Yesterday, just hours after Kofi Annan resigned his post as the special peace envoy representing the United Nations and the Arab League in the efforts to resolve the widening civilw ar in Syria, NBC announced that it had picked up a drama focused on an interpreter at the United Nations, described as The West Wing with an international focus. This strikes me as smart move by NBC to recapture some of its past prestige. And more broadly, it’s a development that highlights one of the weaknesses of the way our pop culture approaches conflict.
Both movies and television constantly focuses on what happens after diplomacy fails. It makes sense for action stories to start at the point when the talking stops and the guns come out, but there’s a weird relish for those kinds of stories, one that paints diplomacy as naive or unworkable. If there was a soberness to that calculation, a sense that military action kicks in only when preferable diplomatic solutions fail, our pop culture might be less straightforwardly, gleefully militaristic. But that’s just not the case. We like watching soldiers and spies kick ass, maybe more than is particularly good for us.
The thing is, diplomacy is hard and it is interesting, even if it doesn’t involve punching people in the face or blowing them up with missiles. It might be hopeless to send in Annan to broker a deal between a dictator who has no intention of ceasing his campaign against dissident forces and democracy-protestors-turned-rebels. But it doesn’t mean Annan and the UN were wrong to try, and the backstory of how he prepped for those negotiations, how they went down, and what it was like to watch the proposal that would have stood down the conflict fall apart, would make for a fascinating multi-part story.
There are challenges to this kind of story-telling. You risk a lot of show-downs over meeting tables, which means you have to have excellent writing, and to find a way to dramatize the dilemmas of translators, who are making split-second decisions in their heads. We also don’t have the same cultural images of what makes a fantastic diplomat the way we immediately understand that what makes a man or woman an admirable combatant is the ability to take a lot of pain as well as dish it out. And we don’t have a set of established tropes about what diplomats do after hours, like we do with military bars or courtly spies, though Hillary Clinton’s rocking out overseas provides a potentially awesome template. This lack of established character and plot beats is definitely a challenge for attracting viewers who are looking for a new take on a familiar idea. But it’s also an opportunity to lay down a new template and to do what The West Wing did at its most effective: humanize people who ought to be heroes for the hard, unglamorous work they do.