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South of the Border, Below the Belt

Binyamin Rose

Low political discourse high bar to success

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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BORDER POLITICIS Fences may make better neighbors, but civil discourse facilitates relationships (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

M ore than 80 years have passed since Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the airwaves for his famous fireside chats, radio broadcasts of ten to 30 minutes in which he clearly articulated his policies on the economy and then World War II to the American people.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but with 21st-century attention spans at ten to 30 seconds, or limited to 140 characters, many pols come across as lacking soul, wit, and sound judgment when they attempt to communicate their messages in bite-sized nuggets.

Attempting to score points with Donald Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu found himself in a diplomatic bind last week after an ill-advised tweet praising Trump’s proposed border fence with Mexico.

The Mexican government was enraged, especially as Bibi’s endorsement came in a week when Trump was ramping up the pressure on Mexico City to crack down on illegal immigration and renegotiate trade agreements.

Damage control teams in Israel’s foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office racked up overtime trying to walk back the comment. After receiving phone calls from members of Mexico’s Jewish community concerned about anti-Semitic backlash, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri urged Netanyahu to apologize. At press time, no apology had been tendered, but Mexico had summoned Israel’s ambassador for a diplomatic dressing down.

Similarly, President Trump took a beating for his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that omitted any mention of the Holocaust’s victims — six million Jews.

That omission sparked internal debate in the Jewish world. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called Trump’s statement “puzzling and troubling,” while Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, warned against playing politics with the memory of the Holocaust.

“There are enough real anti-Semitic and true threats facing the Jewish people today,” Lauder said. “Our community gains nothing if we reach a point where manufactured outrages reduce public sensitivity to the real dangers we confront.”

Lauder cut his diplomatic teeth as America’s ambassador to Austria in the mid-1980s, when there was no option other than face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or written correspondence to articulate policy positions. Much has been said on the ills of today’s hastily written, cryptic e-mails and the short tweets of social media, which can incite discord between strangers who have never even met. When an unrestrained social media becomes the default method of statecraft, it represents a clear and present danger to the citizenry.

This may be the first and last time that Netanyahu gets snagged making an intemperate tweet, but with President Trump, the condition is both chronic and acute, with aides and staffers whispering that someone ought to confiscate the president’s smartphone.

In his quest to make America great again, Trump won’t return to FDR’s fireside chats, but if he is going to be successful, especially in delivering his most controversial initiatives, he might turn to proven diplomatic strategies.

Trump enters the White House from the real estate industry, where he earned a reputation as a tough negotiator. He detailed those strategies for success in his book, The Art of the Deal.

Even at age 93, Henry Kissinger commands an audience, as he did at the recent World Economic Conference in Davos

But Trump should know that the art of the deal does not translate directly to the world of diplomacy — which focuses on interests rather than emotions — says Gerald Steinberg, founder of Bar-Ilan University’s graduate program on conflict management and negotiation. “Although a carefully managed display of emotions can have a tactical impact, effective diplomats are like top poker players,” Steinberg says, “careful not to reveal their hand, their mood, or their next move.”

Henry Kissinger may have been stone-hearted and impervious to emotion, Steinberg says, but he devised grand strategies and stuck with them, negotiating agreements with Russia and China, an end to US involvement in Vietnam, and paving the way for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

In addition, Steinberg stresses that politicians should avoid condescension like the plague when addressing their own citizens, as well as the citizens of the world.

“Diplomats who arrogantly tell people they are wrong, and that they know better than the people what is good for them, get little traction,” Steinberg contends. “Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush were skilled at avoiding the appearance of condescension when engaged in diplomacy. Obama, on the other hand, was one of the most patronizing presidents in decades. He clearly believed he knew what was best for everyone, including American allies. Before launching diplomatic initiatives or responding to others, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson would be wise to review these principles and learn a few lessons from history.”

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