Two Strikes Against Diplomacy

02/17/2011 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Henry Mintzberg Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies, McGill University

It's been Diplomacy in the batter's box and Community on the pitcher's mound. The count is two strikes against Diplomacy.

First up pitching for Community was WikiLeaks, throwing curve balls. Diplomacy hit them all foul. Then Tahrir Square took to the mound, throwing fast balls, straight over the plate. Diplomacy never even saw them: by the time it realized one had gone by, the next was on its way.

Diplomacy is used to winning, probably because it normally plays against itself, or else with Dictators, to whom it lobs balls that they have been able to hit out of the park, collecting billions each time they passed home plate. Now along comes Community, a real competitor.

Where did Community come from? Out of obscurity, to be sure, but not out of thin air. It came off the ground, the last place Diplomacy would look. Its players got hungry, for food and freedom, and so they challenged Diplomacy.

The Community team has no sponsoring oligarchs, hardly even any leaders, at least in the conventional sense (look at WikiLeaks), or else all kinds of leaders (look in Tahrir Square). And it plays by a different set of rules. It is spontaneous and adaptable, which to Diplomacy looks unpredictable. Is that fair?

Worse still, Community is honest and transparent. That's certainly unfair: Diplomacy never saw anything like that before. For example, it expected the batter's box to be closed and wooden, not just a few lines on the ground that exposed its nudity for all to see. And boy, did a lot of fans come to see this.

To Diplomacy, this must have felt like a standing army having to face guerilla fighters (or the New York Times up against the Huffington Post?). Clearly this did not seem fair, at least compared with decades of gentlemanly Diplomacy, cheered on by Dictators. Of course fairness depends on where you sit in the stands.

Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between Diplomacy and Community is to revisit what happened after that game In Cairo ended. While Diplomacy whizzed off in its limousines, breathing great sighs of relief, Community remained to clean up the mess left on the playing field. Diplomacy has tended to leave its messes for everyone else.

We have always been led to believe that games are won by the power at the plate, not to mention the authority to name the umpires. Community is now proving, as if we needed this lesson again, that the really great teams are built on pride, spontaneous energy, personal engagement. What that team in Tahrir Square exhibited was the audacity of hope, while back in Washington, looking on in disbelief, we saw the audacity of Diplomacy.

So where to from here? If you are a fan of Diplomacy, two strikes does not look good. If you root for Community, then things are looking up: the Dictators are hightailing it out of the ball park, no longer sustained by Diplomacy that is naked in the batter's box and unable see the ball.

Will Diplomacy adapt? Rumor has it that Henry Kissinger left the game early, although it was not clear whether out of dispair or to go home and change his rule book on Diplomacy. Don't count on the latter, but in any event, it's too late. Community is already rewriting the book on Diplomacy. First up is the playing field: now it will have to be level.