Rising Leader Series: Week 32– Diplomacy and Geopolitical Stability
Updated: Aug 9
On October 14, 1962, Major Richard Hayser, flying a high-altitude mission over western Cuba, photographed an SS-4 ballistic missile battery being assembled on the ground. With Cuba just 90 miles from Florida, a functioning missile battery would give the Soviets the capability to execute a lightning-fast nuclear strike on the US. President Kennedy was notified on October 16, and for the next thirteen days the world skirted the edge of the nuclear abyss.
Within the close-knit team that advised the President, some advocated an immediate attack on the installation. President Kennedy, chastened by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and conscious that such an attack risked immediate nuclear war with the Soviet Union, demurred. On October 22 he announced to a shocked nation the presence of the installation and ordered a naval blockade around Cuba. Privately, he sought contact with the Soviet leadership. Letters were exchanged. Diplomats shuttled messages back and forth. Tensions peaked when, on October 27, a U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot. Speaking of that day, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later said, “I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see”.
Ironically, it was on that same day that a breakthrough was achieved. Attorney General Robert Kennedy traveled in secret to the Soviet embassy, and met there with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Sitting privately with the Ambassador, Kennedy delivered a final offer. The US would take down its own missile battery in Turkey, if the Soviets would dismantle theirs in Cuba. But there would be no deal unless the Soviets agreed the dismantling of the Cuban battery would be made public, while the dismantling of the Turkey installation would be kept secret. Khruschev was as sobered by the risk of nuclear war and mutual annihilation as was Kennedy. He too was looking for a way out. The Soviets agreed. Missiles were taken out of Cuba and Turkey, and the world lived on.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest of close calls. It was only through a series of carefully orchestrated acts of diplomacy– by Kennedy, Khruschev, UN Secretary General U Thant, the ambassadors on both sides and trusted diplomats working for these men– that all-out nuclear war was averted.
You will recall the ladder of virtues I’ve referred to as the “disciplines of goodness”:
The second highest rung on the ladder is diplomacy. Diplomacy is the art of resolving conflicts without violence, while serving the interests of each side. Diplomats seek first to understand, and then be understood. They seek win / win solutions. They seek to turn the table around, so all parties find themselves on the same side– looking together at the problem to be solved.
Ethical diplomacy is God’s work.
My father was a diplomat. After my mother died when I was eight years old, Dad remarried. By then I was thirteen. Suddenly, my younger brother and sister and I were welcoming three new siblings into our home. I now had a sister nine days older than me; I had two brothers two months apart; two of my sisters were named Debbie.
As the oldest child, I had become accustomed to certain privileges. I actually can’t remember what they were, but at the time they seemed important. Like putting the final ornament on the Christmas tree– that kind of thing. Well, after the wedding, in our first week as a new Brady Bunch family, Dad declared that all “oldest sibling” privileges would now be handed over to my slightly older sister. It infuriated me. It was just the first in a series of diplomatic acts taken by my father. He knew he needed to signal we were “one family” by actions large and small. From the day of our two-family-into-one unification, to the day I headed off to college, life at home was chaotic. Conflicts abounded. Every time it seemed as if things would spin completely out of control, Dad would intervene with the perfect mix of listening, challenging, incenting and sanctioning. He had a way of pulling us out of our small-circle spats, and helping us to see a bigger picture. He taught respect. He taught the importance of family.
My Dad was a great diplomat. The fruits of his work grace my life and those of my siblings to this day. We are close– as close as any loving family can be.
Whether it be to preserve global peace, to advance racial harmony in our communities, to bridge differences in our churches, or to stitch together a family– the art of diplomacy is one we are all invited to take up. The world needs diplomats: capable and ethical. The Jewish Talmud teaches, “We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are.” Our natural orientation is to live inside a small circle, seeing things from just our own narrow perspective. It takes diplomats to stretch our circles wider.
On the world stage, we live under the looming threat of nuclear weapons, with tyrants and despots, with leaders who come to power by demonizing other peoples and nations, with governments constantly scheming to seize geopolitical advantage. In our communities, we live with tribal divisions and too much bigotry and hate. In our churches, we live with imperfect leaders and power struggles and doctrinal conflicts. In our families, we live with tensions, competition and hurtful experiences. It is within this broken world of ours that the diplomat works, seeking tirelessly to advance the good– to de-escalate conflict, to repair schisms, to nudge all parties towards respect and— dare we say it— love.
In the end, people all around the world are much the same. We all seek survival, security, freedom, opportunity and (most of all) love. As I’ve said from the beginning of this series, everyone and everything is connected, with love interwoven. When we begin to see God in all things and in each other, we become capable of expanding our circles of care. We begin to identify with the legitimate needs and interests of others, while still respecting our own. This capacity to understand, to care, to balance our own needs with those of others– these are the essential competencies of diplomacy.
God bless you and all diplomats. May you find a way where there is no way; may you bring us peace on Earth and goodwill to all humankind.
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”-- Isaiah 2:4
Peace be with you,
P.S.: The diplomat’s job is often thankless. It takes perseverance and inner strength to pursue de-escalation in the midst of rising passions. This poem reflects on that.
THE DIPLOMAT’S PRAYER
Dear God, our flag and theirs are waving hate
Outrage has peaked; two calls to arms begin
Do you not grieve as we mass to storm the gate,
both of us follied certain that we’ll win?
They cry: “No use our tools of war but war!”
“Our cause is true; the hour has come for might.”
“Quit using words as means to settle scores!”
“Diplomat, quit the stage so we can fight!”
Despite the fevered pitch, Lord, still I chance
To lean on You– to learn Your peaceful path
I yet invite my counterpart to dance—
In tiptoed waltz towards way to curb the wrath
God, help us trick the odds; come sheathe our swords
Then lead us, act by act, towards trust restored
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