The historic triumphs of diplomacy still have lessons to teach the world's leaders

From Westphalia to Camp David, skilled mediators have ended wars and fostered new, peaceful relationships

US President Jimmy Carter (C) congratulates Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (L) and Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) in three-way handshake on March 26, 1979 on the north lawn of the White House, Washington DC,  after signing the historic US-sponsored peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. In 1978, Israel and Egypt sealed a historic agreement promising peace and security to people in the Middle East, the Camp David Accords. (Photo by - / CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES / AFP)
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Hugh Gaitskell, a former leader of the British Labour Party, once famously wrote that “all terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester”.

He meant that, in an imperfect world, there still has to be diplomacy.

In the recent push-me-pull-you between Iran and the US, President Donald Trump, for reasons no one knows, backed away from the threshold of war.  It seems that, for once, the Great Dealmaker was able to keep a cool head and allow diplomacy, even his version of it, to prevail.

Last week, Mr Trump went to Japan for the G20 summit. There, he encountered leaders he has relentlessly annoyed since his election in 2016. Most notably, President Xi Jinping, with whom he agreed a truce on the US and China's, until then, steadily escalating trade war. He also encountered heads of state whose global vision are the polar opposite of his own – Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, for example. Today, he posed for photographs with Kim Jong-un at the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, an extraordinary, impromptu meeting seemingly arranged via Twitter.

Watching Trump in action brings me back to my years studying statecraft and diplomacy. If you want to know about making peace, you have to look at The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, otherwise known as the Peace of Exhaustion, which ended the vicious 30-year European religious wars. All modern negotiations, in one way or another, can be traced to it.

It was a nearly impossible task. Representatives from 190 entities met 800 times, putting aside ancient grievances and personal hatreds for the sake of ending war. The principal legacy of Westphalia is the establishment of equality and independence of all states. But what, in fact, it really established was the role of preventative and constructive diplomacy as an acceptable alternative to warfare.

How I wish the US president would take this lesson from history truly to heart. It’s easy to scoff at the toothlessness of the United Nations and established channels of diplomacy in general, but there are examples when they have been used to end potential disasters, like the one we nearly witnessed with Iran.

No one wants a war, and Mr Trump’s recent actions show that even biggest egos can climb down from the parapet. But how do you get to this point? A classic example occurred back in 2003 when UN Security Council negotiations on Iraq had ground to a near halt. The French, Russians, Brits and Americans were all engaged in a deeply embittered war of words, firing off arguments without listening to their counterparts. A young British diplomat, Carne Ross, who was leading the talks, decided that the only way to ameliorate the sour mood was to use music.

Each day, before they sat down to their sessions, Mr Ross brought a boombox to the table and made each diplomat play the song of his choice and explain why he liked it – the British choice was Paul Weller's Wild Wood. Starting each session with a human universal such as music had a curiously calming effect on the negotiations. Dialogue prevailed, although sadly, we know what happened next. The music continued until a Tunisian ambassador eventually complained to the UN.

Another effective negotiation tool can be emotion. Jimmy Carter, negotiating Camp David in 1973, famously used a classic psychological softening tactic, to get Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, to talk.

I write this at a time when cool-headed negotiating skills are needed more than ever to protect the region and the world

Israel wanted peace; Egypt wanted the Sinai back. The Palestinian issue was a major point of contention. Mr Carter first decided to take the angry leaders on a field trip to Gettysburg to get them comfortable with each other, but the two men sat in silence for hours, with their knees knocking together, ignoring each other. Carter floundered.

They spent two weeks at Camp David, and one witness said all they did was scream at each other. At the end, when it seemed no deal was possible, a desperate Mr Carter used the most creative form of diplomacy I can think of: family. He pulled out autographed pictures of the three men together, which Mr Begin had asked for initially, to give to his grandchildren.

Mr Carter had written each grandchild’s name on them. Mr Begin stared intently at each photograph, and began to tremble as he pronounced the children’s names. Perhaps he was seeing a future of either chaos and destruction – or peace. Something shifted. The men began to talk. First of grandchildren, then, gradually, of politics. The same day, the three leaders reached an agreement and the Camp David Accord was signed.

You cannot talk of ending wars and diplomacy without mention of  the late Richard Holbrooke whose strong-arm negotiation tactics in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 put a stop to the Bosnian war. Mr Holbrooke famously passed messages between the warring parties on napkins during lunch, and made his colleagues sit up all night, hanging out with Slobodan Milosevic, the then Serbian leader, who was later indicted for war crimes.

I write this at a time when negotiations and cool-headed diplomacy are needed more than ever to protect the region and the world. To end the grinding war in Syria. To bring some sort of equality to Gaza and the West Bank. To negotiate in Yemen and Sudan. To calm tensions with Iran. To bring back the climate-change deal that President Trump has ripped up, at a time when science clearly states the need to make progress before we ruin our planet.

The US-Iran conflict appears to have quieted a little. But we should not forget how close we came to war. We will never know what went on in Mr Trump’s head – even his closest advisers do not – from his threat of air strikes to his moment of declaring the crisis over.

There will be further crises in the months and years to come, and if Mr Trump wins again in 2020, he would do well to remember diplomatic lessons from the past. Perhaps he could bring out his favorite song – surely Frank Sinatra's My Way – or mention the grandchildren of his counterparts.

Janine di Giovanni is the author, most recently, of “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria” and a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute.