The Diplomacy of the Blind

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.”