The need…for less speed

A news story that should chill all our spines given the President-Elect’s love of Twitter came along recently: A Pakistani minister was threatening nuclear war…on Twitter…over fake news. This is a reminder that diplomacy often requires time and patience.  An old example is illustrative.

In 1858 a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, and briefly the Old World and the New World could share messages instantly. The cable, though, failed within a couple of months (Wikipedia claims a failure of insulation due to improper voltages; the successor cables were cut in 1929 by turbidity currents triggered by an earthquake). Communications reverted to shipborne papers that took a week or more to cross the pond.

In November of 1861, the USS San Jacinto stopped the British mail vessel RMS Trent outside of Cuba and took into custody two Confederate envoys and their secretaries, claiming them as contraband, while allowing the Trent to continue. In the following days, as news of this reached the U.S., reaction from both the public and those in government was jubilation.  The only problem was that this action was illegal under international law, and Britain’s response was equally strong but of opposite sense. The North was trying to prevent European recognition of the South; Britain’s response indicated that the British might not only recognize the South but enter the war on its behalf. But communications were slow, the American ambassador could offer no insight into what had actually happened when word first reached London, and the American government only learned of the official British protest a month and half after the U.S. became aware of the seizure. In the delays as governments awaited firmer news, cooler heads started to prevail. In the U.S., they pointed out the flawed capture of the envoys as well as the risk of opening a second war, a war with one of the North’s chief suppliers of military arms. Rather than risk such a war and realizing their own culpability in the affair, the U.S. government released the two envoys to the British.

What would have happened had communication been as rapid in 1861 as it was briefly in 1858?  A real risk would have been for each government to have committed itself to its more radical initial instincts; war between the United States and Great Britain could easily have erupted. Having time to reconsider their positions–for the U.S. to recognize they had been in the wrong, and for the British to recognize that the U.S. might not have authorized the illegal seizure–allowed for compromise.

War can be the result of misunderstanding as much as a true conflict over goals or resources. Most diplomats recognize this, having the lessons of the gruesome conflicts of the past century to educate them. But we seem to be losing the ability to wait and think, so it is worth remembering examples like this where some reflection produced a better result than a quick response would have.

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