A Bridge of Sighs

A Bridge of Sighs

Not many people will argue with Ivo Andric, the Nobel laureate, when he says “From everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad”.

How powerful is that!

An article by Kishore Mahbubani on diplomacy prompted me to think of this quote. Called Diplomacy: Power or Persuasion it is erudite and thoughtful, as all Professor Mahbubani’s articles are and I recommend that you read it*. Written for the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of John Hopkins University, it advocates strengthening the United Nations so that it becomes an effective World Parliament. As a member of Federal Union in 1950, and sympathetically so ever since, and one of the people who helped found the first Europe House, I couldn’t agree more. I also agree with Professor Mahbubani that diplomacy should grow up, drop its arm-twisting behaviour and become more rational.

So what is it that makes our diplomats resort to the arm rather than the brain? When I ask them they say they have to meet their KPIs and they are under pressure to perform speedily, since we live in a world of ‘quickly’ not in one of ‘reasonably’. It’s the same answer everyone gives about their jobs. And it is destroying the skill of persuasion, the cerebration of good planning and the cooperation of survival. It means we are moving too fast to ponder why we are doing what we are doing. It ultimately means we are in a world where the nastiest prevail and the nicest get ignored. “Nice guys come last” is a wicked apology for bad behaviour.

We see all this in our daily lives. A rough-tongued politician becomes President of the United States, and, increasingly, the same is happening to many other countries. Politicians squabble and squark. In a way it’s their job to do so. Recently they’ve taken to doing so rudely and I don’t like that. I left “ya-boo” behind when I quit prep school. I expect you did, too. I really don’t want daft politicians. Nor do I want stupid seniors, or, as they would describe themselves, ‘leaders’. You need to be a very ‘put together’ person to lead. Your values must be clear to you and to everyone you try to influence. Your behaviour needs to be grown up.

All this is blindingly obvious. And yet we elect people like Trump to run the world. Why? The answer is that voters in a country, as with shareholders in a business, are the eventual bosses and this is what they demand – or, at any  rate, vote for. There is truth in the saying that authority, whether national or international, whether in big countries or small, whether in massive corporations or little SMEs – authority is losing its power as it consistently fails to perform. And so we have a chicken and egg problem. Weaker authority makes for weaker leaders just when we need stronger ones. And so we get stronger leaders and the conundrum ensures that they turn out to be of poor quality, even as they flex their, often ageing, muscles.

Good leaders move the world forward. They take charge of whatever they are responsible for and apply their values to it regardless of the rules, processes, procedures and orders under which they operate. The concept of compliance is itself a short route to robots taking the place of people. The practice of compliance is a weakening of the need to think. And this, I am afraid, is where the core of the problem lies. We have educated untold millions to a higher level than their parents but we have failed to teach them to be politically sensible.

Political sense means looking ahead to the world your great grandchildren will inhabit. It means asking yourself several questions about what they will need and what you can plan now that will help them have a working political order – and thus a happy life – fifty years from now. It demands simple common sense not complex structures. It requires a politeness of communication and a sensitivity of touch that enables diplomacy, as Prof. Mahbubani and I both think of it, to flourish.

That behavior is instilled from the beginning of life – it starts at home.

When it doesn’t our diplomatic bridge becomes A Bridge of Sighs.

*Diplomacy: Power or Persuasion      By Kishore Mahbubani

SIAS Review Vol. 40 No. 1, Winter-Spring 2020 published by Johns Hopkins University Press

The abstract of Kishore Mahbubani’s article can be seen here.

For those who want to see Martin Wolf’s introductory remarks at our Drink & Think on 18Sep20 you can connect here. The discussion itself was under The Chatham House Rule and was not, therefore, recorded.

What’s your view of common sense? Please tell mentors@terrificmentors.com