I have spent the last ten days in a room with 16 people who travelled from Abu Dhabi, Austria, British Virgin Islands, Congo, Grenada, Hungary, Malta, Ireland, Libya, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, Venezuela, and Zambia. Despite our varied backgrounds, we are all students enrolled in a Master’s program in contemporary diplomacy.
That I learned a lot about diplomacy is a given. That I learned a lot about other countries and cultures goes without saying. That I learned a lot about myself is surprising.
In my first simulated diplomatic experience, I represented the Irish government and faced my first media interview. For the real me, being on stage with a microphone is one of the best legal highs I can get. I’m an active member of Budapest Toastmasters and well versed in the art of impromptu speaking; I was prepared. What I hadn’t bargained for was the relentless onslaught of questions and the merciless way in which the journalist exploited my weaknesses. He asked me to defend a recent EU study showing Ireland’s problem with underage drinking. He asked what we, as a government, were doing about it. No sooner had I launched into an explanation of our alcohol awareness campaign than he devoured me with the ferocity of a cocoa junkie who finds chocolate on a health farm. Why were we only now taking action? Why hadn’t we taken responsibility years ago? I knew I should calmly argue my point, be firm, and give the party line. That was my job. But before I could marshal my thoughts, he changed tack. Did I think Ireland had racial prejudices? My mouth dropped open. The speaker in me frantically searched for a hook, something on which to hang a coherent response – hell, any response! I was drowning. And then I heard myself say, quite forcefully: Yes! Yes! The collective intake of breath in the room silently screamed: No! No! Wrong answer. But there was no going back. Note to self: Be mindful that armchair politicians rarely sit in the hot seat.
In the next simulation, having been summarily dismissed from the Irish Government, I found myself representing South Africa in multilateral negotiations at a working group on food security. Fourteen countries were represented, with Hungary (the current President) speaking for the EU. I had been given instructions from my Capitol regarding negotiation and defence objectives. I knew what I had to accomplish. We went through the draft agreement and made our initial representations. It soon became clear that somewhere in the next 72 hours, each country would have to give and take. We moved from negotiating as separate states to finding strength in numbers and quite soon it devolved into a classic case of them and us: the big guys and the little guys. Semantic arguments funnelled their way politely through the Chair. I would never have believed that so much could hang on a compromise about the choice of verb. Inch by inch concessions were made. Envoys travelled back and forth between the two sides to bargain and cajole. Deals made over coffee were reneged on over tea. Nothing much had been gained. Note to self: Compromise, like hollow-centred chocolates, may look good but often lack substance.
When the South African foreign ministry suggested early retirement, the next simulation saw me representing the USA, facing off against Egypt in a bilateral negotiation. This was more like it. I was in the driver’s seat; the big shot. I was already savouring the sweet taste of success. With only two of us, it would be so much easier to come to an agreement. Again I got my instructions from my Capitol as to what I could and could not do. And once again, my expectations were far removed from reality. While I may have had might on my side, I faced intractable opposition. This time I gave away not just a couple of chocolates, but the whole box! Note to self: The ‘and’ in ‘give and take’ is there for a reason.
When it’s just me in the room, negotiating with or talking to myself, I do fine. No stress, no pressure, no instructions. Finally, I’d found my niche. But while I successfully negotiate with myself all day every day and have even been known to get my own way on occasion, I had to face the ugly truth. When defences are down and carelessness creeps in, when emotions leapfrog over reason and rationale, when mental acuity is diluted by exhaustion, I would gladly trade it all for a bar of chocolate.
First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2011