Milena Rodban is geopolitical risk analyst who has written some fascinating things about the state of her industry. She is also the kind of woman who knows how to wear a pair of stilettos. This is a roundabout way of saying that Rodban is an interesting woman who I’m sure gets hit on a lot in Washington.
I bring this up because of a Rodban tweet from earlier this week:
My first reaction to this observation was skepticism. I remember a long time ago when I was a young, single political scientist. I was pretty good at game theory, pretty good at navigating graduate school, and pretty lousy at getting dates.
I also remember not being the only person in this category. Indeed, this was the norm. “The West Wing” managed to create this odd fictional universe in which presidential staffers like Sam Seaborne, C.J. Cregg, and Josh Lyman could engage in witty repartee with their paramours, all the while steering the ship of state. Real life seemed rather different; there were a lot of people who could think about grand strategy but flail badly in a social setting.
Anyway, I suggested to Rodban that perhaps the skills for grand strategy and dating were not necessarily correlated the way she thought they were. Her response:
Now this is a slightly different but still interesting proposition. Strategy and diplomacy are not identical but related fields of endeavor. But … is this true?
With all due respect to Rodban, I’m unconvinced.
To be sure, those who resort to cheesy pickup lines are probably not going to be terribly good at foreign policy. And to some extent, initial forays into diplomacy involve some degree of flirtation. You never forget your first summit.
The question is, what happens after the seduction? In the world of dating, it is often the case that after the initial phase of any dating relationship fades, so does the relationship itself. The couple breaks up, or never really gets together in the first place, and individuals go their separate ways.
What happens to the diplomatic relationship after the initial wooing? At some point in any diplomatic partnership, one begins to realize that the initial promises might not pan out. Your partner’s promises that they’ll change their ways and really listen to you might not be fully implemented. What then? Disillusionment, or doubling down on making things work?
I’d suggest that most forms of diplomacy are far more like marriage than dating. The latter is an instance of two people getting to know each other to find out if they are compatible. Marriage is about two people who intend to spend the rest of their lives together muddling through recurring conflicts in the relationship. If the married couple has children, then even the end of the marriage does not end the relationship. And people who are good at reading and handling other people will likely have a talent for diplomacy, even if it not as romantic as Rodban suggests.
This is particularly true of great powers. A great power has a long shadow of the future, so that relations with both allies and adversaries will be enduring. The Russian-American relationship resembles a long-ago-divorced couple that nonetheless shares assets that can’t be divided for some reason. I get the impression that Angela Merkel and Donald Trump did not have a great first summit. Does this mean that Merkel can ignore Trump for the duration of her time in office? No, I don’t think that’s the case.
What Rodban is talking about might best be thought of as “soft power.” The ability of leaders to get other countries to want what you want sounds awfully similar to being able to successfully flirt. There are limits to what this gets you in world politics, however. At the time of his inauguration, Barack Obama possessed copious amounts of soft power. That did not necessarily translate into concrete diplomatic achievements, however.
In the end, the difference between diplomacy and dating is pretty simple. In dating, it’s possible to ignore or reject a suitor’s entreaties. In diplomacy, that is a much harder tactic to pull off.