Ever since I first studied the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, my career-long investigation into the best practices of crisis diplomacy has consistently led me to a singular and understated fact -- perception forms reality.
Consider the recent diplomatic flap in which the former American Ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, who was recently on a mission to Cairo on behalf of the Obama Administration, verbalized personal beliefs at the Munich Security conference that were different from the rapidly evolving official Washington policy. Washington was less than pleased and disowned him globally.
To some, an incident like this one may be nothing more than a typical hiccup in American foreign policy formulation -- something that could happen under anyone's leadership. However, this is not the way the world considers it. In fact, it is precisely these kinds of events that serve as the basis for adverse foreign interests to gauge the leadership of the United States. Indeed, the world is watching America's every move, and some want it to fail.
The United States can't afford to blunder its response to Egypt, which has been an important American ally in the Middle East. There is simply too much at stake. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the global economic crisis, rising powers such as China and Brazil have seen their influence rise with little effort on their parts. Although power has its roots in strategic and economic capacities, the projection of power is formed also by perception. If the United States displays an image of incoherence in its response to the crisis in Egypt, the country that rescued Europe from the pangs of authoritarianism not just once, but twice, will unfortunately witness others beginning to flex their muscles in the Middle East and on the world stage at America's expense.
The situation in Egypt requires the best practices of Crisis Diplomacy. 'Crisis' means a palpable challenge, possible deterioration, or threat to a particular matter that is highly valued. Typically, this entails a "crisis mode," in which a sense of urgency and limited time sets in, the stakes grow, and the costs of failure are ominous. Thus, time, costs, and stakes are critical and distinguish crisis -- from other kinds of diplomacy.
Crises have always existed in diplomacy and will always come upon us, and as a result, there are several traditional mechanisms for crisis management and crisis prevention that are more relevant than ever. First, one should distinguish between policies of the long, medium, and short term. Second, it is important to be consistent, unified, and predictable -- ultimately acting with one voice. This doesn't mean one shouldn't listen and respect dissenters in the core team, but there is no room for public showings of disunity -- which is why the Ambassador Wisner event was so disconcerting. Third, crises have a habit of spiraling out of control, facing unintended consequences, engulfing other security dilemmas, and creating more chaos than originally expected. The role of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in amplifying a crisis beyond borders is well known by now. After all, there is little wonder why President Mubarak decided to switch off the internet. Despite this, digital cameras and mobile phones persisted in spreading the word. Nevertheless, lets act both cautiously and forward looking, in order to prevent surprises or the appearance of unpreparedness -- and listen and respect. Crises are usually a matter of high stakes, and thus should be treated with the utmost discretion.
Most ominous is the cross-border implications of crisis. Today, the boundaries between what is local and global are long gone because technology allows instantaneous connection. What happens in Cairo, may be heard in Belgrade, Sana'a, and Tehran. Crisis rarely remains limited to the actors directly involved, their objectives, or their instruments of influence. This causes additional stress for those involved in crisis management, and thus demands the highest order of prudence.
Ironically, however, 'crisis mode' also calls for there to be the appearance of "no crisis," -- an assumption that is superficially contradictory, but nonetheless important. One should act wisely, keep options open, reduce the pressure, and try to implement gradual processes. Too revolutionary a change, while certainly appealing to some, still carries the danger of descending the state, and perhaps even more than one state, into chaos, destruction, and possibly severe bloodshed.
In the end, sustainable and a seriously improved solution that brings freedom, respect for human rights and democracy requires good measure and preparation. Such an approach sends a message that loyalty and friendship with allies are as important as preventing bloodshed and protecting fundamental human rights.
The United States still is the key player and wields decisive influence. But it should be aware of the way it is perceived. It is not what we think we do, but how others perceive us that will determine our success. Weakness, indecisiveness, or ambiguity will only contribute to misinterpretation (and manipulation by our adversaries), and can result in crisis escalation -- in Cairo and elsewhere.