Strategic Patience

Strategic Patience

It may sound like a form of card game or the name of an experienced lady of easy virtue but it is neither. It has, however, quite a lot in common with both. It is what a coach of the Junior Colts practices. It is what Mrs Yellen, her of the Fed, endures with every change of Master or of Master’s whim. It is what a long-term prisoner must do if he is to retain his sanity. It is what St Augustine pleaded for when he sought chastity “but not yet”.

Strategic patience is not answering Rooster call with opposing Rooster call. It is the lot of parenthood, a tool of the therapist, an achievement of saints. Politically speaking it is probably the difference between peace and nuclear war. That is why it is important. Malcolm Turnbull, Australian Prime Minister, is working on it today. Petro Poroshenko has been working on it since he became President of the Ukraine in 2014. Chancellor Merkel is reading a D-I-Y book on the subject as I write. You and I must understand it, too.

When he stopped being Prime Minister of Britain in 1963 Harold Macmillan was asked by a journalist what had been the most difficult thing he had had to deal with. “Events, dear boy,” he replied, with a sigh, “Events”. One knows how he felt. Events, like questions to a bank, have a habit of escalating, sometimes out of control. I perceive the first signs of this happening already and worry about it. How do we equip ourselves with strategic patience?

First, breathing. Not the rapid, in-drawn gasp of horror. Not the long-held breath with eyes exhibiting thyroidic terror. No, the breathing must be measured, ponderous even, and it must accompany a thoughtful, slightly puzzled pose. Strategy is all about pace, and demonstrating that you have the controls at foot is the best way to exhibit it.

Second, eye contact, mouth read. A little confrontational is vital but stark staring is out. ‘Resolute’ is the message of choice, especially when one has no idea how to deal with the situation. Understanding but humourless, liberal but decisive. Sympathy is in the glass eye but don’t read a man’s eyes, read his mouth. Strong eye messages confirm confidence.

Third, negotiating. Different countries have different styles of negotiating from bargaining in the souk to delicate discussions over tea and toast. To avoid becoming the latter, negotiating has to understand the local style. Increasingly in some parts of the world it involves guns. But clever negotiating knows how to make the threat that is inherent in any point of view appear a mutual benefit. A bully’s negotiation is short-lived and usually revenged.

Fourth, take your time. “Publish in haste, repent at leisure” to adapt an old saying. When Richard Nixon was threatened with being impeached he quoted his mother’s instruction “Richard, don’t you ever give up!” I have it on good authority that she was actually asking a question “Richard, don’t you ever give up?” He was right to see the positive rather than the negative interpretation. “Slowly, slowly catchee etc”.

Fifth, be clear what matters and what doesn’t. Political snubs are irritating indicators, not nuclear precipitators. Aggressive land, sea or air-grab needs dealing with quickly; there is no going back once a territory is occupied or a precedent is established. President Kennedy knew what he was doing with Premier Khrushchev over Cuban missiles. He also knew where the red line was. His strategic patience was to stay on the phone.

We make light of much of the turmoil now taking place but it does require Strategic Patience.

Will that be forthcoming from all sides?