Mark Lamster | Essays

The Art of Diplomacy


It's a rather satisfying bit of parallelism that the excerpt of my book on the political career of Peter Paul Rubens appears in the Wall Street Journal on the same day that Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is the paper's lead story. As I believe the piece in the Journal demonstrates, Rubens was a pragmatic, moderate man whose success as a diplomat was predicated on a combination of the high esteem in which he was held internationally and by his own great intelligence. Whatever one thinks about the timing of the Nobel, or of Obama generally, it's hard to deny he shares these characteristics with Rubens. But I'd like to think the artist can serve as a fine model for the president, or any diplomat practicing today. He was a serious and dedicated public servant, a master of what we now call "realpolitiks." His world, like ours, was faced with intractable conflicts, and he was tireless in his efforts to resolve them. The Low Countries, then, was a land divided by sectarian violence, and his own Flemish homeland was ruled by a grossly negligent foreign occupier. (In the 16th century, Antwerp was almost a proto-Baghdad, with a full-scale Green Zone avant le lettre.) Rubens was no revolutionary. He worked within the power structures of his day to shift policy and push ideologically opposed leaders toward reconciliation. There was never a more savvy negotiator, whether he was bargaining for European peace or setting the price on one of his very expensive canvasses. He was a peaceful man but believed in the use of military force, even its pre-emptive use, but in drastic situations only. Rubens had more than one contemporary who considered him as fine a statesman as he was an artist, and that was saying something, because in that field he was, indisputably, the tops.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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