Legitimacy: The Universal Language of Diplomacy

Related to: Extrovert ‘reality’

One of the great deciders of reality in life is getting people to decide it’s real.  The literature I’ve encountered from the pickup artist community has many useful insights about general human psychology.

Foremost among these is the idea of frame control:  The idea of asserting dominance by forcing/persuading others to accept your point of view as the true reality.

This got me thinking not so much about night clubs so much as it did diplomatic relations.

There are many human affairs in which frame control plays a strong role but it seems especially prominent in diplomacy.

When ambassadors and politicians meet to negotiate a deal, dominance is not usually conveyed through direct use of force but through important gestures.

The ambassadors arrive at the negotiating table as equals, but rarely will they be negotiating from equal positions.  Much of the process is a battle in which one frame asserts dominance over the other…

When the Qing dynasty of China first came into contact with Imperial Russia, they sent members of the bureau responsible for dealing with steppe tribes to talk to them.  In a gesture, the Chinese put the Russians in their place by treating them like just another barbarian tribe.  Furthermore these representatives attempted to assert the traditional Chinese way of diplomacy.  No open relations or trade until the Qing monarch had been acknowledged as the highest of kings.  This was an approach that had worked for centuries.

Some time later, an industrializing Russian empire started seizing Qing border territory claiming that their troops were merely protecting it for the Chinese.

The outraged Chinese were forced to send a representative deep into Russian territory.  This isolated representative was faced with a foreign system of diplomacy and an unfavorable situation.  The Russians were able to confuse, bewilder, pressure, and deceive at their leisure.  Predictably, the Qing representative returned with terms that all but ceded the seized territories to Russia.  The Russian ‘frame’ had prevailed.  Not only had Russia gained the territory in question, China had agreed to pay them an indemnity in return for seizing it.  To add insult to injury, the indemnity was an acknowledgment that Russia, the aggressor had been the injured party and the Qing, the wrongdoers.  This treaty of Livadia represented a huge loss of legitimacy for the Chinese.

More outraged than ever the Qing sentenced their returned emissary to death.  The Russians protested bitterly about the upcoming execution of the emissary.  Obviously the legitimacy of their treaty would suffer if the man they had negotiated with were executed like a common criminal  They did everything in their power to apply pressure until the Chinese emissary’s life had been spared.  Thus the emissary remained a legitimate representative according to the Russian understanding, not a criminal and an incompetent by the Chinese perspective.

Finally, the Chinese sent another emissary to Saint Petersburg and this time succeeded in regaining their border territories…in return for double the indemnity that had originally been agreed on.  The Russians’ understanding of the situation once again became the legitimate reality.  The indemnity meant acknowledging the Russian reality that their troops had been peacekeepers, not conquerors and that they deserverd compensation in return for their benevolence.

Modern peace lovers look back and wonder how nations go to war over slights.  They see such incidents as examples of the ignorance and barbarity of humankind.  Yet few concerns are more important than maintaining appearances of legitimacy.

Once the Qing dynasty was forced to give in to Russian understandings of legitimacy, a disastrous precedent was established.  As with other European powers, the way had been opened for increasingly aggressive pursuit of Russian interests within Chinese territory.  Not long after the treaties of Livadia and St. Petersburg, the Russian Empire gained the rights to build railroads and bases across Northern China, all to the crowning achievement of obtaining a warm water port at Port Arthur and connecting it to the rest of Russia…

Over the centuries, neighboring countries have often agreed to negotiate in a single language mutually understood by representatives.  But a glimpse at history tells us that legitimacy is the true, universal language of diplomacy.

Thus to this day nations squabble endlessly over honor, prestige, and distinctions.  What might seem petty to the casual observer is in fact a life and death struggle.  If a nation cannot defend its legitimacy, it becomes vulnerable to attack from without and decay from within.

Ultimately, The question is not one of right or wrong.  It is a question of which perspective can assert superiority over the other and become the legitimate reality.

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