Philip C. Habib Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Work of Diplomacy: Conversation with Philip Habib; 5/14/82, by Harry Kreisler

Page 5 of 6

Crisis Diplomacy

One of the roles that a diplomat serves that we really didn't get into earlier, which I'd like to pursue with you, is the role in a crisis. For example, in the Lebanon crisis of '81, which you resolved. What are the characteristics of a diplomat acting in a crisis situation like that, where we're on the brink (though not the nuclear brink). What, beside hard work (which was a description used about you again and again in the press), are some of the other characteristics?

Quite obviously, crises at the present time are endemic in the world we live in. They're recurrent. One week it's the Lebanese situation, or the Lebanese - Israeli situation; another week or another month or another year, it's the Falkland Islands; another day, it'll be an incident somewhere, somehow, involving either the United States or United States interests, which therefore calls for some degree of crisis management on the part of the United States. Now, first of all, you have to decide what it is you want to do, whether you want to do something about it or whether you don't want to do something about it. There is a mechanism in Washington for the examination of crises as they arise, and for the management of crises, for the determination of what our position should be and what we should do.

Once that mechanism has performed its function, and that usually does not take very long because if it's a crisis, you've got to get right on to it, then you've got to decide about the mechanics, the methods. That usually involves some degree of negotiation, mediation, whether it's sending somebody like me out to meet with the parties at issue, or whether it's the Secretary of State going between the United Kingdom and Argentina with respect to the Falklands dispute. The first thing you've got to presume, which is often true, is that the United States can play a unique role. Despite all you may hear about what the world thinks of us, nations frequently turn to the United States because they know that the United States will bring a certain philosophy to the solution to the crisis; that generally speaking we will seek to find a way to mediate confrontation to avoid conflict. There's a certain acceptability of our skills and our persuasive ability. There's also a recognition of our power and our strength, which frequently have to come into play. Then, of course, we have relations with a wide range of people at different levels so that, there are associations and relationships which form the basis of the mediator's tools.

Then the mediator has to have authority. Washington has to give him the authority, the administration has to give him authority, the president has to lay his hands on, in other words. For example, when I went to the Middle East last year, in a succession of visits to try to defuse a situation which had all the earmarks of escalating into a major conflict, I was given sufficient authority by the administration to conduct the negotiations without constant reference for new instructions. In other words, the administration has to tell you what it wants; then it should let the negotiator do what is necessary. And I must say that in the case of my personal experience, that was true. Other administrations have done the same thing, usually. There have been times when the strings are too tight, but that depends on the circumstances.

In any event, I believe that once the negotiator is told what he is to do, he should be left to find his way in doing it, because he sees the whites of the eyes, so to speak, of the interlocutors, he knows whether to press in this direction or that direction, provided he always stays within the general limits of his instructions. A negotiator who exceeds his instructions is going to be repudiated by his own government. There's nothing worse than being repudiated by your home government. You lose all credibility then; you might as well pack up and go home.

Of course, it depends on what role you're playing in a crisis. If you're involved in the crisis, that's a different matter, then you may seek negotiators yourself. I mean, it's a crisis if someone attacks an American ship or aircraft abroad, but that's a crisis that involves us directly. It is also a crisis when Britain and Argentina get in the kind of dispute they have over the Falklands, but it's a crisis which is of great interest to us and effects our interests in a way so visible that we immediately begin to seek a solution that serves the mutual interest.

No crisis is resolved unless there is a degree of restraint, unless there's a degree of understanding and agreement, and there usually has to be a degree of compromise. Negotiations cannot be assumed on the basis of preconditions and be successful. Generally speaking, preconditions have to be set aside in a negotiation. And then you begin to deal with the possible, the areas of common ground. Generally speaking, you'll always try to establish an area of common ground so that you could appeal to the same argument on each side. I could go on and on. These are the tools of crisis negotiation.

Of course, you have to have access: if you don't have access, you can't deal if you're the mediator. Now, generally speaking, we will have access in most cases. We had access in the case of the Middle East, and as a negotiator, I had access to the important interlocutors on the various sides who were able to assist in the direction in which we eventually went. We eventually went in the direction of a cease-fire, cessation of hostile military activity as it was clearly defined. It was done.

Sometimes in crisis situations you can't get formal, written agreement, you have to get understandings. You might even have to have a little ambiguity. But all of those are the tools of diplomacy. They are the traditional tools of diplomacy, and every professional diplomat knows how to use them, that's a value of professionalism. Not just simply "career men." There is a lot of professionalism in diplomacy that is not simply careerist. These tools that are so important in crisis management are a concentration of what is normally a part of the diplomatic process. They just happen to be concentrated in a tighter time-frame. And generally, with respect to a very specific problem rather than in terms of broad foreign policy issues.

Do you see this kind of diplomacy, this shuttle diplomacy, occurring more and more? One would think so because we're likely to see more and more regional conflicts where the superpowers are in the background.

That's good, that's quite common. There's no question about it. But whether it has to be "shuttle" diplomacy per se -- Dr. Kissinger began that type of "shuttle" diplomacy. Benjamin Franklin didn't have airplanes, but was a first-rate diplomat. Communication was much more difficult. Today, shuttle diplomacy is made possible by state-of-the-art transportation and communications, so that if I'm sitting in Damascus, or in Oman, or Jerusalem, or Beirut, I can pick up a telephone and call Washington on a secure line that nobody can listen to except the person I want to listen, and discuss what I'm doing. Or I can move from one country to another to a third country, all within one day, flying hundreds of miles. Or within one night, for that matter. This capacity to move and to communicate promotes that kind of diplomatic activity. But I think that there's a limit to its usefulness. It really doesn't take the place of diplomacy at a more traditional pace, in terms of the great issues of the day.

Shuttle diplomacy doesn't solve the problem of nuclear arms reduction or limitation. Shuttle diplomacy doesn't produce a law of the sea. Shuttle diplomacy doesn't resolve issues of resource transfer or technology transfer, which are important, great diplomatic issues in the modern world. On the other hand, it's very useful. For example, when I was in the Middle East I flew commercial to Europe, then picked up an air force jet out of Germany which then stayed with me from country to country so that I could call up and say, "I want to leave in half an hour to go to country X, when I'm in country Y, because I want to see somebody in country X to talk to him about what I heard in country Y, and I want to nail it down, I don't want to wait because the guns are cocked."

Or, you have a meeting at 11:00 at night with a principal actor and you get somewhere that's very substantial, so you don't wait a week or a day, you don't wait an hour, you go from the meeting right out to the airport at 3:00 in the morning, you fly into another country, you arrive at 7:00 in the morning (meanwhile you've communicated that you want a meeting with Prime Minister X, or President Y) and the meeting is arranged because he knows that you are coming with something significant, you've told him that. You walk in, going from the airport right to the meeting, you lay it on the line, and then you move on to another place. This happens constantly in this day. It is possible. It's not the most comfortable type of diplomacy but in certain circumstances it's the most effective.

Next page: The Art of Negotiation

© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California