PARIS – Why do revolutions so often take professional diplomats by surprise? Is there something in their DNA that makes them prefer the status quo so much that, more often than not, they are taken aback by rapid changes, neither foreseeing them nor knowing how to respond once they begin?
What is happening today in the Arab world is a revolution that may turn out to be for the Middle East the equivalent of what the French Revolution was for Europe in 1789: a profound and radical change that alters completely the situation that prevailed before. How many Bastilles will ultimately fall in the region, and at what pace, no one can say. The only recent analogy is the collapse of the Soviet bloc, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union itself, in 1989-1991.
Who saw that sudden and rapid transformation coming? As the German Democratic Republic was about to disappear, some top French diplomats in Germany were still assuring their government in Paris that the Soviet Union would never accept German reunification, so there was nothing to worry about: life would go on nearly as usual. The specter of a united Germany was not to become a reality soon.
We saw the same conservative instinct at work with the first reactions to the events in Tunisia, and then in Egypt. “President Ben Ali is in control of the situation,” some said. Or “President Mubarak has our complete confidence.”
The United States managed to get it right, albeit very slowly, whereas many European countries erred on the side of the status quo for a much longer time, if not systematically, as they refused to see that the region could be evolving in a direction contrary to what they deemed to be in their strategic interest. Historical and geographic proximity, together with energy dependency and fear of massive immigration, paralyzed European diplomats.
But there is something more fundamental underlying diplomats’ natural diffidence. They are very often right in their readings of a given situation – the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, for example, include a slew of masterful and penetrating analyses. But it is as if, owing to an excess of prudence, they cannot bring themselves to pursue their own arguments to their logical conclusions.
Revolutionary ruptures upset diplomats’ familiar habits, both in terms of their personal contacts and, more importantly, in terms of their thinking. A fast-forward thrust into the unknown can be exhilarating, but it is also deeply frightening. In the name of “realism,” diplomats and foreign-policy strategists are naturally conservative.
Indeed, it is no accident that Henry Kissinger’s masterpiece, A World Restored, was devoted to the study of the recreation of the world order by the Vienna Congress after the rupture of the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic adventures. Is it more difficult to predict, and adjust to, the coming of a fundamental change, than to defend the present order, under the motto of “the devil you know is always preferable to the devil you don’t know!”
But, beyond these mental habits lie more structural reasons for the conservatism of foreign policymakers and diplomats. By emphasizing the relations between states and governments over contacts with the opposition or civil societies (when they exist in an identifiable form), traditional diplomacy has created for itself a handicap that is difficult to overcome.
By requiring their diplomats to limit their contacts with “alternative” sources of information in a country, in order to avoid antagonizing despotic regimes, governments irremediably limit diplomats’ ability to see change coming, even when it is so close that nothing can be done.
When regimes lose legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens, it is not reasonable to derive one’s information mainly from that regime’s servants and sycophants. In such cases, diplomats will too often merely report the regime’s reassuring yet biased analysis.
Diplomats, instead, should be judged by their ability to enter into a dialogue with all social actors: government representatives and business leaders, of course, but also representatives of civil society (even if it exists only in embryonic form). With proper training and incentives, diplomats would be better equipped to anticipate change.
Of course, not all Western foreign ministries are the same; some do understand the need to nurture relationships with people outside the government – if not in opposition to it. But one thing is clear: the more traditional foreign ministries tend to be, the more difficult it is for them and their diplomats to grasp change.
Needless to say, the ability to comprehend change has become indispensable at a time when the world is experiencing tectonic geopolitical shifts. The new Middle East that is emerging before us is probably both “post-Western,” given the rise of new powers, and “post – Islamist,” with the revolt led by young, technologically savvy people with no ties to political Islam whatsoever.
By being late in perceiving change that they do not want to see coming, Western diplomats run the risk of losing on both levels: the regime and the people. Diplomats require openness and imagination in order to carry out their responsibilities. They should not abdicate these qualities when they are needed most.