Can We Agree to Disagree?
Each game has its rules; each arena has its specificity. British politicians hoot and shout during debates in Parliament while Swiss elected officials calmly listen waiting their turn to intervene. Fistfights have broken out in the Ukrainian and Georgian national assemblies; American officials stand and applaud when they agree with the speaker. In Tbilisi, some representatives dismantled the table-top microphones from their desks to be used as weapons during a brawl; Genevans were shocked when a deputy flung water at another deputy during a parliament meeting. Soccer players yell and argue with the referees while American football players never contest calls. Basketball players talk to the referees, baseball players have been known to bump umpires in fits of anger.
The other evening I attended a public forum on a contested international situation. After presentations by experts, the question and answer period with the audience turned nasty. People started screaming at each other, insults went back and forth. Several in the audience would not stop speaking to let others participate. The evening’s polite presentations were followed by emotional outbursts. The rules of the game were not being followed. The procedures stated by the moderator at the beginning of the evening were totally ignored.
The discussions surrounding the various issues in the February 28 votes in Switzerland have been quite different. In a country of consensus, public discussions on the pros and cons of each question on the ballots have followed accepted procedures. The focus of debates has been on the subject at hand, with minimum emotional, personal insults.
Why these differences? Why are some debates physically and orally violent while others are courteous and restrained? The debate I attended touched on life and death situations. The questions on the Swiss ballot, although important for the economy, environment, image and security of the country, are not life and death issues. There is less at stake.
Nevertheless, the difference between an emotional outburst and an organized debate is not simple. The recent presidential debates in the United States have walked a very thin line between rational discussions and personal attacks. Governor Chris Christie’s takedown of Senator Marco Rubio during the last Republican debate was more a personal affront than a policy issue. Hillary Clinton has become more and more strident against her rival Senator Bernie Sanders as she continues to lose momentum in the primaries.
The first rule of diplomacy is to understand that all the rules of that game revolve around the saying “We agree to disagree.” There are unwritten rules that govern how diplomats behave with their colleagues. All sanctioned diplomats learn how to address other diplomats, how to write proper messages, how to perform in public settings, how to seat invitees at formal dinners. Diplomatic training courses throughout the world teach similar rules of the game.
But the diplomatic world is not the political world; nor is it present in public fora, nor on the playing fields. The rules that diplomats learn and follow are not meant for the general public. The moderator of the other evening’s discussion set out the rules at the beginning of the evening, but she had no enforcement power. During most United Nations’ debates, delegates are allowed a specific amount of time. If they go over the time, the microphone is shut off.
How to avoid the nastiness in the other evening’s debate? How to change the brawls in Ukraine and Georgia to polite listening or understated hoots? It is easy to say that certain countries have longer histories of debates and how to form consensus. It is more difficult to say how to change systems. In sports, the answer is simple: If a player bumps a referee in American sports, the player is ejected and fined. In this sense, I am shocked at how much soccer players get away with arguing with the ref.
The diplomatic “We agree to disagree” is a simple statement. Its implementation in other playing fields is much more complicated. And even the diplomatic world’s culture can be questioned since behind superficial diplomatic politeness lies a great deal of hypocrisy. Diplomacy can be merely the art of lying for one’s country.
Still, the idea of agreeing to disagree is a powerful norm in all fields. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a woman at a John McCain rally said that Barack Obama was an Arab who couldn’t be trusted. Senator McCain responded: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” How far we have come from that in the current campaign.