On Intuition

16 october 2010

A Tip for Successful Diplomacy

Yuri Dubinin, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation. In 1994-1999, he was Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation.

Resume: The dictionary defines ‘intuition’ as the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning that is based on past experience and prompts a correct solution. Naturally, people who have enjoyed the benefits of intuition have different experience as intuition is of an extremely personal nature. That is why I, too, will recount my personal experience.

The classical way to resolve problems that emerge in practical diplomacy is to bring together a number of well-known operations. One should gather more information, check and verify it and then analyze it as thoroughly as possible. Next one should forecast how events could develop, map out one or several options for action and… well, act. The question is, however, whether this formula embraces the entire complexity of circumstances that a diplomat has to deal with. Obviously the answer is no. What can help a diplomat then? Let us look at a tip offered by a diplomatic pundit like Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

“At any meeting, be it multilateral or bilateral, a good old invisible ‘advisor’ like political intuition also has a role to play,” he writes. “Intuition cannot be expressed in any strict formulas. Professional training and experience are its friends.” This quality is enigmatic, the way enigmatic elements are present in the work of an artist or any other person engaged in creative activities, Gromyko writes. It might seem that people engaged in the same creative profession do the same things as they paint or sculpt or write stories, yet the results they get are different. While one of them is admired, others may be scorned.
The dictionary defines ‘intuition’ as the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning that is based on past experience and prompts a correct solution.

Naturally, people who have enjoyed the benefits of intuition have different experience as intuition is of an extremely personal nature. That is why I, too, will recount my personal experience.

The events happened in 1975 during the drafting of the Helsinki Final Act. The Cyprus problem was the last stumbling block preventing the document’s approval in Geneva – where it was drafted – before the heads of state of the countries participating in the Helsinki Conference signed it.

The problem centered on doubts that the Turkish delegation raised in March 1975 – when the almost two-year-long drafting process was drawing to a close – over the legitimacy of the Cypriot delegation representing the Republic of Cyprus at the conference. Turkish officials claimed the delegation represented only the Greek community of the island, not the state of Cyprus. It followed from this premise that we faced the serious problem of the possible illegitimate participation of the Cypriot Greek community’s leaders or their representatives in the Helsinki Conference. The Turks made a statement suggesting that, for the drafting process to end successfully, the grave complications posed by the problem must be taken into account at the earliest possible date or before the end of the Geneva stage of the conference at least.

The dispositions were thus laid out. The whole story meant that Turkey would object to the presence of Archbishop Makarios III, President of Cyprus, in the third – and the main – stage of the conference. Meanwhile, Archbishop Makarios had taken a firm decision to go to Helsinki personally and the Cypriots’ position received energetic support from Greece.

The dice were cast and the conference became mired in a very tricky situation. The conflict threatened to drag on for years. Heated battles over the problem marked virtually any serious discussion pertaining to the conclusion of the conference. Each side sought to find a resolution to the conference in favor of its objectives, but all attempts to formulate a solution failed.

Our delegation proceeded from the Soviet Union’s principled stance in favor of Cypriot independence, territorial integrity and support of its legitimate government. We believed that the issue of Cyprus’s representation was factitious and that the Cypriot government itself should decide on its representation at the conference. We did not keep our position secret, but whenever we took part in the discussions of this problem, the number of parties engaged in them would increase noticeably, as more representatives of NATO countries would get involved. This was common practice at the time and it made the prospects for completing the discussions bleak.

The tension reached its peak on the night of July 21 to July 22 when the author of this article assumed the presidency of the session. We bumped into the Cyprus problem once again. It was long past midnight and the delegations were tired, but debates flared with the same rage as ten or twenty or a multitude of times before that.

…Now the Turkish representative is taking the floor, now the Cypriot representative, now the Greek one, now someone else… Trying to stop this habitual battle of words is out of the question, since any such attempt would put the conference chairman under the blow from a delegation that might think it was disadvantaged. I confine myself to uttering conventional phrases like “Now the floor goes over to the honorable so and so… ” Yet the tension inside me is brewing. I realize that eventually everyone will have had his say and sooner or later silence will set in. Then a question will loom inevitably: “And what’s in the cards? Where’s the way out of this impasse?”

It would be nice of course if someone suddenly comes up with a proposal that would please the conflicting sides. But why should it happen this time when it did not happen in the course of many long months of previous work? There is no such hope at all.
Most likely, once the silence sets in everyone will turn to the chairman in the hope of hearing a possible saving proposal. But I do not have any blueprint proposals up my sleeve. Neither the Soviet nor any other delegation was able to conceive of a way out, despite all our strenuous efforts. I staunchly follow the arguments between the delegates, hoping to catch whatever new turn of thinking, idea or signal that might be conducive to a text capable of getting a consensus decision. Yet there is nothing. The positions remain irreconcilable, with the same old sets of arguments. The situation runs the risk of producing a standard epilogue: “No solution has been found. The issue remains on the agenda. The next session will be held on …” And then there will be no end to it again. A sad thing that is hard to put up with.

Finally the moment of silence comes. I look across the hall. No one is asking permission to speak or offering any proposals. Should I announce a break? For about thirty minutes for instance? But the hands of the clock have passed 3 a.m., and a break would make sense only if there were at least a glimmer of hope that it would yield something. And there is no hope. No, the best way would be to cut this Gordian knot immediately, even in the most unusual way.

I move the microphone closer to me (it must be at this moment that intuition goes into play) and then I say: “Dear colleagues, you’ve heard everything that’s been said here.”
There is a pause and silence. Who will say they have not?

My phrase is sort of the statement of a decision and I add: “Now I propose going over to the next item on the agenda.”

The latter phrase is presumably a provision of the resolution.

The thing is that a decision to go over to the next item on the agenda means that the issue under consideration (the Cyprus problem) is considered settled and the conference winds up its discussion.

I raise the chairman’s gavel before everyone’s eyes and wait several seconds for the simultaneous translators to translate my words. And then I hit the gavel.

Dead silence in the hall gives way to a growing hum. The delegates, who were stiffened in astonishment a minute ago, begin to move.

I am still gripped with tension. Are there any hands raised in protest of the decision or rather, of the way in which the tense situation has been eased? Will anyone deny that a consensus has been reached and a decision endorsed?

No, the hall is humming with approval. The last impediment to adopting the draft Helsinki Final Act has been removed…
 
Thus the road to Helsinki was open for the heads of state and government of all the participating countries  at what proved to be the last session of the second preparatory stage of the conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. And that was how intuition, a subconscious feeling capable of prompting correct solutions or, in Gromyko’s terms, the “invisible advisor,” worked.

…We go out of the conference hall to the foyer where countless reporters had been waiting for us to appear for many days and nights in anticipation of hearing breaking news about the completion of the preparatory stage of the conference and the endorsement of the draft Final Act. But now the hall is empty, everyone has lost hope for a positive outcome. Even people with real stamina and acumen could not imagine that that night would be the last in the protracted and exhausting diplomatic contest.
Still, a person suddenly appears in a remote corner of the foyer and comes up to me, rubbing his eyes.

“Well, Yuri Vladimirovich, what is the date of the next session?”

Imagine this is a Soviet journalist, a Geneva-based correspondent for TASS news agency. He turned out to be the most patient and persistent in the world. Good guy!
“Everything’s over,” I say. “It’s time to go to Helsinki now.”

Unbelieving, he asks to make sure: “May I report this?”

“Of course you can. I’m going to the office to wire a telegram to Moscow.”

Thus TASS happened to be the first and only international news agency to get information that was of critical interest for the whole world. We already knew that officials in Moscow – the Soviet Union’s top state leaders – were anxious for news from Geneva. That is why TASS executives were immediately informed about the report from Switzerland and asked what should be done about it. In the first place, how it should be reported to Leonid Brezhnev and whether or not it should be transmitted to the whole world. A question emerged: What were other news agencies saying about the Geneva decisions? The monitoring showed they were not saying anything.

“Well, does that mean there’s nothing but this TASS information?”

“No, nothing.”

The situation was so untypical that an instruction to the Foreign Ministry to verify the correctness of the information followed. Any further steps were to be taken only after this verification. (As a matter of fact, the TASS correspondent in Switzerland was decorated with an order later.)

But let us go back to Geneva.

I said goodbye to my colleagues briefly and hurried to the office. The transcriber would usually be waiting there for the delegation to return from the talks. I jotted down a short telegram saying: “The second stage of the European Security Conference completed its work at 3:45 a.m. on July 23.” Upon thinking a little more about it, I added. “The session was chaired by the USSR delegation.” And whose signature should be on this telegram? The formal powers to head the delegation had been delegated to me, but Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Kovalev was still in Geneva. Should I wake him up? And what for? So I put Kovalev’s name on the telegram and told the staff to wire it immediately.

The chairman’s gavel that I had picked up in the conference hall remained on my office desk.

Later that morning I was supposed to see Kovalev off at the airport, but for the time being we went to our apartments to get some rest. Naturally, I could not even imagine then that the agreements reached in a very unusual manner would be subject to a harsh test only several hours later.

This is how it happened.

At breakfast, I told Kovalev about the turbulent early-morning session and I saw he was strongly impressed. Yet he refrained from making any assessments. The reason why became clear several years later when he attempted to gloss over history in his memoirs. He wrote that the session I had told him about in the morning of July 21 was held under … Switzerland’s presidency, not ours! What for you may ask? Because he overslept that hour of glory when the draft final act was endorsed. But did he really oversleep? Could anyone say with confidence that intuition would have dawned on him, too, had he found himself in the president’s chair at that session?

So after breakfast I saw Kovalev off to Moscow and all the members of our delegation went to the Soviet mission’s office. There was really not much left for us to do in Geneva. We had to send a telegram with more details about the night session and the latest events, pack our bags, wait for a special jet to pick us up, and leave the camping ground, so to say. On my way from the airport, I noticed the perfect summer weather and thought we might relax at last.

Yet when the members of the delegation had barely taken their seats at the table, Lev Mendelevich started speaking – about last night and the battles surrounding the Cyprus problem.

“The more I think about it the more I am convinced that a solution more favorable for Cyprus could have been tapped and endorsed after yesterday’s discussions,” Mendelevich said addressing me.

What an unpleasant surprise! The Geneva stage is over, the draft Final Act has been approved, the governments apparently seem to be satisfied and the media will be making a lot of noise about it in a couple of hours, the delegations are packing, and here comes a declaration like this… In fact, it was more than a declaration. It questioned the completeness of the efforts that we – or more precisely, I personally – had made for the benefit of a country friendly to us, a country whose positions we supported in every way.

What should we do? My colleagues hung their heads and I was supposed to respond. I chaired the session and I stayed back to act as the head of the Soviet delegation. There was no escaping it but what should I say?

One could say that the success of the conference would produce such a great effect that all the problems would be ironed out, including the Cyprus one. But Lev Isaakovich Mendelevich knew this perfectly well himself.

Or should I tell him that all of us, including him, were there together; so why shake fists when the fight is over?

The latter, however, would mean calling Mendelevich’s sincerity into question and to voice suspicions that by raising the issue he was seeking something different than the best results for our diplomacy. This would be improper. Lev Isaakovich was a highly experienced diplomat. Here in Geneva he bore the bulk of the burden designing the principles for inter-relations between the countries participating in the conference. Last but not least, he was responsible for overseeing the Cyprus problem. None of the above-mentioned options was suitable. Still it was clear that if I did not take up his challenge and find an answer to it, no one could guarantee that upon our return to Moscow rumors would not begin to circulate in the Foreign Ministry corridors and elsewhere suggesting that Dubinin had failed to use a perfect opportunity and missed the chance to help our Cypriot friends. What will I have to do then? Clean up the rumors and offer excuses? Frankly speaking, such talk could hardly be taken as serious amid the success achieved and the overall situation already known to the reader. Still people are people, and diplomats are no exception. I just could not swallow this rebuke – particularly since it had been made publicly.

“OK,” I said. “The session is long over and the conference has ended but here in Geneva we still have a hitch.”

I went on to explain: “The essence of the hitch is that I haven’t signed the protocol of the session as its chairman yet.”

Indeed, diplomatic procedure envisioned a formality like the signing of a protocol of the session by its chairman. This was a formality in the literal sense of the word, since a protocol contains minimal information about a session and its decisions. As far as I could remember, this formality had never posed any problems at sessions and few people remembered it, in fact. But if you look at it in a strictly juridical sense, a chairman could insist that the session was still in progress until he signed the protocol. Then he could demand its continuation until his duties expired, i.e. until midnight when the presidency underwent rotation.

“Well now, proceeding from this formality I can try and reconvene the session at some time in the afternoon. To do this, I’ll need at least minimum confidence that this extravagancy is worth it.”

I saw my colleagues’ tiredness slip away.

“For this purpose, I’d like to ask you, Lev Isaakovich, to promptly meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Mauromatis. He heads the Cypriot delegation. Please meet with him t?te-?-t?te. You have a genuinely trustworthy relationship with him. Try and find out the things he would like to attain and promise him that on our part our delegation will do everything in its power to help them get what they want in a situation as it is. On my part, I’ll schedule a meeting with Turkish ambassador Benler (whom I had good relations with) for a later hour so as to discuss possible options with him before the session that I’ll try to reopen.”

This was an audacious move, one that resembles a fencer’s sudden strike in which case the fencer takes risks, too. But there was no other way. I proposed that all the members of the delegation say what they thought about the plan and all of them agreed to it. Then we broke up and waited for the news from Mendelevich about his conversation with Mauromatis. It appeared that it was too early to wire a detailed telegram to Moscow.

A couple of hours dragged by and then we received a signal that Mauromatis, whom Mendelevich had invited to visit our mission office, had left. We gathered in the office, anxious again to hear what the obviously confused Mendelevich would tell us.

“We had a frank discussion,” he said in a suppressed voice. “We analyzed all the aspects of the situation in detail and Mauromatis finally told me that the outcome of yesterday’s session gave Cyprus the best possible option and nothing more was to be done about it.”

What a wise man Mauromatis was! I called off the meeting with the Turkish ambassador. A load off my mind!

Thus the decision prompted by intuition had stood its initial test.

I sent a telegram to Moscow without overburdening it with details. Our party broke up. It was time to pack the chairman’s gavel. But where on earth was it? I just could not find it. Then I asked our executive secretary if he had seen the gavel. Apparently confused, he brought it from his room, saying he had his own plans regarding the souvenir. Later this gavel would gather dust for a long time in my study and arouse the curiosity of my grandson, who wanted to use it for what he thought was its immediate intended purpose, namely, to drive in nails. Now that wooden gavel is an exhibit at the Foreign Ministry’s museum.

I think that scientists have not said everything regarding intuition, but what appears to be incontestable is that in the art of diplomacy, as in any other art, this quality of the mind is as much an efficient weapon as a clue to inspiration.

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