Geneva 2: Politics as the Art of the…Impossible


Politics has often been defined as the art of the possible. By this, analysts point to the numerous variables involved in a given situation to construct what would be a reasonable outcome. This type of analysis can further be refined by rational choice theory which uses sophisticated mathematical models. “Possible politics” is thus based on a logical behavior by all actors that can be mapped and predicted.

What would “impossible politics” look like? What would happen if actors in a given situation defied logic?


A first reaction to these questions is obvious: I am logical; therefore anyone who disagrees with me is illogical. Current commentaries about religious fundamentalists accuse them of being irrational, of refusing to play by social rules generally accepted by civilized societies. In Martti Koskenniemi’s sense, international law is a “gentle civilizer” that tries to establish and enforce universal norms.

Even further, those who argue for traditional manners of communication look skeptically at hyperlink youngsters who use non-linear forms of expression. Going from A to B to C is often considered old fashioned as are essays that include Introductions, Topic Sentences in paragraphs, Medial Summaries and Conclusions. Does anyone today learn how to outline before writing an essay? 

Listening to the opening presentations at the Geneva 2 Conference on Syria is a perfect example of logic and illogic. Each side – Syrian Government vs. the Opposition – had its own logic, backed by those States which favored a particular line of reasoning. Each side was logical and rational; the other side was illogical, irrational. Each side was justified. Declarations were made justifying each position and accusing the other.

Since the conference is not a court of law, no final decision can be made about right or wrong. (Koskenniemi’s critique of international law is that its pretense of justice and logic often hides straightforward political interests by the powerful.) Rather, and to my mind more interesting, a successful outcome of the diplomatic discussions will be a compromise that both sides can accept.

Leading up to an eventual compromise there will be negotiations. Already getting the actors to Montreux was difficult. The initial meeting on January 22 was the first time the two sides had been at the same table after months of negotiations. The fact that Iran was not there, the fact that the Syrian Government representative went over his time limit are beside the point. People were in the same room; people accepted and followed – more or less – a procedure.

All of this seems terribly trivial when one looks at the over 100,000 people killed, the over 4 million people displaced in the three years of the civil war. True. But the fact that the war has gone on for so long, the fact that so much blood has been shed makes the possibilities for peace more difficult.

In a recent book, Richard Falk talks about the art of the impossible, extraordinary politics. By that he means having people step out of the usual logic, step out of what has been called “epistemic closure”. He calls for a different vision of what can be, especially in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In terms of Syria, we can only hope that the leaders of the different groups can overcome their own internal logic to see that it is to everyone’s long term benefit to stop the fighting. Enough is enough. In order to see that they will have to practice the art of the impossible by stepping out of their own logic and trying to accept the logic of the other side. The movement from the art of the possible to the art of the impossible is not easy. There are no leaders like Gandhi, Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. around who are truly transformational.

The best we can hope for is that ordinary people will act extraordinarily.


Wish you would apply a similar argument to Israeli-Palestinian situation, should be interesting

Écrit par : Thomas Varadi | 28/01/2014

Excellent suggestion. Please see Chapter 11 of Richard Falk's "(Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance" for an analysis of the art of the impossible in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Écrit par : Daniel Warner | 28/01/2014

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