Diplomatic Rules of Thumb

To make sure I am writing about the correct subject, I checked in the dictionary to make sure that “rules of thumb” are indeed general guidelines that apply to specific fields of endeavour such as carpentry or gardening.  This is in contrast to “aphorisms,” which are merely thoughts expressed in short and memorable ways.  No one knows for sure the origin of the term “rule of thumb” although most experts guess it has something to do with using the thumb as an informal means of measurement, perhaps the depth at which to plant seeds.  Could there be a link there to “green thumbs”?

Over the years, I’ve benefited from the wisdom of bosses, mentors, and role models by adopting some of their memorable observations as words to live by.  I suspect that some of sayings were passed down to them by their predecessors.  Anyway, in no particular order, but beginning with my favorite, are a few diplomatic rules of thumb:

“Never stay in a hotel with the word ‘palace’ in its name, and never build a road.”

Okay, this is two rules of thumb in the same sentence but they fit together mysteriously well.  It was imparted to me by one of the great USAID field administrators, a font of practical wisdom from whom I learned a great deal.  You may have a favorite hotel called the something-palace and if so, I’m happy for you, but the rule of thumb generally holds true in my experience.

Before I had been given this wisdom, I did stay in a hotel called the Luxury Palace in eastern Turkey and it was memorable.  My room had no windows.  I do not mean that it had no openings to the outside (although I’ve stayed in hotel rooms like that, too).  I mean that the apertures in the wall had no glass, screens or other coverings.  They were just large holes in the wall.  As a result, I spent an interesting (and I mean that literally, it was genuinely interesting) evening staring up at the ceiling watching one hundred spiders trapping five hundred flies.  I was trying to figure out whether it was the coordinated assault it seemed to be or just the invisible hand of the market that spread out the spiders at regular intervals across the ceiling.

I never thought when I first heard this rule of thumb that I would ever have the opportunity to decide whether to build a road or not, but years later, when I was working on infrastructure projects in Iraq, I was under pressure to spend part of our budget on road construction.  The words came back to me.  The USAID official had explained at the time we spoke that road construction projects are unusually prone to corruption and, even more importantly, that the real project is not road construction, it is road maintenance.  Ninety percent of the cost of a road is not building the road, it is keeping it in useable repair.

The basic fact is that any country or local government that can manage to maintain a road can manage to build one in the first place.  When roads are built as assistance projects, the odds are that they will disappear back into the desert, forest, or jungle five years after being built.  We spent the money we had available on health care clinics, water treatment plants, and electrical infrastructure instead.  They required maintenance, too, of course, but they were more likely to be maintained because failure to do so would have more immediate impact that letting a road go slowly to pot.

“Recognize a ‘nine-woman problem’ when you see one.”

There is a bureaucratic tendency to try to speed up solutions to problems by throwing more resources at them.  When headquarters once offered to help by sending more people out to deal with an issue we were handling, my boss told them, “No, what we have here is a nine-woman problem.”  When asked what she meant by that, she explained, “Nine women cannot have a baby in one month.”  There are some problems that are going to take a certain amount of time, and more resources won’t help.

This stands in contrast to what an experienced management officer said in my hearing when asked by a headquarters official whether he could handle the looming Y2K crisis. (Remember that one?  Computers world-wide were going to crash on the stroke of midnight ushering in the year 2000 because they wouldn’t be able to recognize a year beginning with a 2 rather with a 1.  Disaster was averted either by a tremendous amount of preparation, or because it was never really a problem, depending who you listen to.)  He said:  “Give me enough money, and I can solve anything.”  The trick is to know which constraint you’re dealing with, time or resources.  They are not necessarily interchangeable.

“Bring me the third version.”

The Balkans in the immediate aftermath of the 1990s conflicts was a place full of immediate issues with which to deal, and with urgent-sounding and overheated rumors.  My calm and experienced Ambassador stopped someone who had rushed in with a breathless and urgent report (after he ascertained from what he was hearing that it was not a genuine, immediate crisis) by saying, “Bring me the third version.”  He explained to me that the first version of any description of practically anything was the wrong one to react to because it was invariably wrong.  By the time the story had been received in its third version, it probably was accurate enough to be ready for a reaction.

“Tune up before you go on stage.”

My cello teacher gave me this advice years before I joined the Foreign Service and I’ve found it widely applicable.  He told me, and the fellow members of my string quartet, that there was no good reason to subject an audience to having to listen to us tune our instruments.  His rule was that we should tune carefully while back-stage and just quickly check to make sure our instruments had remained in tune after we sat down in front of the audience.

I have tried ever since to be careful to have prepared my presentation, or to have my thoughts in order, or to have a negotiating strategy in mind before going into a meeting.  Do the tuning up in advance.

“Be ready to build a golden bridge for your opponents.”

The senior diplomat from whom I learned the most in my career was told by a subordinate during a meeting that we had an opponent exactly where we wanted him, with no avenue of retreat and therefore in a position to have to accept our position.  My boss (and personal hero) said, “That’s a mistake.  I will always build my opponent a golden bridge over which to retreat.”  That does not mean that compromise is always the best solution.  I took it to mean that anyone will react more predictably if given an escape route rather than being backed into a corner.  Just make the escape route is one of your choosing.

One diplomatic rule of thumb that requires no explanation is that you can tell when a genuine international crisis has broken out because people start getting out maps.  When people start reaching for maps, it is usually bad news.