Guerilla Bridge Building
Guerilla warfare is unconventional. Instead of relying on large, slow moving armies and doctrines of overwhelming force, guerillas depend on invisibility, highly portable weapons, quick ambushes, booby traps, and hundreds of pressuring tactics that achieve practical offensive or defensive results.
Guerilla tactics have been adapted and applied in many non-military areas. Today, we have guerilla marketing, guerilla job finding, guerilla news networks, guerilla bloggers, and guerilla mutual fund investors. Why not a new art and science of guerilla conflict management applied to the day-to-day politics that pop up when you are leading an enterprise?
There are plenty of accidental mediation lessons to learn from. On February 6, 1905, for example, Russia and Japan’s simmering competition for control of Manchuria and Korea came to a head. Heihachiro Togo launched a surprise torpedo attack on Russian ships at Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria, a precursor of events to come at Pearl Harbor three decades later.
The battle for Port Arthur was the opening salvo in the Russo-Japan war, a brief, bloody dispute that became the first modern confrontation between Asian and European superpowers and a prelude to coming world wars. In a later phase of that war, 750,000 Japanese and Russian soldiers would engage in a 3-week battle that left 100,000 dead or injured.
In their brief but furious war, Russia suffered embarrassing defeats. Faced with escalating unrest from the Bolsheviks at home, they sought a graceful exit as did a financially exhausted and militarily overextended Japan. Enter Teddy Roosevelt.
Impetuous, tough, and far more accustomed to wielding authority than influencing it. Roosevelt quietly offered the back-channel services of the U.S. as a go-between. The U.S., with no immediate stake in the conflict, was a reasonable choice. Roosevelt could use his good offices to explore a settlement that might end the dispute and save face for the Japanese and Russians even while bootstrapping America onto the world stage.
After preliminary arrangements were put in place, Roosevelt invited delegations from both countries to the U.S. and asked them to join him for lunch on his yacht at Oyster Bay. Then he had them delivered to the meeting on separate American warships. During the ensuing roundtable discussions, he treated both sides with dignity, composure, and even-handedness. More than a passive host, Roosevelt stayed quietly but firmly involved in the proceedings. He lowered each side’s expectations, remained uncharacteristically patient with the usual diplomatic maneuvering, and issued personal pleas to the rulers of both countries to end the conflict. It worked and the peace was secured.
The Treaty of Portsmouth solved certain problems and created others, continuing proof that every good solution has unforeseeable implications and unintended revenge effects. Signed in September 1905, the accord at Portsmoutj marked the emergence of Japan as a superpower but, in hindsight, it also launched a chain of events that would prove to be at issue in World War II. For his interventions, Teddy Roosevelt was awarded the first Nobel Prize ever made to a politician for peacemaking.
Not every great impasse-breaking opportunity succeeds and guerilla bridge building can fail. In the Great Depression era, Attorney General Robert Menzies, soon to become one of Australia’s longest running and most respected Prime Ministers, waded into a vitriolic labor strike at Port Kembla. Members of the Waterside Workers' Federation had refused to load scrap iron bound for Japan. The 1939 strike was paralyzing Australia’s barely recovering economy and Menzies thought he could sort it out.
He arranged a meeting with union leaders in the industrial city of Wollongong south of Sydney to try to settle the controversy and was hurriedly and ingloriously escorted out of town amidst mounting violence, forever more to bear the moniker “Pig Iron Bob.”
President Bill Clinton, trying to emulate Teddy Roosevelt’s turn of the century success and Jimmy Carter’s work with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978, sought to again use Camp David as a neutral ground to break the continuing gridlock surrounding Israel and Palestine. Clinton, along with Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, spent days locked in discussions with leaders Arafat and Barak. In the end, the talks came close but ultimately failed to accomplish the much-expected breakthrough.
Whether done by presidents, school principals, or favorite uncles and aunts, diplomatic efforts in the center of the cyclone benefit from persistence, empathy, and insight into what hungers people. They also require, in the words of William Simkin, “The patience of Job, the sincerity and bulldog qualities of the English, the wit of the Irish, the physical endurance of a marathon runner, the broken field running of a halfback, the guile of Machiavelli, the personality probing characteristics of a good psychiatrist, the confidence-retaining characteristics of a mute, the wisdom of Solomon, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”
Good bladder control and the ability to catch power naps with your eyes open may also help. Luck and timing always play a role. Nonetheless, seizing small and often unanticipated opportunities is the essence of guerilla bridge building a practice, we could use more of.