THE BLOG
07/30/2007 05:31 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hooray For Old People?

What would diplomats do without old people? In Afghanistan, tribal elders and clerics are working behind-the-scenes to negotiate the release of a bunch of South Korean Christian missionaries taken hostage by the Taliban. In Iraq's Anbar province, tribal elders recently made a pact with each other to turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq and restored some semblance of stability to previous insurgent strongholds like Ramadi. And in the latest sign of the influence of the elderly on international relations, a few weeks ago a collection of senior statesmen, appropriately called "The Elders," was hatched by Sir Richard Branson. Its mission: to resolve the world's most intractable conflicts.

So is this old folks' finest hour? Not quite. First, there is scant proof that a roomful of retirees can make a shred of difference in world affairs. Nor is there evidence that years of collective wisdom and experience will translate into smart and effective diplomacy. Plus, isn't resolving the world's conflicts what, you know, diplomats are for?

Of course, the recommendations of elder statesmen like Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, given their moral authority, carry a certain amount of currency in international affairs. But what's needed in the world today is not more freelance diplomacy but more frequent diplomacy. As Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute notes in a recent interview, laying the foundation for the Middle East peace conference in the early 1990s required eight separate trips by U.S. diplomats. The Elders is no substitute for shuttle diplomacy.

Moreover, this group may only complicate foreign affairs. What happens if its findings on, say, Darfur are directly opposed to other international bodies like the United Nations? Or what if nations just ignore its advice, as is likely to happen? After all, despite all the hoopla surrounding the Iraq Study Group, whose membership consisted of a number of prominent graybeards like Lee Hamilton and James Baker, the Bush administration just tossed aside most of the group's 79 recommendations.

Yet perhaps the biggest problem with the concept of a collection of twelve senior statesmen ready to parachute in and resolve the world's myriad conflicts is this: many of these men and women are sorely lacking in new ideas (Muhammad Yunus being the exception). "This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken," says Mandela. I doubt that. Rarely do elder statesmen "speak freely and boldly." Most are repositories of moldy ideas from bygone eras. For instance, comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam by fossilized officials have done little to bring about an end to the current conflict.

Foreign policy requires new voices and innovative solutions, not vague recommendations from yesterday's headline-makers looking to cement their legacies. That is, out with the old-timers and in with the newcomers. For example, the efforts by the young wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the release of six medics accused of infecting a hospital full of Libyan children with HIV achieved what eight years of diplomacy could not. The ranks of foreign policy think-tanks, thankfully, are increasingly being stuffed with younger thinkers, not aging dinosaurs whose views on world affairs were shaped by the Cold War era.

Even stateside, older voices are being drowned out in politics. As Fareed Zakaria writes in The Future of Freedom, quoting George Stephanopoulos about the decline of political parties in his book, "Those who style themselves as 'elders' are just old pols looking for something to do." The same could be said for elderly statesmen on the international stage.