Thursday, January 3, 2013

Communications failure

By a snowy early December afternoon, Mark and Anna, who have been dating for 5 years, take a stroll on Main Street to buy gifts for their parents. It’s a yearly ritual for Anna but for Mark, it is a painful routine. They come across the Guccho & Grimaldi store and in the display window, Anna’s eyes become fixated with the most beautiful pair of shoes she has ever seen. However, they have a hefty price tag. Mark is tapping his feet, hoping Anna won’t make him late to watch the Sunday night football game with his friends.

“They are so beautiful, I wish I could afford them… but I really can’t” she says out loud to herself, hoping that Mark would take notice, not say a thing and surprise her with the pair on Christmas morning.

“Save up every month and you’ll be able to afford them” says Mark, wanting to wrap up the torture session as fast as possible.

Anna turns around, hurt at Mark’s insentitivity, and gives him disappointed glance and walks away. Mark, puzzled and frustrated by her behavior, leaves in the other direction. Five minutes later, she calls him on his mobile. Mark shakes his head and declines to take the call, head to his friend’s place to watch the game, gets drunk and crashes there overnight, ignoring Anna’s multiple attempts to contact him and explain the situation. He definitely gave up on the idea to surprise her with the shoes for Christmas.

In the morning, both Anna and Mark picture themselves at each other’s throat.

There are many approaches, theories and schools of thought in international relations. Here are a few rough examples: realism holds that might is right, liberalism believes that trade and commerce between nations makes the world more free and more peaceful, socialism essentially views the world conflicts as duels between elites in which the common man is the cannon fodder, institutionalism believes that international organizations are key in solving matters which could lead to interstate conflict.

All of them bring a measure of truth to immensely complex issues.

The problem is that many authors, professors, diplomats who hold on to the creed of theory A or theory B will see, interpret and act through that lens only. So what happens if the nation of Pandora, whose leader believes in theory A of international relations, is involved in a tense resource dispute over dilithium with the nation of Absurdistan, whose leader lives and dies by theory B?

Enter my favourite theory: communication failure.

I believe communication failure comes way before all other ideologies in a context of conflict.

In a nutshell, the leader of Pandora will send signals to the nation of Absurdistan in the form of political, diplomatic, trade and military decisions in order to secure the dilithium deposits while try to avert war. Basically, to maximize gains with a minimal cost and deter Absurdistan by showing how far they are willing to go. Absurdistan, feeling entitled to the dilithium deposits also, does the same thing and sends out its signals too. A belligerent waltz ensues, until one sides fires the first shot or “chickens out”.

The problem is that this only works in a vacuum universe where opponents would play their cards with visible hands.

In the real world however, every nation is subject to diversion tactics, time wasting, misinformation, posturing, international pressures, regional realities, economic strength and a plethora of other “signal jammers” which almost always prevents one side from truly understanding the intentions of their opponents.

Between what a leader wants, what he says in public, what is received by other side and what is interpreted (both in terms of language and substance), there is so much room for misinterpretation. Basically, it is playing the “telephone game” in which the distorted message in the end may cause war.

That is why G20 Foreign Ministers’ group should continue meeting under Russian leadership in 2013: to hold informal, face-to-face dialogue to build trust, to coordinate priorities and responses to threatening interstate conflicts and avoid the pitfalls of communications failure. Diplomacy and world peace are best served by cool heads familiar with each other sitting down to discuss a way out, rather than by telegraphing grand threats of obliteration to often desperate states.

A somewhat good example of trying to overcome communication failure to avert war...

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