Dao Du Jour II, Day 49: Dao of Diplomacy

Chapter 48: Unlearning

“To run things,

don’t fuss with them.

Nobody who fusses 

is fit to run things.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Who most fusses? Babies.

LeGuin points out that the word she glosses as “fuss” has been translated as “diplomacy,” “meddling,” “interference.” In this context, the counsel of the text is to be undiplomatic.

As Russia and the West stand on the brink of something like war over Ukrainian sovereignty, they are of course tied up in something called diplomacy. The text suggests that diplomacy involves some kind of dissembling; indeed, part of the word’s root means to “double” or “fold over,” as official communiques from leaders would have been in the early years of modern statecraft. 

I take the text to be saying not that diplomacy is bad, but that sometimes it means an attempt to deny reality—to defy the gravity of history, to smooth over the rough edges of nature, to pretend that all conflicts can be peacefully resolved. 

Dictators who meddle and interfere and act to gain are the fussiest of all. They do not trust things—and people—to run themselves. They make a fuss and force us to fuss over them. At its worst, diplomacy coddles them and encourages them to persist in their folly. The dictator is playing a different game than the diplomat. The diplomat pretends that we live in a world of grownups. The dictator understands that we never grow completely beyond middle school politics, and exploits that fact in his subjects and enemies. The democrat has to dance in the middle, knowing when to hold them and when to fold them.

The conflict of the day is not about Ukrainian sovereignty. It is about the capacity of the West to defend liberal democracy and democratic capitalism, and hold the line against the rising tide of autocracy. It is about the ability of petrostates to weaponize fossil fuel reserves in an age of climate change. It is about remembering the point of the post World-War II international order, and refusing to let the passage of time dull our collective wits and lull us into complacency.

As on the school yard, there is only one way to stop a bully, and diplomacy is not it.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?