Jonas Gahr Støre: As A Rule, Should Diplomats Talk To Everyone?

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 2:45 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Dialogue And Exchange.

About Jonas Gahr Støre's TED Talk

As Foreign Minister of Norway, engaging in difficult and intense diplomatic negotiations was part of Jonas Gahr Støre's job. He learned that dialogue is a strategy of strength, not one of weakness.

About Jonas Gahr Støre

Jonas Gahr Støre is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway. In that role, his job was to represent Norway in the international community. He is currently a member of the Norwegian Parliament and the leader of the Labour Party. Støre is also the former Minister of Health and Care for Norway, former Executive Director of the World Health Organization, and former Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross.

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Have you ever been in a position or situation where you've actually changed someone's mind in a dialogue?

JONAS GAHR STORE: Well, you know, with my wife this morning, I think I came pretty far.

RAZ: This is Jonas Gahr Store. From 2005 until 2012, he was the foreign minister of Norway. And as Norway's top diplomat, his job was to create dialogue - sometimes between countries, sometimes between groups but always in conflict.

STORE: As a Norwegian politician, it has really been devoting my political life to the notion of dialogue. I believe that dialogue is the alternative to make diverse societies, as we live in today, work.

RAZ: Now even though it's a tiny country, Norway's diplomats have had a pretty big role in recent decades. They helped to mediate conflicts in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, Colombia. And probably most famously, Norway worked in a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians called the Oslo Accords.

STORE: And after we had experiences with the Oslo Accords in the Middle East, Norway has been able, in some processes, to assist those parties who say and have the courage to say, OK, let's see if we can choose another way. We have been working hard to professionalize our approach and method in dealing with the conflict. And the advantage here is that we come from a position where we cannot force people to do anything. We could not sit down there on the table and say, now listen to me, or if you don't, I will cause you harm.

RAZ: Right.

STORE: So what we could do was to say the question has to be asked, should this go on? Should we continue on this downward spiral? We have some expertise in process. We have some expertise in assisting parties to move beyond conflict and start to repair. If that can be of use, we have a responsibility to share it.

RAZ: And Jonas shared the idea of using dialogue to resolve big conflicts on the TED stage.


STORE: What is dialogue really about? When I enter into dialogue, I really hope that the other side would pick up my points of view, that I will impress upon them my opinions and my values. I cannot do that unless I send the signals that I will be open to listen to the other side's signals. Now, I am not naive. You cannot talk to everybody all the time. And there are times you should walk and sometimes you may need to fight. And I wouldn't say that that is the wrong thing in all circumstances - sometimes, you have to. But that strategy seldom takes you very far.

The alternative is the strategy of engagement and principled dialogue. And I believe we need to strengthen this approach in modern diplomacy. We have a large deficit in dealing and understanding modern conflict, not only between states, but also within states. Dialogue is not easy - not between individuals, not between groups, not between governments. But it is very necessary.

RAZ: Do you think that everybody should be willing to talk to anyone else?

STORE: Not at any moment, based on any condition. I think, you know, you have to make that decision. My point, when I was foreign minister, was that I experienced that we invested far too little into the notion of talking and distinguishing talking from compromising. So talking to the other side, trying to understand their interests should be separated from making decisions, concessions or, you know, appearing weak.

So we train our diplomats to be in these situations. A good diplomat should be able to go in and sit down with a very nasty opponent and still be able to come out there with a position that has not been weakened, but rather, strengthened.

RAZ: When you sit down with somebody, it's - you're - there's an implicit notion that you are willing to compromise. It's sort of an understood rule.

STORE: Is it? Why is it? I mean, that, I think, is one of the fundamental questions. You should be trained, and you should have the self-confidence of not compromising when you sit down. There can be made preconditions about it that talking does not mean agreeing, and you explore before you decide. Can we engage the other side in the process where you can move them towards solutions that, from your point of view, enhances your interests?


STORE: My point is that you don't have to be neutral to talk. And you don't have to agree when you sit down with the other side. But if you don't talk, you cannot engage the other side. And the other side which you're going to engage is the one with whom you profoundly disagree. Prime Minister Rabin said when he engaged the Oslo process, you don't make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. It's hard, but it is necessary.

We who are diplomats, we are trained to deal with conflicts between states and issues between states. But the picture is changing, and we are seeing that there are new key players coming onto the scene. We loosely call them groups. They may represent social, religious, political, economic, military realities, and we struggle with how to deal with them.

During the last decade, we have been in the mode where dealing with group was conceptually and politically dangerous - and groups, very often, immediately labeled terrorists. And who would talk to terrorists? The West, as I would see it, comes out of that decade weakened because we didn't understand the group.

So we've spent more time on focusing why we should not talk to others than finding out how we talk to others. But if we refuse to talk to these new groups, we will further radicalization. We will make the road from violent activities into politics harder to travel. And the way they deal with their conflicts rapidly spread to other countries, so in a way, it is everybody's business.

RAZ: OK, so if you ignore a faction in a conflict that you think is a terrorist group, and you don't - you know, you don't talk to them because you don't negotiate with terrorists, you're essentially saying that that could radicalize that group - like, that can make the problem worse.

STORE: Well, that depends very much on the setting, you know. And I would not generalize. But my question would rather be this. Can there be a process which is not rewarding violence but which is illustrating that there are incentives for groups who belong to that camp that you describe to move out of that camp and into what you would call more constructive, peaceful problem-solving. If those avenues exist, let's try to explore them.

I mean, let me say, it's hard to argue against people who say, I don't deal with people who kill children or who blow up civilians. And I can understand that. But you can devise alternatives and options that the people who are represented by these groups will turn around and say, well, hey, maybe this is better for our children, maybe this is better for the future.

RAZ: When you look out at the world today, are you optimistic about the ability of us, of humans, of the leaders of countries to negotiate, to move things forward and to resolve conflicts in a negotiated way, in a diplomatic way?

STORE: Well, I mean, the obvious answer to that, at the first strike here, is no because you see conflicts which are deadlocked, and how are you going to move forward? But let me approach it from another angle. There is far less conflict in today's world than there was, you know, years back in history. So there is a lot of what I would call in-baked conflict resolution ability among people and communities that we should salute, although they don't hit the headlines.

There are a lot of conflicts that don't become deadly conflicts because there are prevention, you know, happening along the road. So one should never lose the optimistic approach that this is possible. I mean, I think it is more constructive to approach these issues by looking for the elements where you can be, if not optimistic, at least hopeful that you can make a difference in a different way.

RAZ: Jonas Gahr Store was the foreign minister of Norway until 2012. You can see his entire talk at On the show today, ideas about dialogue and exchange - I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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