Diplomats, political scientists diverge on value of face-to-face meetings

The College of William and Mary’s Tucker Hall was filled Thursday afternoon by students, faculty and interested local residents.

The reason was Dr. Marcus Holmes, associate professor of government and co-director of Social Science Research Methods Center, which houses the Political Psychology and International Relations lab, was holding a book launch and discussion. He talked about his new book, “Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations.”

“It turns out that while diplomats and leaders think face-to-face diplomacy is very useful, political scientist have been skeptical,” Holmes said. “There are several reasons for this. First, many political scientists think that state interests are determined not by diplomacy, but by power or security concerns. Think about North Korea. Is there anything that Trump could tell Kim in a face-to-face meeting that would convince North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons?”

Holmes continued, “Political scientists would argue, if Kim gives up its weapons it is because he has strategically thought through the cost and benefits of doing so, not because of anything Trump told Kim.”

Political scientists maintain, Holmes pointed out, that face-to-face diplomacy is essentially cheap talk. Leader’s lie, he said, change their minds and so on. Chamberlain, at the infamous Berchtesgaden meeting, looked Hitler in the eye and thought he could be trusted to keep his word. The results were disastrous.

On the other side of the coin, Ronald Reagan, over the course of several summits, cultivated an excellent relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia’s Soviet leader. It resulted in the end of the Cold War.

“This is why it is immediately obvious that face-to-face diplomacy matters,” Holmes said in an interview with the Gazette. “Diplomats and leaders swear by the usefulness of the personal meeting while many scholars of international politics say the activity is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.”

Holmes argues the pessimism of political scientists is rooted in a particular set of assumptions regarding the nature of social interaction.

“The conventional wisdom in political science posits that individuals’ sincere intentions are fundamentally inaccessible and therefore unknowable, because they exist in the minds of others.”

Holmes, in his new book, shows that recent evidence from social neuroscience suggests conventional wisdom underestimates individuals’ innate ability to understand the intentions of others. A growing body of research indicates that we do not need to theorize or infer the intention of others. We simulate them for ourselves as a form of empathy.

“We know the intention of others by automatically simulating what we would be thinking and intending if we were in the position of others,” he said. “This type of understanding is quick, intuitional, and it turns out, supported by discrete architecture and mechanisms in the brain that are devoted to parsing others’ intentions via cues that only exist in face-to-face interaction. This ‘mirroring system’ in the brain enables advanced neural synchronization between individuals, which in turn enables actors to directly access the intentions of others with a higher degree of certainty than previously thought.”

Holmes believes face-to-face diplomacy is really about clarifying intentions. “We’re are better at reading others than we give ourselves credit for,” he said.

He pointed out face-to-face diplomacy has been conducted since the 14th century. Now there is a lot of talk about digital diplomacy; disseminating information to countless people around the world in a matter of seconds. “Some countries, like Sweden, a market leader in digital diplomacy, are good at being able to take the temperature of a foreign public and help us to anticipate problems before they become problems. Traditional face-to-face diplomacy is much better equipped for handling the big structural changes, like the falling of the Berlin Wall.”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Paris Shop and Amazon.com.

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