A Truly Original Foreign Policy Idea: Public Talks

[ Posted Wednesday, September 26th, 2007 – 02:52 UTC ]

If two groups of peoples in violent disagreement with each other on the world's stage (be they different countries, dispossessed groups, or factions within a country) have exhausted all diplomatic options, is the inevitable result war? Or is there another way to address their vastly different viewpoints of history (and the conflict at hand) which could have a better outcome?

An opinion piece ran in yesterday's Roll Call which proposes a truly innovative and original concept: Instead of closed-door diplomatic meetings, why not try working out differences in the public arena? More properly stated: When diplomatic measures have already failed, why not try something new -- since there's nothing left to lose at that point?

The author of this extraordinary proposal is John Connolly, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Dialogue. The idea (in a nutshell) is: when all other diplomatic methods of resolving a disagreement have already failed, why not try something different? Have both sides publish their views of the history of the conflict to the world's audience, in publicly available media -- and let the chips fall where they may. Each side would make its case to the world, for all to see. As charges and counter-charges are published in a continuing process (over a period of months), each side could rebut legitimate points made by the other in subsequent releases -- in an attempt to sway world opinion to their relative perspectives.

Since Roll Call is a subscription site, the IFPDialogue website has posted a copy of the article. [I have reproduced this text below -- also, see Full Disclosure statement below]. The article explains the concept in detail, and the Institute's website has even more extensive documentation, if you're interested. The Institute even has a video currently up at YouTube where John Connolly tries to lobby Congress through the power of the web.

I admit that this is a radical idea, and an honestly singular new way of thinking. Connolly knows this as well, and has prepared for skepticism. The Institute's site has a list of common objections to the Public Talks concept, complete with plausible answers for each. He makes a convincing case that he's not just tilting at windmills, but that his idea could actually and effectively work. The biggest argument he's got going for him is that the whole idea wouldn't even begin until after normal diplomatic negotiations had collapsed. At that point, what is there really left to lose for either side?

John Connolly is putting this idea into the vaunted "marketplace of ideas" for consideration by one and all. While this marketplace can be brutal to those espousing abhorrent ideas (like President Ahmadinejad of Iran recently), it should also remain open to creative original thinking when it (so rarely) happens.

The public -- the "shoppers" in the marketplace -- are the ones who ultimately will decide the merits of the idea. But they can't decide if they don't even hear it in the first place. Which is why I present it here, to give it the wider audience I think it deserves.

[Full Disclosure: I have done minor web editing work for John Connolly in the past. I was paid less than $500 for this editorial work, which I did for him last year. He did not solicit me to write this article. I was not paid to write this article. I wrote it on my own initiative, not in order to fully endorse the idea, but (as I say) to present it to a wider audience.]


When All Else Fails, Consider 'Public Talks'

"All diplomatic options have been exhausted" is a statement frequently made by officials in response to a wide range of unresolved international disputes. Almost without exception, this means that all forms of negotiations have collapsed.

It is in the long-term interests of the United States for leaders in both the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees to collaborate on establishing a large-scale conflict resolution process that could be briefly summarized as "negotiating in public -- the diplomatic option of last resort."

To that end, the Institute for Public Dialogue proposes "Public Talks," a new form of international dialogue that would only come into play after all other forms of negotiations have failed. The centerpiece of this worldwide communication process is a series of "Challenge Documents," small, magazine-size documents that would be distributed through the media and made available online.

The Challenge Document would feature each side's interpretation of history. It would contain questions to one's adversary, negotiating positions and other content inherent to international conflicts. Successive rounds of Challenge Documents would allow for a full exposition of the competing views of these adversaries and also would allow for a clearer focus of obstacles to an agreement. The two international Congressional committees would determine the most appropriate organizational structure to oversee the necessary rules and terms for this highly structured process.

The underlying motive for adversaries to engage in this process is not an idealistic notion of goodwill, but rather recognition of the growing importance of public opinion. Once established, either side could unilaterally present its Challenge Document before a worldwide audience without any guarantee of a response in kind. An adversary rejecting that challenge would risk international acceptance of the other side's historical narrative of that conflict. Thus, the motive to engage in this public dialogue would be to head off erosion of support worldwide.

Every one or two weeks, one side would distribute a Challenge Document. If accepted, this dialogue would unfold over two or three months and would engage the international community as never before in the central details of that conflict.

This form of communication, part of the Institute for Public Dialogue's Public Talks, would not replace private or back-channel negotiations, nor will it work in all situations. The widespread acceptance of this platform will make it increasingly difficult for parties of a conflict to reject participation in Public Talks.

Shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Pew Research poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans favored hearing both sides of issues, even if it meant hearing directly from enemies. Nevertheless, some will oppose this approach. Yet those who call for the spread of democracy while opposing a greater public understanding of conflicts will be creating an edifice of unsustainable hypocrisy.

Public Talks depends less on personal trust between leaders than private talks. At the culmination of the process, the final signed agreement delivered into the hands of citizens on both sides will increase confidence that the terms will not be reinterpreted in divergent ways. Consider the following objections:

•  Public Talks conflict with the secrecy that advocates of realpolitik insist on.
Public Talks commences only after secret talks have failed. Secret talks also suffer from intrinsic problems as leaders have frequently reinterpreted agreements to sell them to their constituencies, thereby sowing the seeds of a future conflict.

•  Encouraging public opinion to dictate U.S. foreign policy is a bad idea.
Public Talks will most frequently involve the U.S. only as a witness to a dialogue between other nations and societies. When the U.S. chooses to engage in Public Talks, leaders will explain their positions clearly and emphatically. The emerging difference with Public Talks is that we would all experience this direct clash of opinions leading to a greater sense of historical truth behind a given conflict.

•  This proposal is divorced from reality because governments don't care about advertisements or messages, only interests and power.
This ignores the growing importance of public opinion in the calculus of political leaders worldwide. The rise of democracy and the increased access to information is advancing this phenomenon.

•  The public will not be interested in a Challenge Document when they have access to enormous quantities of information from many media outlets.
Predicting what interests the public, as the many publishers who rejected Harry Potter will attest, is not simple. The Challenge Document would be the centerpiece of a worldwide communication process that the public would be anticipating in advance of it becoming available. Millions would see these competing historical narratives, with the leaders of the adversarial party aware that the entire world would be focusing on that same conflict.

•  Nations could censor Public Talks by simply preventing the distribution of a challenge document.
Yes, they could in areas under their control. However, attempts to block this process internally may backfire, as the rest of the world would pay close attention to any banned information.

•  Negotiations could not really take place through documents designed for the public.
Unlike private talks that often begin with small confidence-building agreements, Public Talks would start with the large issues that truly separate adversaries. The contrasting historical narratives surrounding such conflicts are easily understood and if agreement is reached, lesser issues could be negotiated privately. Moreover, a formal Web site could feature relevant details.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of Public Talks is that it will focus world attention on the compromises and trade-offs required for agreement. In this way, public opinion could become a powerful force in moving parties to agreement.

Amid the "battle of ideas" taking shape today, U.S. support for Public Talks would show the world community that Americans are interested in not just symptoms of international conflicts, but also in underlying causes. An America that does not fear open discussion of these issues is more likely to see its principles embraced around the world.

[John Connolly is the executive director of the Institute for Public Dialogue.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


21 Comments on “A Truly Original Foreign Policy Idea: Public Talks”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    I did not see the biggest drawback to this plan addressed.

    That being that parties to the discussion would use this plan as a delaying tactic.

    If the next step after this PUBLIC TALKS plan is war, then it is likely that parties involved would simply expand and espouse in the Public Talks, while secretly moving military forces into place.

    In theory, it's a good idea.. But I have a feeling that it would be abused and the party who was morally and ethically in the right, would be harmed. Politically AND militarily...

    Finally, in today's diplomatic climate, this is pretty much how things are done anyways. Due to the prolificness of the Internet, both sides in any given conflict already use "the court of public opinion" for propaganda purposes, to try and sway public opinion to their side..

    I really don't see these Public Talks as anything different. The only real difference is that, as things are, they run concurrently with diplomatic initiatives rather than after the diplomatic process.


  2. [2] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    True, there will always be people who exploit media to their own self-serving end. Yes, propaganda can be created anywhere there are people to read or listen.
    Still in all, appears to be a real viable alternative to war. We are living in most dangerous times. One has to ask, is this not worth exploring?

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Since it can be so easily manipulated and it can be another propaganda outlet, I would think it's not worth exploring..

    Don't get me wrong.. I am all for dialog before you start pummeling someone's face in, internationally speaking.....

    I just don't want to be the one talking when I get sucker punched.... Again, internationally speaking..

    One can also logically make the point that such Public Talks are already occurring and no good has come from them...


  4. [4] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Well Michale-
    Stay alert and viglant,and don't let any fast balls get by you! I may have also been born at night, just not last night.


    [Editorial note --

    I have edited this comment to change "Michael" to "Michale" as it's obvious that's who the comment was meant for. Spermwhale, welcome to the site! I changed this name as there is another "Michael" on the site who... shall we say... doesn't always agree with Michale, so I didn't want a misunderstanding. Not one other word to this post was changed.

    --CW ]

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    >I may have also been born at night,
    >just not last night.

    Hay!! That's MY line!! :D

    Don't get me wrong.. I am all for talking our way out of trouble.. Talking is ALWAYS preferable to violence and bloodshed..

    The only problem I have is with the "PEACE AT ANY COST" concept..

    Because that isn't peace.

    That is slavery...

    "Sometimes you gotta fight, when yer a man..."


  6. [6] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Well, it's not about cutesy lines either. Isn't easier to engage on a conversational level? After all, it seems Mr Connolly's concept engaged you!

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Yes it has..

    But we have a common frame of reference..

    For example, I acknowledge that Mr Connolly is a human being and is to be respected as such.

    Now, try and maintain a dialog with someone who thinks of you as nothing higher than an amoeba. How can you maintain a dialog with someone who wouldn't bother to spit on you if you were on fire...

    Or worse, how can you have a rational meeting of the minds with someone who believes that YOU (personally) have wronged them in the most vile and disgusting way imaginable..

    THAT is the mindset of the people that you propose we have 'rational' dialog with..

    And I tell you that it is simply not possible. While I have not had the (dubious) "pleasure" of dealing with Ahmenjandid personally, I DO know his type. And that type is best dealt with from as far away as possible, preferably with a mechanized brigade at the ready...

    One of the articles I read really summed it up.. How do you deal with a madman who denies that slavery ever existed and has publicly stated that he wanted to wipe Liberia off the map???


  8. [8] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Did you over-look his remark about wiping Israel off the map too? I thought that was the one that received the most attention.

    RE: "Now, try and maintain a dialog with someone who thinks of you as nothing higher than an amoeba. How can you maintain a dialog with someone who wouldn't bother to spit on you if you were on fire…"

    Gee, I thought you were talking about Mr Communicator and Mr Decider himself, our language impaired president.

    Anyway, your remarks surely could have been interchangable.

    To answer your last rhetorical question: VERY CAREFULLY!


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    >our language impaired president.

    For the record, in a free and democratic capitalist society, it is simply NOT possible for a person who is ANYTHING-impaired to be elected POTUS, despite the hysterical bashing to the contrary..

    Now, in a despotic, tyrannical and repressive society, it is quite easy for the morally impaired to be elected as a leader. All one has to do is look at Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Iraq et al to know this to be true...

    In answer to my last rhetorical question, the answer is: YOU DON'T...

    You simply eliminate him/her/it and make sure the replacement is a LOT better...

    Something we failed to do in Iraq...


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    >I changed this name as there is
    >another "Michael" on the site who…
    >shall we say… doesn't always agree
    >with Michale, so I didn't want a


    There is someone that doesn't agree with me!!!!?????

    Say it ain't so!!! :D


  11. [11] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Ok Michale or Michael- I think I'm finally understanding you.
    You want us to suspend the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 14th amendments. Also continue to walk away from the Geneva Agreements and while we're out it re-write the entire constitution. What-the-hell, what's a little water-boarding among friends?

    As a consequence, free speech obviously has no part in your future world.
    Let me ask you one final question. If you in fact have to shore up the walls of your "Gulag," to make everyone safe; just what liberties and freedoms might you be fighting to protect?

    First, can you please give our poor country at least 4 years to recover from a guy from Texas who has already stolen your thunder?


  12. [12] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Post data-

    If you choose to truly find out if it's really possible for a person who IS ANYTHING-impaired to be elected POTUS, "despite the hysterical bashing to the contrary.." you will have to wait for the Freedom of Information Act to kick-in. (assuming it has not been eliminated by that time along with the consitution as we know it.


  13. [13] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Come on, you don't have to look very far to find malapropisms from Bush. Here's what he said today at an elementary school, promoting No Child Left Behind:

    "As yesterday's positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured."

    I mean, it's possible for you to defend Bush on a lot of things, but he's been caught on tape saying things like "childrens do learn" more times than I can count! Even if the White House does clean up his transcripts after the fact....

    You can say "just because he's not a smooth talker that doesn't make him an idiot" or some such, but you've got to agree he sometimes has problems with English...


  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:


    Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus for all Americans and jailed fellow Americans who disagreed with him.

    FDR incarcerated American citizens with NO TRIAL and NO CHARGES solely based on their ancestry..

    What's the common denominator?

    Yep.. We were at war..

    The US Constitution allows for it's suspension and contravention during times of great upheaval.. It's a pretty tough document. It has survived a LOT worse than Bush and it will survive Bush too...

    Let me ask you something... What rights have you lost?? Besides the ability to carry hair gel on an airplane, what rights do you NOT have now that you did not have before??

    The simple fact is, you and I and all Americans really haven't lost any rights or liberties or freedoms..


    Yea, Bush has made some bonehead comments.. But who hasn't??

    If you or I or anyone else would have their every comment, their every movement, their very existence, torn apart, examined, re-examined and then examined again, I would wager that we could be mistaken for being "impaired" in just about every way imaginable, no??

    Remember when Reagan said, "What would this country be without this great land of ours?" ?? Was Reagan impaired?? How many times did Ford trip down the stairs? Was he impaired?? Remember that photograph of President Carter picking his nose?? Did that mean that Carter was impaired?? :D

    I especially like when Bush thanked the Australian government for the invitation to the OPEC meeting in Australia last month.. It was the APEC meeting. Bush tried to cover it by saying that the invitation to OPEC was next year... Not possible since USA and Australia are not part of OPEC... :D

    My whole point is that ANYONE can and should be forgiven for faux paus now and again, when their entire existence is under a microscope by people who well and truly hate them with a hysterical passion unmatched in history. (Present company excepted, of course... :D)

    Granted, Bush has made more than his share of bonehead moves...

    But I still maintain that NO ONE in this country can be elected POTUS if they are the "village idiot", a moron, stupid, brain dead, or impaired in any way.. It's just not possible..


    When one is in the public spotlight 24/7, one is going to make some pretty bonehead plays..

  15. [15] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Remember, this is not a dress rehearsal, it's life.
    I agree, while anyone can make a "faux Paus" should we not hold a leaders to a higher standard, regardless of party? We simply will not have a second chance to get it right. (sic)

    Do yourself a favor go back and carefully read the Q & A on the site

    Once again, Connolly does not support negotiating with a "whack-job."
    His is only a call for Public Dialogue when all other means have failed.

    Why not give it a chance?


  16. [16] 
    gayesy wrote:

    let me get this straight, spermwhale. you believe the leaders of the world will engage in "public dialogue" on YOUR SITE (uhhhhh, i mean mr connolly's site ;-) after failing at all other forms of diplomacy? or are you simply inviting ordinary citizens, such as myself and michale, to visit and speak out? the second sounds more reasonable yet not unique, not at all. the first is not only a pipedream, it's a blatant display of naivete, albeit well meaning. how could you possibly think the leader's of israel and hamas or north korea or iran or syria would come to a website to resolve issues they can't solve in and out of the world arena? i have an idea, perhaps mr connolly might play background music on his website...ummmmmmmm KUMBAYA comes to mind. oh wait, maybe you guys are right...perhaps the president of aruba will visit to explain what happened to all the americans who have disappeared on his island over the years. now, that might be a coup.

  17. [17] 
    benskull wrote:

    Whoa. been a couple days. Great topic. I think its a great idea. While our government was designed to represent the publics interests, i don't think that happens all the time. After all, many politicians are not so altruistic in there endeavors as we would like to believe. When you hear comments like from John Kerry (i believe it was him) and shared by many others in Washington that universal healthcare is "politically impossible", it is very disheartening, this is something wanted by a large majority of people, whether it be one specific plan, or at least a massive improvement to the current disastrous healthcare situation. Frankly I don't care if it risks someones career, they are there for us. Anyway, relating this to the Public Talks, it is about time ideas began to surface on how the people can truly be involved in our governments choices/actions. I think its clear that if the public were more involved in the decisions concerning the current middle east debacle, things might be different. It would hold the powers very accountable in that honesty would be under more scrutiny. They could no longer depend on vague and misleading propaganda used in mainstream media settings, because, i believe, the percentage of people that would actually read these challenge papers, would be, most likely, educated enough to find discrepancies. As we've seen over the past few years there are scores of documentaries, books, articles, movements etc, that feel they have found discrepancies. Of course the media doesn't pass this on, but ignores it, which raises one issue, if these papers are passed out, and read, and the people disagree wiith there leader, how is this passed on, or brought to the attention of the leader, and the masses? Can the manipulation of media continue here, obstructing polls, or coming up with your own, or what? How do we know what the true results are? It would be great to be part of decisions like that that have a massive impact on us, in one form or another. Of course, we really are supposed to be already, but it could be more obvious. I think the direction our govt is taking these days, needs far more intervintion by the people. I think more policies should be given a popular vote, rather than assuming our reps are representing us and not there enduring careers.
    Oh and i prefer Chomsky's idea that Bush is not such a doofus as he seems, but that its more PR designed to give the people a feel that he's not an elite and one of us, a regular guy. After all, born into a family like that? Yale? Language is a basic skill. I spent my high school years in unconventional activites outside the classroom, and still had an understanding of language with less mistakes, although I probably used dude too often. Oh and as far as 'No Child Left Behind" my mother has taught young children, Kindergarten and 1st grade for 30+- years, and describes the program as terrible, to put it nicely. While there are some valiant ideas, the follow through and implementation is terrible. It takes away the creativity and inspiration involved in connecting with students and prevents them from learning to explore, and discover how to learn, and the love of learning, and instead keeps them in workbooks all day, having to make benchmarks, yada yada. No wonder there's a massive diagnosis of ADD and the inventors of ritalin are insanely rich. What kindergartener can pay attention? let alone to a workbook, and tests? I had a hard time keeping it together building castles out of cardboard bricks. Obviously you have to learn, but you have to gain an appreciation of how to learn, and why. Enough ranting on that. There's a podcast on itunes, room 101 with Michael Baker, they talk about education with Chomsky. Great episode.

  18. [18] 
    benskull wrote:

    And another problem, how will this work in countries that are not democracies? Where the peoples opinion doesn't matter? I guess it would leave judgement up to the rest of the world?

  19. [19] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    Ahh benskull,welcome back to the trenches. YOU CLEARLY DO SO GET IT! Where else can one currently express opinion in a public forum without it being spun to death by the press, opposition, et al? Your observations were spot on! Your final podcast plug on Itunes Room 101 for Michael Baker and Chomsky left a smile on my face. Although I knew you couldn’t help yourself, it will predictably insight the angst of the right wing. Yet once again, that is what a PUBLIC TALK FORUM, should be about! And in countries without democratic government, where peoples opinions are not only not heard but suppressed, yes indeed, it will be left for the rest of the world to judge.

  20. [20] 
    spermwhale wrote:

    In the name of “full disclosure:” I blog under the name of SpermWhale. While I’ve known John Connolly for sometime, and have worked on projects with him, I am not him, and he is not me!

  21. [21] 
    Michale wrote:

    >Once again, Connolly does not
    >support negotiating with a
    >"whack-job." His is only a
    >call for Public Dialogue when
    >all other means have failed.

    OK, my apologies. I thought this was a universal "across the board" addition to the diplomatic process.

    It wouldn't apply to the likes of Ahmenjuhad, or a Saddam Hussein or of groups like Hamas or Hezbollah..

    In THAT regard, I could understand it's usefulness, as it would only apply to countries that we probably wouldn't go to war with anyways...

    Because only a "nut job" would want to risk going to war with the US.. :D


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