There was an audible gasp from the audience. The host of a large and very public event referred to the diplomats present as members of the diplomatic corpse. The word is actually pronounced “core,” but spelt “corps” from the Latin meaning body.
He kept going without correcting his mistake. Maybe he was embarrassed, or it is possible that he was not even aware of his faux pas, from the French, literally “false step.” I had forgotten about this unfortunate incident until I watched US President Donald Trump deliver his first speech at the United Nations.
We have come to expect that speeches by world leaders delivered before eminent politicians and diplomats from across the globe, and broadcast to citizens of the world, would be filled with inspiring rhetoric, visionary ideas and memorable turns of phrases. Instead, Mr Trump used this forum to further inflame relations between the United States and North Korea, reversing many hours of careful, behind-the-scenes diplomacy by his predecessor.
These two events, the unfortunate pronunciation and the disastrous speech, caused me to reflect on the relevance of diplomacy and diplomatic language in today’s world. Diplomacy is defined as “the established method of influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.”
The United Nations was formed at the end of the Second World War to create a forum for international discussion on matters that affect everyone on our planet, and ultimately to prevent the circumstances that would lead to another war.
Despite such laudable goals, have changing realities and cultural shifts rendered this age-old means of communication ineffective? Is there a role for the artist in reconfiguring the tone and focus of diplomatic relations?
The BBC reports that “at the height of the Cold War, the US State Department deployed a new weapon in its fight against communism — jazz. Over a period of 20 years, it dispatched some of the greatest musicians — Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington — to play in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and even the Soviet Union… The New York Times of 6 November 1955 reported on its front page: ‘America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key.’”
As artists, we use our craft to explore complex subject matter, challenge opinions and hold conversations about uncomfortable issues.
Humour, hyperbole, tension, satire are all part of our lexicon, our language. Do we make a difference? Yes, by using our art to treat with subjects in ways that are non-threatening, educational and enjoyable, all at the same time. In this way, we allow people freedom of expression, making it easier to communicate and resolve challenges.
But diplomacy is ultimately about influencing others and protecting the interests of the State. The question of TT offering refuge to Dominicans comes to mind. Dominica was almost destroyed by Hurricane Maria, leading to desperate scenes of increased crime, looting and repeated cries for help. Yet, an offer by this Government to help, generated the response of “Close your doors” by one person, later echoed by others who stated that the people of this country should be the priority.
Charitable support for Dominica is happening, but once again we missed an opportunity to engage with our Caribbean neighbour in a diplomatic, dignified manner.
In the end, a presenter’s error is amusing and harmless. Not so funny are the bodies that litter history because badjohnism and not diplomacy was observed. In the current volatile and fragile global environment, it seems that the survival of us all depends increasingly on solutions that are diplomatic at their core.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN