How Beer Created, and Destroyed, Diplomacy

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Well, maybe it’s not as drastic as all that, but I’d like to explore a couple of recent headlines about another aspect of culinary diplomacy. One article published by Hayden, Canuel, and Shanse in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory and analyzed by Jeffrey Kahn in the New York Times last month argues that “beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic,” that is, more than 10,000 years ago. Just as I suspected, beer built civilization. This is a dramatic realization. Back before beer (*gasp*), society was rigidly structured for survival — stratified to ensure that all members were contributing to the continuation of civilization. There wasn’t much room for creativity or thinking outside the box. According to Kahn, “We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative.”

That trigger was beer. And the rest is history.

From creative thinking to building new social structures based not only on survival but on feasting and fraternity we can see the eventual rise of diplomacy (yes, yes, I breezed right through that but read Ragnar Numelin’s The Beginnings of Diplomacy and Costas Constantinou’s On the Way to Diplomacy if you want to fill in the gaps). And it is well-known that alcohol is a vital tool not only for the creation of civilization, but to the practice of diplomacy. Former Canadian diplomat Kenneth Kirkwood, in his magnificent volume The Diplomat at Table (a must-have for the culinary diplomacy enthusiast), put it beautifully.

The fact cannot be gainsaid that from most ancient history the horn of mead, the tankard of ale, the stein of beer, the flask of spirits, the flagon of wine and “beaker of the warm south” have been a social appurtenance, an easer of tensions, a broacher of confidences, a token of amity, and thus, in all diplomatic connections, have been a part of hospitality and friendly relations (Kirkwood, 127.)

From the very beginning, relations among the corps diplomatique have been eased significantly by alcohol. François de Callières, the 17th-18th century French superstar diplomat, had the following to say.

The natural effect of good eating and drinking is the inauguration of friendships and the creation of familiarity, and when people are a trifle warmed by wine they often disclose secrets of importance (From De la manière de negocier avec les souverains).

But now let me bring us to the modern day, where a recent incident may indicate that if beer was humankind’s (and diplomacy’s) great creator, it has also become our downfall. In early March 2013, American diplomat Joseph M. Torsella faced a United Nations committee and made the “modest proposal” that “negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone” (quote from Foreign Policy). In an oft-cited anecdote, one negotiator working on behalf of the G77 fell too ill to continue working. Drinking is often the only way diplomats can survive the drawn-out deal-making that surrounds budget decisions and other marathon negotiations. One veteran diplomat was quoted as saying “After three weeks together and 20 hours a day, people start to get really comfortable enough. But if you are dumb enough to get so drunk you can’t negotiate, then you deserve [to get out-played]” (from FP).

Which will bring us back to Kirkwood, the Canadian diplomat who on page one of his preface admits to a preprandial glass of sherry on his first day on the job (Kirkwood, 1). He points out the parallel linguistic relation between the words diplomacy and dipsomania, the latter referring to the uncontrollable urge for alcohol. Certainly, diplo- and dipso- are different Latin roots (the former meaning twice-folded, as in a letter, and the latter meaning thirst), but Kirkwood has a point. So I hereby propose a new word to be added to the language of diplomacy: Dipsomat, one who either succeeds (by way of convincing an argumentative interlocutor to concede) or fails (by reaching the point of no return and mumbling through a negotiation) through the consumption (or over-consumption) of alcohol.

We’ve come a long way since our late epipaleolithic forebears first introduced beer as the spark of civilization. From that moment on, alcohol has been a social lubricant, and one that has contributed vastly to the practice of diplomacy. We’ve reached a moment, though, when maybe we’ve gone too far — do we really want our negotiators under the negotiating table? Our diplomats — oops, our dipsomats — should be careful, lest they bring us back to a pre-enlightened time, when we didn’t even have beer to get us through the all-night campfire discussions.

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