Optimistic Diplomacy - A NSWF Lecture


The following was a lecture I was scheduled to deliver during the final day of the Nation States World Affair last month. To my surprise, I found that the fair closed a day earlier than scheduled and was unable to post it. So here it is, I hope someone finds it valuable or somewhat interesting.

As the relatively unknown newcomer to NationStates world affairs, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I would articulate something like "optimistic diplomacy." But ever since arriving on the big stage and going about the work of managing one of the more complicated democratic GCRs, I have turned over in my head a few thoughts over and over again. This game is about 15 years old, and it obviously looks very different today than it did when it started. Gameplay shifts over time, the major players and methods become something else. Even in the four years I have been in this game I have seen radical shifts in what is possible and what is considered standard. And yet in spite of this, there seem to be expectations and assumptions when it comes to diplomacy that persist and are treated as immovable loadstones. We don't just take them for granted, we set our clocks by them.

I have considered it a responsibility to challenge these expectations, and have made it a goal as delegate of TNP. This seemed like common sense to me. The grudges of older players, the past episodes that defined FA for previous delegates and people who played this game when I started playing it, in many cases people who no longer play this game, do not matter to me. There are ancient, fundamental characteristics that define certain regions and govern how those regions interact with their neighbors, of course, but too often those are used as window dressing while the feuds of actors truly determine the course of our regions' diplomatic path. To be fair, foreign policy cannot be completely divorced from the actors who engage in it. To the extent I have been part of this process, I have tried to keep an optimistic outlook, and strive to do nothing without meaning or purpose that could build up better, different relations with other regions. My time as delegate has seen a handful of potentially paradigm-shifting events and opportunities. Time will tell if they are outliers or the start of something greater, but they are highlights for me and the best things I can point to as examples of the kind of diplomacy I believe in and the kind of outlook that I think would make FA in today's NS world better all around.

When I was fresher in TNP, and had only reputation and basic knowledge of who our friends and rivals were, I was nervous about talking to the NPO's regulars and I refused to go to The Pacific's Discord. There were all these stories about Osiris and the mutual players in TNP and I didn't bother to reach out. I neglected allies who I took for granted would be around and willing to talk if needed, and just believed that they would be around. Becoming delegate forced me to be more mindful and gave me a responsibility to be diplomatic whether I felt it made a difference or not. It always made a difference. Granted, a lot of diplomacy is "just talking." But obviously there's a difference between small talk and serious, engaged conversation. There's the kind of conversation you have when you are going through the motions, and the kind you have when you are genuinely curious and want to exchange ideas. Conversations of this second type allowed TNP to build some fantastic relationships, but are the hardest ones to have consistently. Even when you succeed, it is easy to rest on your laurels. Good diplomacy requires constant effort and a good faith effort. It is not enough for me to send well-wishes when a region has a big moment or event, or for my minister of foreign affairs to send a cop of our publications to other regions and a thread in Gameplay. We need to be friendly faces not only in these times, but in the countess times when nothing of note happens. I believe Discord has improved our ability to do this by leap and bounds, and is a huge part of why foreign relations have been able to shift as much as they have.

Because of Discord, I get to be part of a nearly daily engagement with some of our closest allies in the World Assembly Legislative League, or WALL. Our collaboration makes waves whether votes take place or not, and the players involved in our various world assembly programs can brainstorm and work together in ways that we simply cannot in any other venue or line of work. A lot of people make assumptions about WALL, decry our influence or go in the other extreme, and lay themselves at our feet. But in my view, aside from how inaccurate this concept of colossus voting bloc is (I would say it is far more likely our regions diverge on any given vote, and we have never been forced into a lockstep vote), WALL serves as the finest example of constant diplomatic engagement. Every WA vote is an opportunity to work together, the point where no matter how many ops we run in the R/D sphere, we will never work together as easily, effectively, and consistently as we do when we collaborate on WA votes.

WALL is the kind of big idea that a few motivated people came up with that has grown and changed beyond their wildest dreams. It is not a robotic work of political genius though. It gives structure to our WA programs and is more often than not a means to communicate and mess around with our allies. I like to believe that because of WALL a great deal of our mutual players are closer and more attached to our respective regions than if we didn't have it. More than our ability to see a certain result, or to make a clear argument one way or the other, I believe WALL's true value is as a means to give greater purpose to our alliances and to enhance them. It has its challenges, and as a diplomatic effort it sometimes lends itself to differences of opinion and conflict, but such things are common in the world of foreign affairs. We gain a lot of insight into our signatory regions and practice in navigating a better path forward. Our alliances are strengthened when we are forced to flex our diplomatic muscles. I wish every region could have a project like WALL to provide them a small environment in which to gain this insight and experience.

Opportunities to collaborate with other regions, in my view, are often treated first and foremost as opportunities to advance the agenda of your region or to put a feather in the cap of whoever is spearheading the project or event. This is thinking that was drilled into me as I came up in the NS world observing and learning how the game is played. It's old thinking, but it's true so often because it is common sense, and proven by past events. But it does not just have to be this. I am fond of using the recent N-Day event as an example, because it played out the way I would naturally handle such an event, and really shook up what people expected of TNP and how it played with other regions. For reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played this game long enough and is familiar with the regions in question, The Pacific and The North Pacific are very different places, and have had a contentious relationship at times. As someone who joined TNP last year, I was not around for the diplomatic cold front that came across the two regions, nor did I know people who were from The Pacific. The only judgments I could make were stories and observations made by my fellow TNPers who had lived through those times. Going into the delegacy, I took for granted that no matter how friendly I was, we would just have a frosty relationship with The Pacific, and I should look to our existing allies for the most promising diplomatic outreach. When the second N-Day rolled around, we knew that we wanted to improve on our result from the first event. Collaboration with other regions was a good way to accomplish this, and we happened to have several allies to choose from. The event was still new and the first time around TNP had gone it alone, engaging in a nasty conflict with the NPO. Discussions organically developed between veterans from both sides of that conflict and casual icebreaking that had taken place in Discord gave way to a real plan for TNP and the NPO to join forces for the second N-day event rather than be bitter enemies again. This talk in turn became an effort to unite all the pacifics, though in the end only our ally TSP agreed to join in the effort.

In my view, a new mini-game in NS is a great time to mix things up, and can set the stage for how future participation will work. The safe bet would have been to go for an alliance with TSP or perhaps another ally like TEP or Europeia. But that first N-day event, when no one knew how things would play out or what the bet strategy would be, we were on our own and fell back to old tribal behavior. The second N-Day event was an opportunity to do better than the first one not only in terms of score but in terms of fully utilizing the event. I was quite proud of the Uppercut alliance we were a part of, and our high score at the end of the event speaks for itself. But there were more than a few who felt the endeavor was a risk, if not a huge mistake. Diplomatic efforts with other regions were considered more desirable by some, and were deemed to be sidelined or even threatened by the alliance that we formed in this event. What was beautiful about it, though, was that it was organic. Our players quickly coalesced and the whole endeavor snowballed into something real and coherent, something that took on a life of its own. Everyone involved had a good time, and our collaboration put millions of cracks in the ice that had developed between The Pacific and TNP. Until that moment, I had never imagined or seriously pursued foreign policy with the goal of getting along better with The Pacific specifically. That changed after the second N-Day. I believed anything was possible. I had always believed that diplomatic outreach was always more effective if the people involved genuinely cared about what activities they were doing and had a personal stake or connection to the people and things involved. That was certainly true of Uppercut, and probably why it worked better than a hypothetical alliance of hand-picked neighbors and prospective allies intended to send a message or to add clout to our region.

Allying with people we historically were at odds with, and with whom we had no formal alliance, may seem odd, but it felt natural in this case. And more importantly, it didn't mean that TNP was a different region, or that the NPO would start to see things differently. Our fundamental character remained the same, we had the same values and customs we always had. The difference was, we were talking to each other, our players mingled and we were not governed my instinctive suspicion or stereotypes, because we saw each other and had fought side by side for a day. Personal experience became our guide, rather than the experience of others. In a game like NationStates when things change so much, the way we perceive other regions and their players must change too. History has many important lessons to teach us, of course, and we would do well to always keep its lessons in mind, but we need not be enslaved by it either. If a new mini-game comes up, or players from another region stop by and want to talk, we do not have to look at how people before us handled similar situations. The context of our immediate surroundings can and should take precedence. N-Day allowed us to lean into dialogue and interaction that was becoming possible, but that we had no fresh context in which to engage in it. We could try a new way of dealing with our NPO neighbors because we had shared that experience.

Another recent development in TNP foreign policy allowed us to try a new way of building relations with other regions. As with N-Day, this experience allowed us to experiment with a new approach to treaties, one that players before me had never done but that could ripple into the future if things went well. Many of you may be aware that TNP and Osiris have a non-aggression pact. Changes in Osiris have been taking place over the last year, and during my delegacy a new pharaoh took office in Osiris. Almost immediately there was a shift in relations, and we had a very promising dialogue. Many in TNP were once active members or government officials in Osiris, so historically the two regions are connected in a way that was not obvious to me as an outsider looking in before I arrived in TNP. This is especially true when you consider the fact that formal relations with Osiris have not existed in TNP since the last treaty was repealed. Another lesson imparted to me as a young delegate was Osiris's reputation for instability and the rollercoaster we had been on trying to maintain formal relations with them. Even the prospect of a NAP was unthinkable. Of course, a big reason for this was the fact that in TNP, even a NAP goes though the serious, deliberative treaty approval process and while other regions might clearly distinguish between the two, in the eyes of TNP law, a NAP is just as significant and binding as a fuller, more comprehensive treaty.

We got along with Osiris, and I felt that the situation on the ground this year was quite different from last year. Given everything that's happened in the past, though, even I knew that things could change in an instant. But today, with things going well and new leadership willing to commit the status quo to paper, we had the opportunity to advance our diplomatic relations a little further, while also opening the door to similar advancements with other regions down the road. If TNP could pass a NAP with Osiris, we would set a precedent for other NAPs or similarly limited treaties. Diplomacy could be more nuanced than always aiming for the biggest, most dramatic form of diplomatic commitments. And if another reversal occurred, we could respond to it and set that precedent too. But assuming the worst in Osiris, and assuming the worst would happen, would not improve relations with Osiris and would close the door to more arrows in our diplomatic quiver.

I realize how naive this sounds on its face to many of the more jaded and experienced players. After all, I'm not saying anything you don't already know, I'm offering no fascinating insight or game-changing perspective on foreign policy and diplomacy. Wouldn't it be nice if we all just got along, were on our best behavior, and trusted each other? Sure, of course. Is that going to happen? Probably not. So why do we engage in diplomacy then? If ultimately we will disappoint each other and treaties will be repealed and we may fight and grow distant, why not stay in that mindset and framework and not get hurt or fooled? Obviously we do not resign ourselves to this fate and this reality, and we reach out and negotiate and try to be civil and our best selves. Foreign policy continues, even knowing how quickly and consistently it can change, and how far and frequently the sands shift. It is foolish to believe that we can be friends with everyone, and that everyone will like each other. I happen to believe it is even more foolish to think that nothing can be gained from making the effort. We always strive to make the world around us a better place, not because we think we will succeed in every way, but because we recognize that the progress we do make ensures that life is better than it was yesterday and the work we put in generates a tangible, real benefit.
Ghost has valid views on Diplomacy, and they are much the same as the ones I've held in the past - indeed, for much of the last four years these have been my views.

Alas, I'm jaded and have seen far too often how such idealism doesn't always work out.
A good read.

In my own experience of dealing with both TNP and the Pacific, I have found that the majority of issues stem from people assuming things about the other (on both sides) with limited actual experience.

Oh, and the Delegate here lied to the Delegate there the last time things went sour, so that never helps.
Gracius Maximus:
A good read.

In my own experience of dealing with both TNP and the Pacific, I have found that the majority of issues stem from people assuming things about the other (on both sides) with limited actual experience.

Oh, and the Delegate here lied to the Delegate there the last time things went sour, so that never helps.
Which Delegate was that? Honestly, I don't remember.

Fwiw, I always had a good relationship with the Pacific while Delegate. Perhaps with the exception of Gaspo's time as a Senator more recently, lol.
Likely it's another potshot at me.

Ivan, RL comes first. Your attitude didn't help. You can call me a liar when you admit that you are an ass.
This was a great read and I think that the opportunities to actually work together often lead to this organic coalescing between people. This game is, at it's heart, about people and what makes regions work is people cooperating to some goal and the same goes for alliances.
It is better to be a pessimist than to be an optimist. If you are an optimist, you always expect things to go right, and thus, you are always disappointed when things go wrong.

If you are a pessimist, you expect everything to go wrong and thus you are never disappointed, but you are always pleasantly surprised when things go right.

/sarcasm /irony
I only just got around to reading this, but now that I have I'm very impressed. A good read, if a little too idealistic.