Lessons from History: John Adams
While watching the HBO series, John Adams, I was struck by the commonalities that still continue to exist, even though more than 200 years have passed between the Revolution and now.
When John Adams arrived in France to assist Dr. Franklin in negotiating France’s help in defeating the English, he knew neither the language nor the culture. He pushed ahead in his New England frankness, without tact, and in his rugged, immediate desire to accomplish the ends for which he’d been sent. Little did he care for French niceties or the art of diplomacy.
As a result, Adams nearly destroyed the hard won efforts of Dr. Franklin. Franklin and Adams were two very different people.
Adams was a straightforward, plain-speaking New Englander with a volatile temperament. What he wanted, he wanted now. He didn’t want to spend what he thought of as precious time in diplomatic or polite conversation. He wasn’t interested in the French, or their viewpoint, or what they wanted. He only wanted what he wanted for the sake of his new, emerging country…and he wanted it immediately.
Franklin, however, was more congenial, taking his cue from the Quakers that dominated Pennsylvania. He quickly learned the French language and French customs, which he much used to his advantage in his negotiations. Franklin soon discovered that to achieve his desired goals, he needed to acculturate himself to the French and gain their respect. In so doing, he won over the French to the American cause because they trusted him as well as believed in him.
It was Franklin’s art of diplomacy that ultimately won the French over to the American cause, not Adams’ belief in the rightness of the American cause. (Of course, it didn’t hurt to convince the French that Washington had enjoyed his first great victory over the English.) Nevertheless, Franklin’s understanding of the French and his art of diplomacy sealed the bargain for America.
Perhaps if the Bush Administration had bothered to learn the lessons taught by Adams and Franklin, the United States would be held in better regard worldwide today. Bully power does not win friends. It creates adversaries. Understanding foreign cultures, languages, and civil society, though, can lead to great, nearly insurmountable diplomatic feats.