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Playground diplomacy

November 20, 2005

IF DIPLOMACY IS DEFINED AS the application of manners to international relations, then the state of the world is worse than we thought. Name-calling and personal insults, long a staple of every nation's domestic politics, seem to be on the rise lately in foreign affairs. While such spats are entertaining, they risk placing personal relations above national interests, which is always dangerous.

Last week, for example, President Vicente Fox of Mexico demanded an apology from his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, after Chavez called him Washington's "puppy dog" for supporting the U.S. stance on free trade. Chavez refused to apologize and recalled his ambassador to Mexico.

Chavez deserves special notice because, in his seven years in power, he has become a world-class bully. He has made it a habit to confront those who disagree with him and pick fights not only with Venezuelans but also with the presidents of at least five countries: the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and the United States. He has questioned the literacy of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, offering to send her a grammar book, and has called President Bush a pendejo (you can look it up in your English-Spanish dictionary).

The one man Chavez does not insult is his friend and comrade Fidel Castro, who is no slouch when it comes to invective. Not long ago, Castro called Bush "deranged" and joked that he would lose a debate with a Cuban ninth-grader. In the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping took power in China, Castro called him a "numbskull" and a "caricature of Hitler." For good measure, he called Nikita Khrushchev a bastard.

Bush, of course, has done his part to lower the standards of international discourse by calling North Korean leader Kim Jong II a pygmy. (For his part, Kim calls Bush a philistine.) And personal impressions can be just as harmful when they are sympathetic; Bush famously looked into the "soul" of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 and declared him a democrat, a judgment that has yet to be borne out.

Personal diplomacy has its uses, as Rice showed last week when she stayed up all night in Jerusalem to help forge a border pact between the Israelis and Palestinians. But it only works if leaders remember that their personal relationships should serve their national interests. And that it's always best to be polite.

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