What Diplomats Can Learn from Pope Francis


Humility and empathy go together. Both are frequently in need in diplomacy. Political leaders also strive to establish the connection with their constituency, some in pursuit of votes and others perhaps in promoting a personality cult. However, we often ask what is genuine and as critically what goes beyond the talk.

Pressing the Flesh:

It starts looking like a windmill of arms as politicians seek the brief touch of the handshake of voters that will become the wind in their backs to election victory. Eye contact and verbal exchanges are perfunctory or simply avoided. The more charismatic may convey a notion of genuine interest in the other person's perspective or plight. Bill Clinton had the great talent of making the other person feel as important as the candidate or President.

Diplomats amply press the flesh as well, but generally reserve it for other dignitaries. Interacting with the masses is not generally seen as part of the job description. Ambassadors after all began as representatives of one sovereign to the court of another. Formality frequently takes precedence over substance. Neither empathy nor humility are part of a tool set where pomp and the fluffing of feathers to promote the status of one's State are more traditional.

I have participated in several series of negotiations, both bilateral and multilateral. Negotiations with an adversary were generally pursued to achieve maximum leverage and concessions from your adversary. It was even more than a hard bargain, but a poker game with a winner and loser left at the conclusion. Compromise is often spoken but rarely intended as it is employed as part of bluffs and feigns. Having started my professional career in investment banking, Gordon Gekko's immortal words of "greed is good" resonated as much at the diplomatic table as on "Wall Street."

Touching of Souls:

Pope Francis in his pre-Easter rite went beyond the ritual. He opted to wash the feet of 12 juvenile offenders, (observing a tradition reportedly started by Jesus with respect to his Apostles at the Last Supper), including a young woman apparently for the first time. However, what left an impression is that beyond the washing of the flesh, he sought to make contact with each of the individuals at whose feet he sat. Of course there was much stage management, but also valuable symbolism. The weak even when not meek have a perspective which deserves being heard.

Humility in Demands, Empathy toward Adversary?

Humility in one's demands is not a particularly cherished characteristic of diplomatic discourse. Empathy is not to be exhibited presumably because it might be misconstrued as legitimizing the adversary. However, there is no state that is without sin, towards neighbors or even its own people. History though is littered with evidence of new conflicts arising from conditions thrust upon those deemed not deserving better treatment than those absolutely vanquished - see end of WW I and the Versailles Treaty. The mistakes continue to be repeated today from the Middle East to Africa to Europe. The brewing land territorial water disputes in the East and South China Seas risk war as nationalism has left little room for empathy and rationality.

The diplomatic framework and foundation for international relations is undergoing a rather accelerating evolution. It might be called a revolution - many of us see this as the natural development of an increasingly global citizen rather than state-defined approach to future relations between peoples and of people toward our shared earth. Institutions such as the International Criminal Court and various treaty bodies are the tide. However, the capacity to recognize the human being in the other is at the source of a new "Golden Rule" that will fashion relationships of compatibility, even synergy over adversity.


PHOTO: "Huffington Post" AP