Posted by: mensab | December 12, 2007

Reflection on Idealism and Realism in Diplomacy

Reflection on Idealism and Realism in Diplomacy 

When I was in fourth year high school, I decided to skip my Filipino subject for the first quarter of the school year.  The reason why I did that was that I believed I did not need another Filipino subject to learn the Filipino language. So during the first quarter exam, I just wrote my name and passed the test paper. When my first quarter grade came, I got my first 75 or barely a passing grade in my academic life. At the end of that school year, I was able to land on the honor list by confronting and dealing with the standard curriculum that was far from ideal for me.

            The struggle between idealism and realism is highlighted in decision-making. Decision-makers are often entangled in the clash between the two schools of thought and approaches. When I decided to skip my Filipino subject, I wanted to take other courses that were worthwhile, in my mind, than Filipino subject. At that time, I saw no point in studying a language I had already learned. My ideal of studies then was to continue discovering, learning and enriching one’s knowledge and not restudying and relearning what one had already learned and known. I was idealistic about the direction and goals of my academic life. However, the reality of having structures and procedures made me grounded on the rigors and practices of formal and standardized education I was taking at that time.

           Like me, diplomats are no exception to experience this struggle. It is even much more difficult, I suppose, when important decisions and complex situations in international relations and foreign policies are at hand.

           Poland’s Ambassador to Costa Rica, Andrzej Braiter, mentioned about being once an idealist when he was still young. In his experience as a diplomat, he honestly told us that he learned the tricks, good and bad (dirty), of diplomacy. Unassuming, he metaphorically narrated how he banged his head during the exercise of his duty. For me, the banging of head manifests a clash or tension of the two approaches – realism and idealism.

             In this short paper, I will attempt to explore the configuration of idealism and realism in the two small case studies cited here. One is about the resignation of a US Foreign Service officer in protest of the war in Iraq. The other one is about the long and unending peace negotiation between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and National Democratic Front (NDF) – Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). I will argue that diplomacy is not a prescriptive guideline or straight jacket on negotiation or decision-making in pursuit of peace or conflict resolution, rather it is a pursuit of self-interest of one party or side depending on whose side one wants to look at. Regardless of the outcome of negotiation or decision, the self-interests of negotiating parties blur the distinction between realism and idealism as both are operative. Nonetheless, both parties claim to be grounded on either of the two.

             Diplomacy is “a tool of foreign policy that involves representation, bargaining, negotiation, and other peaceful means” (Miller, 2005, p. 32). I will underscore the negotiation aspect since both case studies involve negotiation in one way or another. The first case is a negotiation with oneself while the second case involves negotiation between two parties. The assumption is that negotiation is informed by the two schools of thought, realism and idealism. The underlying structural core of the negotiation is the self-interest driving itself to the fore. I will show how this self-interest is manifested in the outcome of the negotiations.

           Fisher and Ury (cited in Barash 2000, p. 71), in their popular book Getting to YES, defines negotiation as “basic means of getting what you want from others. It is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.” What if a negotiator is not getting what s/he really wants? I could think of two scenarios; first, one could back out and resign, and second, one could delay the negotiation while maintaining its original position. The two scenarios are my examples here.

  Irreconcilable ideals and work requirements  

In his book released in 2006, Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower, John Brady Kiesling presented his ideas, thoughts and experiences on diplomacy based on his 20 years in the foreign service which is, for him, an “honorable career and a subtle and difficult art.”[1] His resignation from the lucrative service and career in 2003 showed his resolve of practicing idealism in foreign service. After the 9/11 terror attack in 2001, he became disenchanted with the realist foreign policies by his government. Until the war in Iraq pushed him to resign in 2003 for irreconcilable ideals and demands for work as part of diplomatic service.

          Some viewed his resignation as an act of patriotism for standing up on his principle. He is an idealist in many respect. According to him, “realism has been turned into an ugly word in foreign affairs, a synonym for selfishness and indifference to human suffering.”[2] For him, realism which is seen as pessimistic and amoral does not go along with idealism which exudes optimism and morality.

           I agree with him that the war in Iraq has a moral dimension. It is extremely difficult for an idealist like Kiesling to see the war amorally. He chose to end the struggle between keeping an honorable career and keeping an honor for him by liberating himself in the “difficult art” of diplomacy. He could not work on it anymore. He lost his faith in the foreign policies by his government. Deceptively cloaked in a moral and idealist standpoint, his decision to resign is a self-interested move to advocate peace and challenge and salvage the image of the US as warmongering country from the eyes of the local and global public. It is still his self-interest that prevails in his decision to resign. He may be out from the foreign service, he is never out of the loop of negotiation for the peace or anti-war movement and advocacy for changes in US diplomacy.

 Negotiating with Rebels 

            The peace negotiation between CPP-NPA and the GRP began informally in 1986 during the time of President Cory Aquino (1986-1992).[3] It had expectedly more than its share of ups and downs. Ceasefires were often called to give way to formal peace talks and failed. However, the significant steps towards attaining peace were taken during President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) when he decriminalized the CPP-NPA through the Anti-Subversion Law in his first year in office.

            Several significant agreements were signed between the two parties. These were the 1992 Hague Joint Declaration which opened the formal peace talks, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) in 1995 which gave safety passes for those people involved in the formal peace talks, and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) in 1998.

           The CPP-NPA owns the record of being the longest running insurgency in Asia which started in 1969. Learning from the previous failed peace talks, the CPP-NPA asked for a third-party facilitator in which the Dutch government took the role as facilitator from 1992 to 2001. The Royal Norwegian government also stepped and helped in the peace talks as third-party facilitator.[4] In 2003, the CPP-NPA demanded to be delisted from the US and European Union (EU) list of terrorist organizations before formal peace talks could commence again.[5] The GRP did not act on the demand of the CPP-NPA.

          The peace talks remain suspended as of this writing. Both parties have refused to buck down on its original position, that is to defend their interests driven by the two differing approaches – realism and idealism. The GRP seems to be the realist here with its self-interested decision to initiate peace talks to look good to the public and international community while the CPP-NPA is motivated by the idealism of Marxist-Maoist thought. Either self-interest of both parties helps in the emerging of long lasting peace which still remains as elusive as an Olympic gold for the Philippines.


            The two small case studies have presented the possible tactical stages of the diplomacy with a view on the realism and idealism that engage the mind and heart of a negotiator or diplomat. The differing approaches to diplomacy and negotiation do not necessarily dichotomize between realism and idealism. They are associated with self-interests that any parties are espousing and pushing to get from the negotiation or decision. However noble and best-intentioned the self-interest is, the realist and idealist in every one of us are both operative in the pursuit of self-interest.

            Although I would like to believe that I am an idealist in negotiation and decision-making, I would remain grounded on the reality where I am. From there, I will work on my self-interest.




Fisher, R & Ury, W. (2000). Getting to YES. In D. Barash (Ed.), Approaches to Peace.

(pp. 70-76). New York: Oxford University Press.

 Miller, Christopher. (2005). A Glossary of Terms and Concepts in Peace and Conflict Studies. Mary King (Ed.). Costa Rica: University for Peace. 

[1] See for the review, excerpts and summary of the book by John Brady Kiesling (2006).

[2] Ibid

[3] Visit for an insider’s story of negotiation from the point of view of Rene Sarmiento, a member government panel in the peace talks.

[4] Ibid

[5] See for the news on the suspension of peace talks from the GRP perspective.


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