One usually reserves the phrase “world peace” for birthday wishes, Miss America pageants, or cardboard signs, but Douglas Noll believes that peace is not a pipe dream. His latest book is Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Can Solve World Conflicts, which he hopes will start a conversation about advancing diplomatic strategies by using more up-to-date mediation techniques.
Noll is the author of Sex, Politics & Religion at the Office: The New Competitive Advantage, and Peacemaking: Practicing at the Intersection of Law and Human Conflict. He also hosts a weekly radio show, “The Doug Noll Show,” giving a voice to international peacemakers. On January 24, Doug will be giving a talk at the Santa Barbara Charter School.
I spoke to him over the phone about his latest book and the experiences that shaped him as a peacemaker.
What inspired you to write this book? I read a book called The Truth About Camp David, and it was one of the few books where we really got at inside glance at how high-level officials in the U.S. government tried to meet with the Palestinians and the Israelis, and what struck me about the book as a professional mediator was how many rookie mistakes Clinton and Albright and his national security team made. It was beyond gross negligence, and it got me thinking, maybe that’s why these peace conferences never go anywhere. I started studying it, and I went back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, looked at every piece of data that I could find on peace conferences around the world for examples of what I thought would be high-level, professional quality mediation, and didn’t find one example. This is ridiculous. The most important discussions in the world involve people who may be competent politicians, they may be competent as diplomats, but as peacemakers they’re horrible.
What’s the most fascinating conflict you’ve encountered in your research or experience? I can’t say that there were any that were fascinating. There were a lot of tragic conflicts. There were a lot of unavoidable conflicts. I think that the one conflict that strikes me as the craziest is all the negotiations around climate change, because the climate change negotiations affect every human being on the planet, every living creature on the planet, and it is the most mismanaged, poorly designed, poorly thought out process that you could possibly imagine. The conference in Sweden two years ago was an absolute disaster because the U.N. and the diplomatic community persists on using an 18th-century technology to try to serve 21st-century problems, and it doesn’t work. I’m not fascinated by it. I look at it in abject horror.
What do you think has kept modern diplomacy from advancing? Arrogance and ignorance. People get into the diplomatic corps, and it’s really a place for elite people. It’s a pretty cushy job, it’s very insulated, there’s little public accountability. People that used to do diplomacy 200 years ago were the educated elites of their particular nation, and that has tended to persist to today, and they really do believe themselves to be above everybody else. They’re absolutely unwilling to consider that modern views may have passed them by.
You also talk about how in disputes, emotions and feelings can dominate reason, and you outline a method for a mediator to step in to allow dialogue between parties about their own belief systems. In the case of diplomatic conflict, these parties would be representatives of large groups or nations of people. How do you deal with the emotions and feelings of an entire nation? Let’s go back to the United States and climate change. Climate change is so difficult because politically, we’re completely fractured into two ideological camps, and one ideological camp wants nothing to do with climate change. They don’t even want to talk about it. So that’s very difficult and that takes strong political leadership.
The mediator recognizes that polarization, talks to the representatives, and asks how can they help deal with this polarization. If the polarization can’t be resolved, we can at least be honest and recognize that we don’t have the political power right now to negotiate. The mediator will then look for someone else to take leadership on the issue. This is what’s going to happen with climate change. The United States is just going to become irrelevant to the discussion.
You say that one of the major obstacles in negotiation is reconciling peace with accountability and that the key to this is a deeper understanding of justice. I thought this was interesting, can you elaborate? Justice is an interesting, complex concept. When I teach my peacemaking class in law school, I ask my senior students the definition of justice, and they aren’t able to give it. For a mediator it becomes very important to understand the various meanings of justice. A criticism of the Occupy movement is that it’s this amorphous group of people who are unhappy but can’t articulate why, and that’s caused the press to dismiss them. The Occupy movement, it’s all about social justice, so the mediator asks the question, “So what exactly do you mean by social justice?” and forces people to be very clear as to what they’re upset about, to articulate as well as they can what they need to have change. Justice permeates almost every conflict that you have, and peacemakers have to have a good grasp of it.
In your book, you question America’s commitment to peace when Congress makes peacemaking work with terrorist groups illegal. How do you think we here in America can make a compromise between a commitment to peace and assurance of national security? Look, I’m a black belt in Chinese kung fu style. I’m 61 years old, I’m 6’1”, 220 pounds. A fair fight to me, even at 61 years old, is five guys with knives and me unarmed. That may sound a little weird, but the way I’m trained, I’ve got skills and techniques that completely outclass everybody else. I’ve never fought. I don’t need to fight.
When you have power, you can be even more peaceful. Our powers of peace and persuasion are backed up by the most powerful military in the world. Look at Iran. We’re actually using some pretty good restraint. Ahmadinejad is making some insane statements and we’re saying, “We’re not going to be bullied by you. If you do that there are going to be consequences.” Our government realizes that if Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, it’ll take 10 cruise missiles to take out their whole navy. The whole thing will be over in 15 minutes. That’s a pretty powerful place to come from. I think absolutely we can maintain our strategic interests around the world; I just don’t think we need to exercise power.
Is there such a thing as an absolutely irresolvable conflict? Not irresolvable, it just may not be resolvable at the moment by some sort of peacemaking process. But if you think about it, every single war that we’ve ever had has always ended in peace negotiations. There’s always going to be peace talks; the question is when are you going to have them, before you kill 10 or 15 million people, or after? Why don’t we do it before? It doesn’t mean that we’re always going to succeed, but maybe if we really put technology to use, we will have a much better chance of finding peace.
In the bio on your Web site it says that after 22 years as an attorney, you decided that litigation was a wasteful way to resolve conflicts, and you became a professional mediator. What brought you to this realization? It was really tai chi that led me to it. Tai chi has two paradoxes: The first is that the softer you are, the stronger you are, and the second one is that the more vulnerable you are, the more powerful you are. I was at the peak of my trial career, and these paradoxes started to sink in, and one day I was in the courtroom cross-examining somebody, and the thought struck me — what the hell am I doing here?
So I finished the trial and spent a week up in Idaho on a whitewater trip with friends. I thought about my career, and I made the decision that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t want to be a trial lawyer. As it turned out, when I was coming in to work after my vacation I heard an announcement for the master’s degree in peacemaking and conflict studies offered by a local Mennonite school — the Mennonites are peacemakers in the Christian tradition. Those people completely transformed me. They gave me answers to questions that I had, and it became very clear to me that this is my path, to be a mediator, to be a peacemaker. So I left the practice of law in 2000, and I’ve been a peacemaker ever since.