Martial versus Democratic diplomacy

The basic difference: Martial diplomacy regards negotiation between adversary states as a form of warfare by other means, democratic diplomacy regards negotiation between adversaries as a means of conciliation leading to lasting agreement and peace.

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Prof. Paul Eidelberg,

Paul Eidelberg
Paul Eidelberg
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Diplomacy is not an ideologically neutral affair.  How and why states negotiate – their methods and objectives – depend mainly on their principles of government.  The diplomacy of a government based on consent – on freedom of discussion, pluralism and compromise – will differ profoundly from the diplomacy of a government based on coercion and propaganda.

First, a fundamental distinction between martial and democratic diplomacy is necessary. Whereas martial diplomacy regards negotiation between adversary states as a form of warfare pursued by other means, democratic diplomacy regards negotiation between adversaries as a means of conciliation requiring mutual concessions leading to lasting agreement and peace.

The methods of martial diplomacy resemble a military campaign or a series of maneuvers the ultimate goal of which is victory over the enemy if not his complete destruction.  The purpose of negotiation is to outflank your enemy, to weaken him by all manner of attacks.  If the opponent is a democracy, attempts will be made to manipulate public opinion through the media, the object being to undermine popular support for the government’s negotiating position.  Efforts will also be made to divide the government itself by subtle appeals to political factions and opposition leaders.  And of course there will be attempts to drive a wedge between the government and its allies.  The principle is divide and conquer

The tactics of martial diplomacy against democracies are also military in character.  

First of all there is the use of surprise or shock diplomacy.  Its purpose is to demonstrate strength, to cause concern and confusion and thereby increase the opportunity for direct and indirect pressure.   An example took place in Cairo in 1995 before the entire world.  Appearing on television with Israeli, American, and Egyptian leaders and diplomats for the purpose of signing the second Israel-PLO Agreement, Yasir Arafat suddenly refused to do so!  This bold maneuver left Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with the choice of calling the televised spectacle off or making additional territorial concessions to the cunning terrorist.  Rabin, lacking Arafat’s nerves, yielded.

Another tactic of martial diplomacy is the use of indirect force to compel concessions. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad employed terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah to attack Israel’s northern frontier as a “bargaining chip” on the Golan Heights negotiating table.   (This also applies to the PLO and its collusion with Hamas to squeeze concessions from pliant Israeli governments.)

Then there is the extensive use of deception.  Negotiating demands are couched in moralistic and democratic language such as “peace” and “self-determination.”  To spread the glad tidings of peace to the unwary, or to promote divisions in the ranks of the enemy, flattering interviews are granted to susceptible journalists and other opinion-makers.  Statements are issued to promote goodwill and a sense of security before turning to more aggressive offensives, such as propaganda campaigns designed to alienate the enemy’s allies.  Some of these statements are so palpably mendacious as to create doubt as to their very mendacity or at least their malevolence.

While martial diplomacy attempts to disarm the adversary through guile and professions of peace, these attempts are punctuated by veiled or less-than-veiled threats of war.  This use of cunning and intimidation by the martial school of diplomacy reflects the basic character of dictatorial regimes.  Obviously, under such a system of negotiation, trust, fair-dealing and conciliation are not easy.  A concession made, a treaty concluded, is apt to be regarded not as a final settlement of a conflict, but evidence of weakness and retreat, an advantage which must soon be exploited in preparation of further advances and triumphs. 

Here martial diplomacy is aided by the fact that democracies, more than other kinds of regimes, ardently desire peace and, even in the absence of pressure, will make gratuitous concessions to the extent of taking “risks for peace.”  Indeed, the very principle of compromise intrinsic to democracies renders them more yielding than dictatorships.  Knowing this, the leader of a military regime – and many civilian dictatorships are actually animated by military principles – will launch his diplomatic campaign from a negotiating position involving impossible demands from which he will hardly deviate.  For example, Syrian dictator Assad insisted that Israel withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights before he would even consider signing a peace treaty!


Sophisticated politicians and political scientists often think that merely for adversaries to meet and talk to each other is a positive step toward peace, when, as history has shown, and as martial diplomacy intends, it may only be a lull before the storm. 
Thus, when negotiating with a democracy, the ruler of a dictatorship will try to force his opponent into piecemeal surrender or into a militarily indefensible position.  The morality of martial diplomacy is quite simple:  “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine – or at least negotiable.”  In contrast, democratic diplomacy is based on the assumption that compromise with one’s rival is generally more profitable than his total destruction.  Negotiation is not merely a phase in a death-struggle, but an attempt to reach some durable and mutually satisfying agreement.  The means used are not military tactics but the give and take of civilian or commercial intercourse.  The problem is to find some middle point between two negotiating positions which, when discovered, will reconcile their conflicting interests.  And to find that middle point, all that is required is goodwill, frank discussion and compromise.

Not only naïve journalists but even sophisticated politicians and political scientists often think that merely for adversaries to meet and talk to each other is a positive step toward peace, when, as history has shown, and as martial diplomacy intends, it may only be a lull before the storm. 

Because democracies are based on discussion, the general tendency of democratic diplomacy is to overestimate the ability of reason to produce confidence and lasting agreement.  This tendency of democratic diplomacy results in a number of errors when confronted by martial diplomacy.

First, there is the error of making gratuitous concessions, sometimes as gestures of goodwill.  The hope is for reciprocity, hardly to be expected, however, from dictatorial regimes. As Henry Kissinger has written, anyone succeeding in the leadership struggles of such regimes “must be single minded, unemotional, dedicated, and, above all, motivated by enormous desire for power…  It is unlikely that their attitude toward the outside world is more benign than toward their own colleagues.”

The inherent asymmetry between democratic and dictatorial regimes renders reciprocity dubious, and, in the case of Israel, virtually impossible.  For a democracy to yield territory, something tangible and irreversible, for nothing more substantial than a dictator’s written and revocable promise of peace, is a curious quid pro quo.  Yet this defines the relation between Israel and the Palestine Authority, itself a military dictatorship which has educated a generation of Arab children to hate Jews and emulate suicide bombers.

The second error of democratic diplomacy is the prejudice that international conflict is caused primarily by lack of mutual understanding – the supposed root of mutual fear and suspicion.  The assumption, so typical of the liberal democratic mind, is that men are by nature benevolent, and that through discussion they will discover that what they have in common is more important than their differences.

Third, guided by that liberal prejudice, the democratic school of diplomacy tends to minimize conflicting ways of life or ideologies.  In his July 1996 address before a joint session of Congress, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gratuitously denied any “clash of civilizations” between Israel and her Arab-Islamic neighbors.  Such is the influence of democracy on the intellect that even political scientists tend to think that ideological conflicts can be overcome by “confidence building” measures, such as cultural exchange and economic relations.  

Given only mutual tolerance and material prosperity, war can be made a thing of the past.  Such sentimental materialism is characteristic of bourgeois as well as socialist democracies preoccupied as they are with enjoyment of the present.  Thus, when Shimon Peres said “We live in a world where markets are more important than countries,” he was suggesting that national borders or wars fought over territory are things of the past. 

Unfortunately, history has little significance for democratic societies, whose politicians and diplomats are animated by election-oriented and short-term pragmatism.  This Now mentality renders democrats impatient for results, and dictators know how to exploit this impatience. 

They know that democratic leaders have a personal political interest in the appearance of successful negotiations.  They can violate agreements confident that a democratic prime minister will be reluctant to admit any failure in his own diplomatic achievements.  Indeed, instead of condemning such violations, democratic leaders may not only minimize but sometimes defend them.  

While Palestinian chief Mahmoud Abbas praises suicide bombers as “holy martyrs,” democratic elites explain such barbarism as the result of Israel’s alleged occupation of Arab land and of poverty – even though Arab terrorism preceded Israel’s repossession of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and even though Arab poverty is a direct result of the kleptocracy of the Palestinian Authority.

Last, and perhaps the most serious error and weakness of democratic diplomacy, is that it makes too sharp a distinction between peace and war; that is, it fails to take seriously the fact that for martial diplomacy peace is war pursued by other means.  Stated another way, to men of goodwill, unrelenting malevolence is incomprehensible!








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