The Diplomatique Internationale of Seinfeld

T
he American situational comedy, Seinfeld, which basically dominated television in the 1990s and still enjoys a healthy residual life in reruns all around the world, remains an emotional and philosophical touchstone for just about anyone in the United States over the age of 40.

Its ability to find the hilarious in the everyday mundane, to point out ridiculous aspects of life that we have all experienced but never bothered to truly examine the real impact on our lives, is perhaps still unchallenged to this day vis-à-vis other comedies. This is why its place in the pantheon of humor will be eternal. But some of that comedic wisdom can actually be downright profound and practical for diplomacy and global affairs. In a world that becomes increasingly interdependent and hyper-connected, with the commensurate effect of not only limiting our ability to create private space but possibly questioning whether the concept of privacy will even exist in large degree in the future, some of the axioms used throughout Seinfeld’s run for comic relief might matter in gravity for the 2020s even more than they did in laughter for the 1990s. To wit:

  1. It’s worth having an alias

Just as with the show, this is not so much about having an alias in order to commit some heinous crime against humanity or engineer a massively corrupt embezzlement initiative. Rather, it’s more about having an alias in order to gerrymander an element of anonymity behind some of the more creative ideas we have and might be afraid to risk if we had to do them completely in the open with explicit attribution. People would likely be surprised just how little is negotiated and accomplished in diplomatic global affairs up on the dais with a microphone in front of your face. In fact, there is probably a direct inverse ratio between the level of publicity and the subsequent depth of success: the strategic utilization of aliases might allow sides to engage more substantively in secret, outside of the glaring spotlight of media scrutiny and public criticism. This creation of operational space often proves critical and positive for negotiation.

  1. Privacy and home security are of the utmost importance

This axiom feeds rather naturally from the point above. If it can be valuable having an alias for purposes of keeping the external world from interfering and hindering true diplomatic progress, it is equally valuable being ‘master of your domain’ internally, as it were. Today’s world is not just epitomized by the ubiquity of technology in our everyday lives. More intriguingly (or disturbingly as the case may be), technology has made the ability to keep secrets and control your own narrative almost impossible to the point that many people now openly scoff at the idea as pure fantasy. But this ability, to keep secrets in-house and control your own strategic narrative, is an incredibly important aspect to successful negotiations in global diplomacy. The world of American politics shows how devastating ‘leaks’ are to agendas and strategies. It renders what could have been an effective initiative to something more chaotic and inconsistent. In the world of diplomacy, chaos and inconsistency are the enemies of success.

  1. It’s possible for your standards to be too high

One of the most common plot-enablers of Seinfeld was when a good idea was allowed to run free and ended up mutating into a truly ridiculous plan of outrageously grandiose ambition, with absolutely no chance of success and total guarantee of hilarity to ensue. It is impossible to underestimate the value of this lesson for almost every state in the international community that aspires to elevating its position and prestige on the global stage. Perhaps it is ironic, but the common individualist axiom of aiming too high so that when you fall a little short you will still be high up regardless doesn’t actually work in global diplomacy. Rather, this world works best when governed by actors striving to keep rationality, realism, and pragmatism in the forefront of their strategic minds. Overreach and image inflation are easily two of the most common flaws to derail what once could have been successful diplomatic overtures. So, please, let this axiom encourage states to be a bit more self-aware and humble in what they seek to accomplish.

  1. You’ll avoid a lot of headaches if you just let people have their quirks

The discovery and attempt to manage or change those ‘quirks’ became the source for some of the most insanely funny moments in the entire series of Seinfeld. However, in global affairs and diplomacy, while it is crucial to learn as many of the quirks as possible, it is even more important to not attempt to ‘remake’ those quirks into something more palatable to or pliable by you. Any such attempts are usually met with resentment and indignation and instantly sour the negotiation atmosphere between parties. And anyone who has been involved even remotely in the field of diplomacy, conflict resolution, and negotiation will tell you that the maintenance of a positive atmosphere of communication and trust is the most important, and precarious, initial element. In this beginning stage, it is often the small style details that can throw a meeting off-center, rather than any deep and important substance point. So, breathe deep, breathe easy, let the quirks run free. It’s not personal. It’s strategic.

  1. Do the opposite to broaden your horizons

In Seinfeld, more often than not, an attempt to ‘think outside the box’ for any of the main characters usually resulted in them getting into hot water and awkward situations resulting in embarrassment and/or hilarity. Quite the opposite would likely happen were diplomats more successful in moving more easily off of their talking points and buzzwords. The ability to think beyond your own comfort zone, to truly be able to ascertain and consider the perspective of the ‘other’, is in fact the unique skill innate to all of the greatest statesmen in the history of the world. ‘Doing the opposite’ in the world of international diplomacy is not just effective for being able to properly perceive the priorities of your counterpart, it also has an added benefit of tilting the negotiation field to your favor, as you have likely surprised the other side and left them scrambling to consider new tactics themselves. So, do the opposite to not just broaden your horizons but to strategically position your side for greater negotiating dominance.

And there you have it. Five simple but oh-so-profound axioms from Seinfeld that were effective in making the whole world laugh in the 1990s but might be able to make the whole world get along better heading to the 2020s. If we can have a Tao of Poo and a Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance (not that there’s anything wrong with that), then perhaps it is time to recognize the value and advancement that can be achieved with the Diplomatique Internationale of Seinfeld. After all, this world needs all the help it can get.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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