The Role of Tea in Diplomacy

kissinger teaThe role of tea in many of the great decisions affecting the world at large is grossly understated. Henry Kissinger used it to open the door to China for Nixon. Had Chamberlain used it in 1939 “peace in our time” may have really been the case.

Take Nelson Mandela for instance. In 1993 South Africa the path was set for multiracial elections the following year. General Constand Viljoen was anointed leader of South Africa’s far right, charged with heading “the white freedom struggle.” Viljoen, who had been head of the South African Defence Force between 1980 and 1985, Nelson Mandelatravelled the country organizing what he called armed resistance units, others called terrorist cells. Nelson Mandela reached out to him through intermediaries and the two men met in secret at his home. Viljoen having been met by Mandela with cup of tea in hand, was almost instantly disarmed. Expecting a savage brute, a fearsome Communist with little regard for human life, Viljoen was amazed  by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail (“Do you take sugar in your tea, General?”), by his keen knowledge of the history of white South Africa and his sensitivity to the apprehensions and fears white South Africans were feeling at that time. When the two men began discussing matters of substance, Mandela put it to him that, yes, he could go to war and, yes, his people were more skilled in the military arts than black South Africans; but against that, if it came to race war, black South Africa had the numbers, as well as the guaranteed support of practically the entire international community. There could be no winners, Mandela said. The general did not disagree. This “tea diplomacy” led to many meetings between the two men whereupon Viljoen turned around to accept Mandela’s vision. He agreed to take part in the all race elections of 1994 and gave his blessing to the peaceful turnover that Mandela had engineered.

Why is tea so useful in matters of diplomacy? For many years, and throughout many historical accounts, tea has been accorded as the beverage that encourages eloquence. There’s a certain element of peace and tranquility associated with tea, its flavor and aroma. And that’s why it is hard to imagine a quarrel erupting over a cup of freshly brewed tea.

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