Libya: When perfect is the enemy of good

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” said French writer Voltaire. This saying is relevant to our personal lives and to our actions at work. It is also true in politics. And it springs to mind with the current situation in Libya.

At a personal level, we would all like to strive for perfection. In our education, we study hard and get good marks. In the kitchen, we want to cook the perfect pizza. In sport, we might aspire to be like Wayne Rooney. And in our personal lives, we want to be the perfect partner and parent.

But perfection is impossible. We all have some talents that enable us to excel at some things but struggle with others. And we all make mistakes. Recognising that we are fallible is an important step in doing things better.

At work, we can work hard and try to do a perfect job. Doing a job well means taking risks, testing new things, listening to different views and trying to find the best way forward. Compromise means that any solution can’t be perfect: you can’t please all the people all the time.

Design your own democracy

Striving for perfection is not in itself a bad thing. “Try, try again” is a good maxim. “Trial and error” can also be a useful approach as long as it means learning from mistakes and a process of constant improvement.

Each country needs to design its own democracy to suit its history, culture and traditions. Where conflicts arise, entrenched positions are hard to move.

Peter Millett

But if doing so means endless delay as minor details are addressed, a task will never be finished. Indeed, it might well mean that an ideal opportunity is lost and a situation will get worse rather than better. So knowing when to compromise is a crucial part of doing a good job, rather than a perfect one.

The same is true in politics. Many different forms of governance have been designed: monarchies, republics, dictatorships. None is regarded as perfect. Indeed, it was once said that democracy is the worst form of government... apart from all the others that have been tried.

Each country needs to design its own democracy to suit its history, culture and traditions. Where conflicts arise, entrenched positions are hard to move. But compromise will always have to be part of the outcome, where parties give up some of their cherished positions for the greater good.

In such circumstances, the vital skills for political leaders are: recognising the national greater good; knowing when to go for the compromise deal; and acknowledging that a perfect solution is not possible.

Such is the situation in Libya today. After 42 years of dictatorship and 4 years of chaos, political leaders are edging towards a deal. It has been a long and difficult road and there are still issues that need to be resolved. But the spirit of compromise is in the air.

The members of the political dialogue are showing these skills. They recognize the greater good: improving the lives of the Libyan people, regenerating the economy, dealing with the terrorist threat and bringing peace and security to Libyan towns and villages.

They know that now is the time to go for compromise. That delaying will mean the economy will get weaker and the terrorists will get stronger. That, having got this far, they can’t afford to fail.

And they acknowledge that a perfect solution is not on the cards. All sides cannot expect to secure all their demands. A pragmatic compromise is essential. After all, the Government of National Unity will last for only one year, maximum two. Continuing to argue over the detail risks missing the point: that Libya cannot afford to stay on its current chaotic track.

So now is the time to go for a good agreement rather than hold out in the vain hope that a perfect one might be round the corner. As Confucius said: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble with none.”


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Peter Millett is the British Ambassador to Libya, and was formerly the Ambassador to Jordan. Previously he was British High Commissioner to Cyprus from June 2005 to April 2010. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British diplomatic missions overseas. From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens. From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO. From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing the UK on all energy and nuclear issues. From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.

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Last Update: 05:02 KSA 08:02 - GMT 05:02
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