Global engagement: building nations through dialogue

Global engagement: building nations through dialogue
May 14 11:56 2018

Remarks by H.E Philippe VAN DAMME, Ambassador, Head of Delegation of the European Union to Zimbabwe at the 2018 Diplomat of the Year Awards in Harare recently.

My mother always considered me unfit for diplomatic service. I think she had a slightly biased idea of what diplomacy is supposed to be. She probably imagined those well dressed, slow marching, soft speaking, sophisticated bureaucrats tiptoeing through the corridors of power and spending their time gossiping and social chatting…

I think it’s primarily the soft spoken part of that image she had difficulties associating with me – the rest I leave to your judgment.

And with soft spoken, I guess, she not only referred to the volume of the voice, but also to the supposedly polished, self-censoring way of speaking of the stylized diplomat, rounding the angles, compromising before even we have started talking.

Not exactly my style indeed, but not exactly what I consider at the core of diplomatic engagement either.


Conflicts and wars are driven by greed and interest, but in modern times are most often disguised behind “Absolute Truths” with capital A and capital T, religious Truths, nationalist Truths, ideological Truths, economic Truths,cultural or civilizational Truths, whatever.

But as Tony Judt wrote in his gripping personal testimony, “Thinking the 20th Century“, I quote, “the unpleasant truth (without capital T) is normally, in most places, that you’re being lied to. And the role of the intellectual is to get the truth out. Get the truth out and then explain why it just is the truth“.

Etymologically, an intellectual is someone who can read in between the lines, “inter legere”, who can make the linkages, connects the dots, someone who tries to understand.

  • The historian, Tony Judt explained, is NOT someone who reinvents or exploits the past for present purposes. It is NOT someone who, like in Czeslaw Milosz’ “Captive Mind“, so identifies with History (with a capital H) that it aligns itself with a system that denies it freedom of expression, as was the case with the elites in the post-World War II communist regimes, or as we have observed in some post-liberation war, newly independent States. According to Tony Judt, the historian should on the contrary be an intellectual who tries, not to manipulate but to understand the past and thereby tries to unmask the Truths with a capital T, the founding myths of our societies.
  • The political analyst is then (I guess) an intellectual who tries to understand the present, taking into account the impact of that past on the organization of the society today and on the mindsets of the members of that society, demystifying the historical and cultural heritage of that past in the way we function and interact today.
  • And the diplomat is then (I would like to believe) a hybrid combination of the historian and the political analyst, someone who puts his historical and political understanding at the service of a State (or institution), not as a mercenary or intellectual prostitute, but (at least that’s what I would like to believe) as a real intellectual who, to use the words of Tony Judt’s interviewer Timothy Snyder (I quote), “sniffs out the truth (with a small t) in a world of international obfuscation” and who, to follow Berridge’s definition of diplomacy, secures the objectives of the foreign policies of the State it serves (I quote) “without resort to force, propaganda, or law“.

In Popper’s modern, democratic “open society”, the use of force needs popular support and therefore needs public justification, but experience shows that this often ends up in creating a war psychosis, whereby you may have “to lie, to exaggerate, to distort”, i.e. use propaganda, and sometimes rule by law instead of rule of law, corroding the democratic foundations of society in the long run.

My ideal diplomat believes in facts, historical facts, political, economic, social, cultural facts which allow the politicians to take informed rather than prejudiced decisions without having to appeal to “force, propaganda or law”. Of course, the diplomat defends the interests of the State (or institution) he or she represents, let’s not be naïve, but this can be done by using those facts intelligently, by presenting them from the perspective of who he represents, by interpreting them one way or another (sometimes with a bit a bad faith, may be), but NOT by manipulating and transforming them in “fake” facts or lies.


Henry Kissinger likes to start the history of modern (Western) diplomacy in 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.

After one of the longest and bloodiest among the numerous European civil wars, Europe’s exhausted leaders decided to call it a day, and agreed from then on to respect each other’s sovereignty without further foreign meddling in each other’s internal affairs, “cuius regio, cuius religio“.

For the next centuries, relations between States were supposedly based on this fundamental principles of peaceful co-existence between sovereign nations and of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. These Westphalian principles “of course” (and I’m putting “of course” in between quotation marks), only held for Western, “civilized” (quotation marks again!) countries. Nobody saw any contradiction between the Westphalian foundations of international relations and the colonial and imperial adventures of those same nations overseas.

This co-existence was unfortunately not as peaceful as intended. A lot of things happened since 1648.

From an Eurocentric point of view, an all-time low was reached with the Great War of 1914-18 and its aftermath, the ineffective League of Nations, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the absolute darkness of the holocaust.

And then, in the deepest of the night, the turning point, the light at the end of the tunnel: the victory – and after the fall of the Berlin wall some would add, naively, the final victory of liberal democracy and “the end of history” -, the victory thus, but also the creation of the United Nations and, exactly 70 years ago, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decolonization, and so much more.

But one of the most extraordinary political adventures of the post-war history is probably what happened on 09 May 1950, 5 years after the end of the war and some 300 years after the Treaty of Westphalia, when two of the main actors of the recurrent European civil wars, the main competitors for European hegemony, France and Germany, decided to share and merge some of their national sovereignty so dearly defended over all those year, and to entrust it to a supra / international body to rebuild Europe, based on new, value-driven foundations, universal values of democracy, rule of law, human rights, but also values of individual and collective responsibility and solidarity. That hybrid body, that strange animal, since 2010 we call it the European Union. It is far less than a federal State, but much more than what any other voluntary integration process ever achieved.

After 300 years, peaceful cooperation and mutual sympathy were replacing Westphalian co-existence and indifference.

2016 was an extraordinary year for this new world order. We had the Addis summit in July discussing development funding, the September summit in New York adopting the 2030 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, and finally we had the Paris summit on climate change in December.

Each of those events very clearly illustrates the fundamental paradigm shifts of recent years in international relations. We are now living in a global, interdependent village. The issues of inequality and underdevelopment, of the ecological survival of the planet are now longer a “North-South” issue where the “developed North” (quotation marks reactivated) was looking condescendingly down on those “underdeveloped masses in the South” (note the quotation marks! And please note also that I avoided using the “s” word), but those problems have become global challenges and fall under our collective responsibility.

The world of Westphalia where each nation-state could do its own thing in its corner without being held accountable, no longer exists. What each nation-state is doing at home has global repercussions; whether it are its energy policies, its migration policies, its trade and investment policies, its environment policies,… we have entered a new, increasingly integrated and interdependent world.

And since the Nuremberg trials and the Rwandese genocide, the Westphalian indifference when crimes against humanity are committed, is gradually, too slowly, but gradually, being replaced by the duty to intervene and protect.

The scale of the challenges the European nation-States were facing after the second World War, the world is facing now: where we couldn’t rebuild a peaceful Europe then without cooperation and shared responsibility, today we no longer can build a socially, economically, environmentally sustainable world without cooperation and shared responsibility.

We cannot build a sustainable, stable world without social equity and inclusive development. We all know, the major root causes of migration, conflict and instability in the world today are underdevelopment, lack of access to basic social services, bad governance – in other words, lack of hope in a better future.

We also know that marginalization, exclusion and the resulting feelings of humiliation, of not being recognized as human beings worthy of respect and consideration, can lead to despair, resentment, self-destructive feelings and ultimately extremism, religious, nationalist, political extremism.

Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth“, the present day’s left-outs of globalization, are individuals, but the feeling of humiliation, alienation, exclusion can also be found at national level. I guess all nations have gone through phases of dominance, culturally, economically, military… and of oppression. How we absorb and digest these cycles determine our present state of mind.

What we need today is not a “diplomacy of conquest and dominance” or a “diplomacy of humiliation”, but a diplomacy of emancipation, of mutual respect and equality among nations, because only through true partnerships can a cooperative world model be developed, capable of responding to the global challenges we are facing. Contrary to what some may think, just like trade is not a zero sum game, so international relations cannot be a zero sum game where the elevation of some nations is realized to the detriment of the others. History learns us on the contrary that the “rise and fall of nations” is linked to their level of confidence and openness to the rest of the world.

If at an individual level we feel humiliated or if we feel uncertain and anxious about our future, the answer is NOT to turn in on oneself, or, conversely, it is NOT turning aggressive and violent (it is proven that domestic and gender based violence are strongly correlated to levels of socio-economic stress), but it can ONLY be dialogue. At national level that dialogue is called democratic debate, in international relations this is called, I guess, – diplomacy. Try to listen to each other, try to understand each other, try to understand where we come from historically and where we stand presently, and be creative, to find mutually beneficial solutions. But this requires intellectual honesty and moral integrity, the search for Tony Judt’s truth, not the prejudged Absolute Truth with capital A and T, the Truth of the false prophets, but the difficult, murky, painful shades of truths (in plural and with a small “t”) of our complex daily lives.

As diplomats we serve our States, or in my case a body politic which transcends the nation-State. Nation building is based on internal political dynamics, good economic policies, political accountability, the rule of law, and what so more. But nations can no longer stand and prosper by themselves. They have to engage with the rest of the world, not from a zero-sum perspective based on fear and rank, on force, humiliating inequality or Machiavellian duplicity, but from a win-win perspective based on mutual trust and confidence in the common future of humankind. Europe understood this the hard way, after the devastating World War, its longest and bloodiest civil war since the Treaty of Westphalia, and remains, I think, the most successful illustration of that idea to date.

Again, this global engagement can only be based, in my view, on a real willingness to understand human nature, human history and… dialogue. Not hollow rhetoric but a real exchange, based on the shared values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the same values also which were at the foundation of the European Construction.  Call it – diplomacy.


In his inaugural speech in January 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate“.

Let’s dare to engage globally and to build our nations and regions through dialogue, for the benefit of all.


I do not know whether my mother was completely wrong in her apprehension of me entering a diplomatic career, but on one dimension at least she was wrong. Like most diplomats, I like speaking, at length. I apologize for that, belatedly, and I hope at least that it sounded a bit coherent, and not too much as gossiping, social chat or worse, rambling on…

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