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October 18, 2017

The dance of diplomacy


by Anita Mendiratta

September. A month in which the world shifts its focus onto the United Nations.

The 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly has commenced in New York. The period of the 12th through to the 25th September brings together literally thousands of diplomats, direct reports, decision makers, donors, delegates and media determined to stay ahead of the issues that form the agenda around which 193 member states unite.

Across the city national flags from across the world splash out their colors, while sirens and blue lights signal VIPs in transit. Mobility is challenged both on the main roads and in the meeting rooms. Getting from A to B whether a place, a policy or a principle, can and does demand careful maneuvering.

It’s all about diplomacy.

To see diplomacy in action is to watch a slow, subtle dance unfold. The steps are ever so carefully choreographed – the movement of a hand, blink of an eye, shift of a shoulder…each a form of communication. Together, apart, together, together, together, apart. Nothing ever stays the same. The tempo of the music, the style of the steps – each and every motion becomes an expression of interests, intentions, intrigue.

For many in the audience, the dance can become frustrating to watch.

Who is leading? Is the follower happy to do so, or actually wanting to be change the song, seeking to lead? Why such hesitation?

Being ever so careful not to step on toes, the dance works its way through. Externally, it appears a graceful management of energy and emotion. Below the surface, however, diplomacy can in fact be an invisible, full body sport.

Such was the case recently when another UN General Assembly took place, this time in the global Travel & Tourism space. The stage: Chengdu, China. The occasion: the 22nd General Assembly of the UNWTO – the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Over 1300 global tourism leaders came together to shape a shared future of one of the world’s most important sectors – a sector that is today responsible for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, 10.2% GDP, 30% Services Exports. The stats are one side of the powerful story. The other: the ability of Travel & Tourism to act as a priceless vehicle for preserving cultures and identities of peoples across the globe, protecting natural environments and communities, and promoting peace through the alchemy of understanding and respect that travelling unlocks.

Over the course of the UNWTO GA week, statutory meetings put the plan of work of the organization front and center. Initially meeting by region, the global collective then came together to tackle critical issues of the day. Of highest priority: confirmation of the Secretary General-elect, the individual who would define the course and culture of the organization for at least the next four years, commencing January 1, 2018. But this was no usual nominee confirmation process. These were no simple, easily resized shoes to fill.

Who would, who could, possibly succeed one of the finest, wisest and sharpest Secretary Generals that the organization, perhaps even the UN system, has ever had at the helm? Organizational meaning, momentum and unity were all on the line. Who would be able to smoothly, confidently cut in on, and take over, this critical dance with the same style and substance?

When the time came to confirm the leader charged with the responsibility of leading the organization, the diplomatic dance took a dramatic twist. The music could not have been more deafening, more penetrating. Intense debate, with unprecedented moves, at times left the dance floor boards close to cracking. The floor that connected one and all started to splinter away. Fatigue, frustration and fury – powerful, deep bass notes muting any trebles trying desperately to break through.

And yet somehow, somehow, a collective rhythm was found. The mental gymnastics spontaneously, diplomatically performed by the outgoing Secretary General to shift individual styles into a line dance of 1300 were exhausting to even watch. With fierce strength of spirit determined not to let the floor fall through, finally, masterfully, a piece of music, a proposed way to move forward, was found. Its chords penetrated people’s hearts, shifting their steps from ‘I’ to ‘we’. It was a United Nations show of truly united nations.

So rightly, so deservedly, as the music stopped, a wave of standing ovation began. Instantly, the thick, heavy heat that had built up in the room was pushed out as fresh, pure air washed through. The music hushed…the tears fell.

Crossing the globe, the steps that will carefully, cautiously, thoughtfully unfold in New York this week will, no doubt, prove to be history-making. Thankfully we have within the global community a few, just a few, masterful dancers of diplomacy who not only understand the steps that need to be choreographed to reach a truly inspired, uniting outcome, they seek to teach them.

Dr. Rifai, please take a bow.

© Anita Mendiratta

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