My latest DIPLOMAT piece looks at the similarities (or not) between chess and diplomacy:

One cliché of diplomacy is that it is like chess. It combines patient strategic manoeuvring with sudden flashes of sharp decisive action. In chess, as in diplomacy, there is ‘objective’ strength: political and economic assets and their mobility. But what (perhaps) really counts are ‘subjective’ factors: skill, calculation, determination, boldness and bluff, and how far other players muster their own talents to achieve their goals.

There’s also the important idea of scale. Countries and governments vary vastly in size and ‘weight.’ That does not mean that the biggest, meanest countries always get their way: their huge resources may not be easy to apply on the scale that counts. A hammer works well if you have a nail. It’s a bad tool for dealing with ants. Washington, Moscow and the European Union all wanted tiny Montenegro to stay with Serbia. Montenegro voted itself its independence.

What might we learn from grandmasters of chess about diplomacy?

  • Here’s the great early twentieth century chess theorist, Russian/Danish Aron Nimzowitsch: The threat is stronger than the execution.
  • Former Soviet world champion Mikhail Tal: You must lead your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.
  • Former American world champion Bobby Fischer: I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.

Let’s look at them in turn…

It concludes with Bobby Fischer’s belief in good moves:

How far is strength and weakness in diplomacy about ‘good moves’? This takes us deep into diplomatic technique. Why exactly is a ‘good move’ good?

In classic diplomacy, good moves help develop situations to improve relationships between countries and peoples. All sorts of subtle technique factors come into play at the highest level, right down to the way meetings between leaders are organised and who is (or is not) in the room. Sometimes a national leader calls another leader privately to warn that an unwelcome decision is about to be taken that might cause that other leader some new problems. Sometimes such a friendly personal telephone call is deliberately not made, signalling that, for a while, private and international relationships alike are moving into a gritty, disagreeable business phase.

Timing is all-important: choosing just the right moment to make a proposal while being alert to where others, for their own reasons, may be flexible. Often it takes gruesome failure to help all concerned be realistic about what can be achieved now, and what needs to be left for later. The Copenhagen Climate Summit debacle in 2009 led to the Paris climate accords six years later: the Paris deal could happen only when it was obvious that strict, legally binding obligations would not be agreed.

That sprawling example shows that in diplomacy, a good move can be to Just Say No. You make progress by being cooperative. But that comes at the cost of being cooperative. Maybe success as the rest of the world defines it could be politically risky for you? Perhaps for now it’s better to be uncooperative and see what might be offered? What’s the rush anyway? See successive doomed attempts to resolve the Cyprus or Nagorno-Karabakh questions. And how Syria’s President Assad assesses the fate of the erstwhile Colonel Gaddafi.

And ends neatly:

Let’s leave the last word to Germany’s world chess champion from a century ago, Emanuel Lasker: On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not last long.

Hmm. Maybe chess is not like diplomacy at all.

Read the whole thing.

Then check out this marvellous game from 1961: Fischer v Tal. Americans v Commies!