Propaganda: the step-brother of persuasion
I was about to end these considerations, when another concept raised its ugly head, to obscure the picture even more. Propaganda is also a systematic effort to persuade people, by manipulating their beliefs, attitudes, or actions. It is said that heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguishes propaganda from the free exchange of ideas and persuasion. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals. To maximise the effect, propaganda may omit pertinent facts and distort them. Persuasion may be more gracious, but it is not as alien to the evil nature of propaganda as we would like it to be.
Persuasion, as depicted so far, may look to diplomats as a skunk at a lawn party. Obviously it was not my intention to recognise any virtue in the degenerate distant relatives of diplomatic persuasion. To quote Shakespeare again: ‘Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall’. Persuasion still has a life and a future in the multilateral diplomatic context, doesn’t it?
The main objective of diplomatic communication is persuasion through non-violent means. The word is the main vehicle. In ancient Greece, the agora activists observed that everything depended on the people, and the people were dependent on words. Wealth, fame, and respect could all be arrived at by persuading the populace. The same goes for the arenas of multilateral diplomacy. With one important remark, though. ‘People’ in the conference rooms are more or less as educated and as informed as the people on the rostrum.
From orators to speakers
There was a time, in a remote and glorious past, where indeed working with the word in multilateral diplomacy had something to do with oratory. Oratory is still the practice of persuasive public speaking. It is supposed to have immediate impact on its audience’s relationships and reactions. In theory, an oration involves a speaker and an audience. It is also expected to carry a message by voice, articulation, and ‘bodily accompaniments’.
The orator ought primarily to be persuasive rather than informative and entertaining. A genuine orator need not be a logician, but to have a capacity for good and clear thought and to use analogy, generalisations, assumptions, deductive/inductive reasoning, etc.
Nowadays, in multilateral conferences, oratory is no longer needed. Had they been endowed with Demosthenes’ public-speaking gifts, the diplomats at the United Nations would not be able to display their talent anyway. Some of the prerequisites of a persuasive speech are no longer relevant.
One hundred and ninety-three nations share six official languages at the United Nations. Only a minority of the delegates use their native language while the rest have to listen to simultaneously interpreted versions as dull as dishwater. The only decent approach to articulation is to speak slowly enough to allow the interpreters to understand the content and convey it properly. Yet, speaking slowly and at the same time conveying a rich and convincing message is difficult when the speaker must not exceed the time allocated.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Fidel Castro for more than one hour in a plenary meeting of the General Assembly. We sat in perfect silence. Now, heads of states and governments can only aspire to 15 minutes. In the Human Rights Council, the speaking time allocated to an ordinary diplomat varies between 2 and 5 minutes. A successful speech is a short speech. The chairpersons will usually praise the short interventions rather than the smart ones.
‘Bodily accompaniments’ would be definitely ridiculous. The best speakers may turn out to be those equipped with prompters helping them to look extemporaneous. In informal meetings, PowerPoint presentations are replacing prompters, written declarations and, occasionally, the real knowledge of the speaker on the subject dealt with.
The higher ranked the speaker, the more likely it is that the text presented is written by somebody else. Yes, some political figures are assisted by qualified speech-writers. Yet, at the United Nations, most of the topics discussed are specialised. Input usually useful to brilliant electoral campaigns, such as generous promises, beautiful visions of a happier future, and confetti, cannot find their place. Texts are written, compiled, and approved collectively by more or less obscure bureaucrats. If there was any sparkle in the initial draft, it is inevitably lost at the end of the road.
The twilight of the audience
The audience is there. And in diplomacy, it is considerably more important than the speaker. People speak more and listen less. For the speaker to be persuasive, they need to capture attention, comprehension, and retention of the message. According to Aristotle, an essential mode of persuasion that a speaker may exercise is the ‘the excitation of desired emotions in the audience’. The audience should be catalysed by new ideas, galvanised by calls to action, and electrified by the speaker’s enthusiasm. As you can see, good chemistry is not sufficient; basic physics is also needed.
The United Nations, unlike the Greek agora, works with internationally adopted concept and norms, which are meant to be understood in all countries of the world. The ‘excitation of emotions’, desired or not, is not very productive. Retention is provided by précis-writers, chairpersons’ summaries, and adopted conclusions, which keep track of what was meaningful for the organisation and cast the rest into oblivion.
Yet, with the development of communications technologies, attention in multilateral conferences is a very scarce commodity. Taking notes on laptops provides abundant alibis to all diplomats guilty of absent-mindedness. They exchange e-mails, SMSs, photos; they check the news in their own countries, speak on their mobile phones and Blackberries, tweet, and chat. As technology gets smarter, the gadget holders get dumber. They are physically in and virtually out. No wonder why persuasion is no longer a keyword in most diplomatic dictionaries and that Diplo is trying hard to re-discover it.
Faced with so many bad influences, I still believe that there is a self-portrait that persuasion can paint for itself. There are still decent ways to practice persuasion in good faith. A cautious approach is a short list of what it is not diplomatic persuasion, although it may sound like one. Trying to impose exclusively one’s own views and ignoring the fundamental interests of the other side, for example, is mere pressure not persuasion.
Basing one’s positions and attitudes on personal considerations rather than on principles is unfair, even if it is effective. Wikileaks revealed postures that are embarrassing for many. I do not dare to give illustrations on this one. I will stick to an old quotation that the perspicacious reader can easily attribute: ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’ Without a moral stand, persuasion does not work.
Making promises one has no intention of keeping and forcing the other side to make commitments that cannot be kept either may squeeze an agreement that will not last and make the issue at stake even more complicated. This kind of persuasion is fraudulent.
Using arguments which will blow up in your face later and undermine your credibility is not only diplomatic malpractice, but also it could have huge unwanted consequences. The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ argument in the case of the second campaign against Iraq is one such example.
In the case of the United Nations-blessed intervention in Libya the use of the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept was done by-the-book until that moment where the objective of the campaign became ostentatiously the overthrow of the regime. Not surprisingly, ‘the responsibility to protect’ lost its appealing power and trustworthiness in the case of Syria. Many judgments of the International Tribunal on former Yugoslavia not only failed to persuade, they also cast doubts on its impartiality.
Yet there are still legitimate and fair tactics to persuade your partners:
- Identify which of your own arguments may be acceptable to the other side.
- Identify those arguments that are not shared by the other side but are shared by third parties, which are closer to your interlocutors
- Use arguments that are neutral, although they still serve your purpose.
- Identify and use arguments that also serve the public good.
- Identify among the possible arguments those that serve the interest of the other side, but which are not harmful to yours.
- Make a few concessions that will not alter your position substantially, but which will give enough ground to satisfy the other party.
- Offer decent and credible face-saving options in exchange for the concessions the other side may have accepted.
You may expect examples and illustrations of these simplistic precepts, if possible taken from reality. Where on Earth, do you, distinguished and educated reader, want me to find such examples? These are principles! You do not really expect these nice, good-looking phrases to replace torture and fire, guns and drones?
Their power of persuasion is limited, unless all parties are persuaded that they may work and bring the same results at lower costs.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica 14: 62.2b
This text was first contributed to a printed book: Persuasion. The Essence of Diplomacy, DiploFoundation and Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. 2013.