The Comparative Dynamics Of Martial Ethics And International Diplomacy

By Nicholas VanHole
Published on Aug 28th, 2010

“Never take up arms until you have exhausted the way of reason and of persuasion.” Franois de Callires, On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes

Diplomacy has been called “the art of the possible.”1 This quote demonstrates how skillful and persuasive speech is essential to our survival and to our dealings with others on both an international and smaller social dimension. The ancient practice of diplomacy has been used when one society, which is a macro-social entity, encounters another and has a desire to establish peaceful terms of cooperation that are mutually agreeable. A common value shared by martial artists from many backgrounds is not to fight unless given no other option. In regards to this ethic, many martial artists have a heightened sense of responsibility to attempt diplomatic solutions with an adversary if an opportunity to do so is given. Such interactions between individuals rather than of whole societies can be referred to as micro-social. A cross-examination of the strategies involved in international diplomacy and hostile situations encountered by common people reveals that conflict on a macro-social dimension is strikingly similar to conflict on a micro-social dimension. As a result, strategies utilized by skilled diplomats can be applied in certain street situations and public life.

Four main strategies guide diplomatic conduct. Beginning with negotiation, each subsequent strategy and their corresponding tactics are designed to deal with increasingly dangerous situations. During a negotiation, there must be a sense of shared risk between sides. Only in the event that another person expresses joint interest in resolving a conflict can principles of negotiation prove useful. This might occur on a smaller social scale when a low-severity conflict arises and one is attempting not to be led into an undesirable predicament, or in any situation where one feels that they or their principles have been insulted and physical force is considered as a tool in defending one’s honor. During a negotiation between two nations, success depends largely on finding, then addressing, the other’s resistance points.2 Examining this principle within a micro-social context, being sure to place yourself in the second and even third person point of view closely relates to the diplomatic tactic of seeking out a settlement range where a sense of shared benefit is accomplished. A keen sense of awareness plays a large role in recognizing a situation where negotiation tactics would be useful.3

When another’s attitude is not set to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, principles of negotiation become unuseful. Deterrence is to keep someone from initiating a potentially harmful action by showing what consequences would come from that action. Therefore, the practice of deterrence does not involve physical struggle but rather psychological persuasion. This diplomatic strategy’s corresponding tactics might prove effective in situations where something such as an assault is imminent but has yet to be carried out. Being backed into a corner, followed out of a bar, or told that you are about to be “beat up” are commonly reported examples of this type of situation. One principle of deterrence involves weighing an adversary’s interests. If their goal goes no further than injuring you enough to steal your wallet, making clear an intention to respond with violent force might be enough to show that the risk they take in attacking you outweighs any possible benefit. The threats that are made when employing a deterrence strategy, however, must be convincing to the opponent. As author Gavin De Becker observes, “Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others.”4 It can be difficult to determine how to make a credible threat in a serious personal confrontation. When one nation attempts to deter the efforts of another, they should be able to show both military capability and willingness in defending themselves. While a show of willingness would be important during a personal confrontation, displays of ability or capability must be approached with great caution. Revealing a weapon to multiple opponents while backed into a corner can quickly alter their attitudes, but might also have undesired results. Telling an aggressor that you have been trained in martial arts is neither persuasive nor wise, since it carries no proof to them and gives up any element of surprise or unpredictability you might use to your advantage. This point marks a possible contrast between micro-social and macro-social conflict. Still, any effort made to deter another from taking undesirable actions should consider the underlying principles of weighing an adversary’s interests and making credible threats.5

A subsequent strategy whose tactics relate closely to deterrence is known as coercive diplomacy. Like deterrence, it is “essentially a diplomatic strategy backed by the threat of force.”6 Unlike deterrence, however, its underlying principles are mostly useful when attempting to undo an action that someone has already carried out. As nations have attempted to reverse another state’s choice to invade a neighboring country or impose economic sanctions, individuals might attempt to persuade someone to “put the gun down” or release hold of someone. A central principle of coercive diplomacy is to quickly and plainly show that one is more motivated to achieve their goal than the opposition. As in deterrence, threats must be credible in the mind of the opponent, and demands must be reasonable. Another important principle here is the offering of positive incentives. If only constant counter-threats are used to convince someone to, say, drop a loaded gun, an aggressor may see no benefit in redirecting their actions and the situation could grow more tense.

The role of crisis management in micro-social conflict is unique from the other strategies, but relates closest with negotiation. It is the presence of imminent physical confrontation that separates the two strategies. Unlike many other situations where only one side is aggressive, a crisis is where two people or two groups of people are involved in a rapidly escalating disagreement. Consequently, a crisis management strategy can be particularly useful in dealings related to business or personal relationships. In order for any undesired action not to take place, each side must have a desire to work as partners instead of rivals to reach a solution that would avoid fighting or discontinuation of association. Therefore, the foremost principle involved in crisis management is self-restraint. In order for a volatile dispute to be resolved, someone must be willing to back down.

By understanding these four aspects of diplomacy, anyone can become more aware about the variety of tense situations that occur in pubic and private life. Although a given circumstance might not rigidly correlate with a single diplomatic strategy, knowledge of the strategies can provide useful ideas about dealing with certain circumstances. Furthermore, when exploring this topic in depth, it is simple to gain a greater appreciation for history’s relevance to common life and to observe the undeniable link between macro-social and micro-social human interaction. If done only in theory and not in practice, it remains important for martial artists to explore these diplomatic principles in a martial context, and define where they stand on important ethical questions.

A comparison between martial ethic and the principles of diplomatic strategies reinforces the very reasons why many individuals study martial arts. That is, in tense and hostile situations, one cannot count on other people to be reasonable. In other words, nothing can ensure the functioning of diplomatic strategies. During such cases, diplomacy is rendered useless and physical force might be justified. Resting on both personal and historic dimensions, there are some evils that cannot be ended without violence. Recognizing this adverse reality, we prepare ourselves to properly address those evils, if and when they visit us. Embracing this unfortunate truth, we inherently benefit from all the knowledge, wisdom, and friendship that naturally accompany martial arts training.


1 Paul Lauren, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Challenges of Our Time (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 4th ed.), p. 144, 245.

2 Ibid, p. 154.

3 For further reading, consult Paul Lauren, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Challenges of Our Time and Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In.

4 Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence (New York: Dell Publishing, 1997), p. 108.

5 For valuable reading on environmental and situational awareness and also documented accounts of personal confrontations, see Skip Hancock, AWARE: The Color Code of Awareness and Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence.

6 Lauren, 201.


  1. De Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. New York: Dell Publishing, 1997.
  2. Hancock, Skip. AWARE: The Color Code of Awareness. Kenpo 2000 Publications, 2006.
  3. Hancock, Skip. Mastering Kenpo: The Path to Excellence, 2nd ed. Kenpo 2000 Publications, 2004.
  4. Lauren, Paul. Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Challenges of Our Time, 4th ed. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  5. Parker, Ed. Infinite Insights Into Kenpo Volume 1: Mental Stimulation. Los Angeles: Delsby Publications, 1982.
  6. Payne, Keith B. The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
  7. Stark, Rodney. Sociology, Internet ed., 8th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

Filed under Philosophy and Opinion

Author Bio :: Nicholas VanHole

Nicholas VanHole is a first degree black belt who has enjoyed studying Kenpo since 1994, and began actively teaching the art in 2005. He began his training in Boise, Idaho at a young age under the instruction of Professor Steven Moore and Ms. Denise Plowman. In 2001, he moved to Missoula to begin studying history at the University of Montana, and also began training with Si-Bok Chris Crews. In training with Si-Bok Crews, his other Kenpo seniors, and with fellow students, Nick has continued to gain deeper appreciation for the underlying principles and concepts that make up the Kenpo system. In addition to Kenpo, he has developed great interest in Russian Systema, and has also trained in Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Nick has enjoyed competing in open martial arts tournaments in the northwest, having taken grand champion placement in both under-belt and black belt divisions.

In 2008, Nick began his graduate career in history at the University of Montana where he encountered the field of international relations with Paul Lauren, distinguished professor of history and political science. His graduate studies in social history and international relations have inspired several themes that he is excited to explore further. He hopes to publish a wide-ranging comparative study about Tourette Syndrome and martial arts.

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