before persuading the people to take to streets. Nowadays, these ways and means look much better and we see the advent of new persuasive embargoes and weapons, like smart sanctions and even smarter drones.
But let us not forget the hard operations called so softly safe havens and no-fly zones. It is true that those means were often not persuasive enough. The names of military operations themselves are called to play a role. For example, had I been Saddam Hussein, I would have been definitely persuaded by the planning of Operation Shock and Awe. Or, being Iraqi or an Afghan mujahedeen, one should be highly insensitive to resist the luring appeal of Operation New Dawn which brings us again a touch of poetry in realpolitik.
From bad practices to good theories
After this introduction to the wonderful world of persuasion, seen from a practical perspective, let us try to attach to it a more scientific approach. I looked into a solid book to find the best definition and I found this: ‘Persuasion is the process by which a person’s attitudes and behaviour are, without duress, influenced by communications from other people’.
Oops! So, the essence of persuasion is communication. Other factors such as threats and physical coercion are not really part of the picture, suggests the respectable Encyclopaedia Britannica. As an illustration, torture may work very effectively but it cannot aspire to the glory of belonging to the noble family of persuasion. No wonder why we now have a United Nations Convention against Torture!
Yet, the same Encyclopaedia kills the joy of those who were about to believe that persuasion is entirely honest business. It admits: ‘Persuasion often involves manipulating other people, and for this reason many find the exercise distasteful.’ To be frank, so do I! Shame on the manipulators, from politicians in electoral campaigns to invasive TV advertising!
Despite being distasteful, it seems that manipulation is indeed a very popular technique of persuasion. However, to the extent that we do not have a UN Convention against Manipulation, any campaign based on arguments such as ‘they have weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘they have nuclear weapons’ may be seen as decent an attempt at persuasion as anything else.
Finally, Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us: ‘In European universities of the Middle Ages, persuasion was one of the liberal arts to be mastered by any educated man.’ Obviously the members of the ecclesiastic tribunals, assembled under the auspices the Inquisition, graduated from other universities.
Persuasion by repetition
As we have alluded to universities, we cannot escape making a link between persuasion and education. Persuasion implies that someone assimilates knowledge by being exposed to new information. Repetition of the messages containing the new information will modify learning, thus having a persuasive impact as well.
One may remind me that a repeated lie becomes a truth. Well, yes. Nobody is saying that persuasion is always in service of truth and other just causes. Remember the mass suicide of the People Temple’s followers in Jonestown, Guyana, 1978? No one can doubt the high skills displayed by Jim Jones in providing some kind of religious education to 909 members of the sect and convincing them to commit suicide. This is an illustration that both education and persuasion work very well if they are preceded by a robust effort to brainwash your target audience.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica 9:313.3b, 1992
This text was contributed to a printed book: Persuasion. The Essence of Diplomacy, DiploFoundation and Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. 2013. www.diplomacy.edu.