Cultivating the garden of diplomacy



George Shultz once asked, “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back?”

The former Secretary of State answered, “Weeds.”

Shultz went on to explain “diplomacy is kind of like that: You go around and talk to people, you develop a relationship of trust and confidence, and then if something comes up, you have that base to work from.”

Meridian International Center has been cultivating the diplomatic garden since its founding in 1960. While we never envisioned that in our 60th year the world would confront a faceless, stateless enemy like the coronavirus, our government-to-government work has helped build relationships and generate insights better preparing our members to cope with it.

Governments, regardless of form, must both work together and understand one another’s perspectives and approaches to effectively solve global challenges such as COVID-19.

“We cannot have the virus being contained by borders and by barriers,” Armando Varricchio, Italy’s ambassador to the United States, said during a Meridian virtual convening last week. “The virus can only be contained by coordinated measures and coordinated activities.”

Santiago Cabanas, Spain’s ambassador to the U.S., said during the same session that one recent message from an American resonated with his embassy staff.

“‘Think that all these terrible things you’re going through in Spain have a good thing: they’re being useful to us, we’re learning from them,’” Cabanas recalled the person saying. “It really gave us a little bit of comfort.”

Western democracies like Italy, Spain and the United States have similar kinds of governments and can more easily transfer lessons learned and best practices, but Meridian’s government programs are designed to bring together leaders from all types of sovereign states to connect around shared values.

Each year, we run flagship leadership exchanges including the British American Parliamentary Group project. It brings Conservative party, Labor party and Green party leaders in British Parliament to the U.S. for a week of public- and private-sector meetings and to shadow a bipartisan group from Congress in their home districts. The goal is to increase mutual understanding of the U.K. and U.S. systems of governance.

Similarly, the U.S. Congress-Republic of Korea National Assembly Exchange Program brings together young political leaders in the U.S. and South Korea. The goal here is to build cross-border relationships and a better understanding of U.S.-Korean relations and the two nations’ legislative processes.

For years, we have organized diplomatic training programs for Afghan government leaders to learn about protocol, how to effectively negotiate and how to effectively work with media. We also coordinate a trilateral U.S.-China-Afghan program to bolster U.S.-China cooperation in helping Afghanistan become a secure, stable and prosperous country.

While unlikely partners, the U.S. and China have had strong diplomatic ties for over 40 years. Meridian celebrated this relationship by curating a cultural exhibition using photography and an interactive mobile app to highlight U.S.–Chinese shared values of sport, cuisine and cultural appreciation, as well as the two countries’ collaboration across four decades.

When hard times hit, leaders around the world can draw on what they have learned through these programs to collaborate and respond to crises, with as little political posturing as possible.

All of Meridian’s government-to-government programs offer diplomats and policy leaders opportunities to talk in person about their shared challenges and opportunities. The Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement connects diplomats as a means to strengthen relations among embassy peers based in Washington, D.C. It also connects them with U.S. Government officials who brief the diplomats on critical foreign policy, security and trade issues of the day.

As the coronavirus has dictated social-distancing measures around the world, technology and digital connectivity have augmented leadership convening platforms like the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement.

During last week’s virtual convening program with Ambassadors Varricchio and Cabanas, the chiefs of mission appreciated how digital diplomacy has been essential in the timely response to COVID-19 but said they look forward to a return to the sort of face-to-face engagement that has been Meridian’s hallmark.

“As a citizen-diplomat, nothing substitutes for the personal relationship, the personal contact. This is the salt of diplomacy, being able to look your colleague, your counterpart in the eyes and try to build a relationship. This is always something that’s been true, was true thousands of years ago when Kings used to exchange ambassadors,” said Varricchio.

Whether our leadership program participants are from an authoritarian country like China, democracies like South Korea, Japan or the United States, or even more closed societies such as Afghanistan or Iran, they often face a common set of issues transcending the different forms of government.

COVID-19 is one example but the most impactful in modern history.

Scientists believe it started in Wuhan, China, before quickly spreading to South Korea and Japan. In short order, this mystery virus began killing people in Iran and Italy while taking root in the United States.

It then spread from Washington state to New York City without regard for lines drawn on a map. The leader of Israel required every single person coming into his country to quarantine for two weeks, in an attempt to protect the population already living there.

Still, it spread.

The wide variance in COVID-19 infection and death rates shows the importance of effective governmental leadership, whether it’s communist, democratic or religious in nature.

Meridian remains dedicated to overcoming these governmental barriers, building diplomatic relationships and providing a venue for sharing best practices for solving problems like the coronavirus – and the next global challenge to come.


Ambassador Stuart Holliday is President and CEO of Meridian International Center, a leading non-partisan institution seeking to advance global security and prosperity through effective leadership and diplomacy.