A Diplomacy for a New Century

New program to teach the 'soft skills' that are needed in negotiating crises

Robert Pearson discusses the need for training for more experts with diplomatic skills.
Robert Pearson discusses the need for training of more experts with diplomatic skills.

Diplomacy can meet urgent and complicated 21st century challenges, but only by taking a fresh look at the tools used to make it work, a former U.S. ambassador said at Duke Wednesday.

“Truth is elusive. Knowledge is imperfect. Things happen,” Robert Pearson said. “This is forever work, as long as we inhabit the globe.”

Pearson, who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey during a storied career with the Foreign Service, said the accomplishments of diplomacy have been downplayed in the action-oriented American historical mindset.

“We don’t give enough room in our own society to the fruits of diplomacy to make a difference in our lives,” he said. Pearson cited the aftermath of World War II, when the U.S. led efforts to end colonialism and promote collective security, allowing nations to safeguard against external threats without being a danger to their neighbors.

“I don’t mind that we glorify the victory of wars,” Pearson said. “But I would like to see us understand that it was the diplomacy after these wars that created the framework that made these successes possible.”

Pearson spoke at the inaugural event  for Rethinking Diplomacy, a new program at Duke’s Center for International and Global Studies. The program seeks to connect Duke expertise across subject areas with the “soft skills” essential in diplomacy: communication, cultural awareness and the ability to negotiate.

“One of the principal objectives of the program is to highlight the importance of the combination of skills and expertise in public health, demography, the environment, energy trade, finance and other areas in which Duke features strong academic programs,” said Giovanni Zanalda, director of the program, which is supported by the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation.

Pearson highlighted some of those soft skills during his breakdown of good diplomacy, which he said involves three elements:

  • Finding the common values, interests and principles shared by the groups involved. “In diplomacy, you start there, even if it’s a tiny little area, and you find ways to try to build on that space and expand it,” he said. “You present your goals in a way that makes others feel their goals can also be met.”
  • Listening is far more important than speaking. “Hear the words, watch the body language, remember what wasn’t said, remember the order in which things were said. You learn about what the other side’s interests and concerns are,” Pearson said.
  • Be as patient as time permits. “Diplomacy is not a one-year, or even a one-decade discipline,” he said, adding “sometimes, if you’re good at diplomacy, it can lead to a spirit of reconciliation.”

Similarly, Pearson said he believes a spirit of collaboration is the most constructive way to approach his craft.

“If you solve a problem by conversation instead of confrontation, your solution will last a lot longer and be much more successful,” he said. “That’s why diplomats enjoy the work they do.”

The challenge for the next generation of diplomats is to reconcile anti-intellectual trends in society when science remains as crucial as ever to human progress – a key element of the new Duke program.

“In today’s world, as we know, all science is also politics,” he said. “Knowing what is right to do is not enough to solve a problem. It’s knowing how to take what is right to do and convince a public, a government, a citizenry that this is what they would like to do. That is the challenge.”