Why, if Sir Christopher Meyer is even half-way correct, is British diplomacy in such a bad way? Part of the blame, he claims, must be laid at the door of the service itself, in its surrender to political correctness and modern management theory, introspection and image consciousness. But what of its raison d'etre? We live in a digitalised world of multimedia, of mass travel. Events hit our screens almost as soon as they happen. They are exhaustively analysed and commented upon. The ability of ordinary man to engage, to project himself, acting in conceit with like-minded people across the globe, provides him with not only an outlet for his opinion but also a lever. Using it he can persuade reluctant governments to act or do things differently or better. He can force the cancellation of stages on the route of the Olympic torch and demonstrate in support of injustice everywhere. The Russian invasion of Chechnya and the Israeli of Gaza had tele-audiences of millions. The protests following the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections took place, not just on the streets of Teheran, but in living rooms and on i-phones everywhere. Pirates and terrorists have their own web sites. Man is more confident than ever about managing his own life while at the same time more doubtful about its destiny. Sports celebrities and pop stars are today's ambassadors, their fingers closer to the pulse of life than those of diplomats, especially in those high-profile issues that count like hosting the 2018 Football World Cup. No one who has watched David Beckham in action, lobbying in South Africa, could have failed to have been disarmed by his modesty and pleasantness. Good looking, approachable, at ease with himself and the world, very good at what he does best and incidentally very rich, he was the popular image of the diplomat par excellence.
Yet there is a paradox at work here. For 'Motorway Man', the archetypal swing voter for the 2010 British general election, the poles of existence are home and family, its axis the motorway, the world beyond of almost no interest. But this self-absorbed individual is a generous giver to disaster relief. In this age of participation, even if only at second hand as spectator and aid donor, of inclusiveness, the nebulous character of diplomacy combined with the belief that it is still, somehow, exclusive, puts it into a limbo of its own where old prejudices and class antagonisms are given free rein. That is not enough to save it from an entirely different and contradictory image. In an age of celebrities, of compelling imagery, of hyperbole, diplomats seem so depressingly anodyne. In the public spotlight, as in front of the Chilcot Enquiry into the Iraq war, they seem apologetic. A lot of people will think they have reason to be.
In Britain today there are experts of every description ready to pronounce on world affairs, authoritatively and from personal experience, at universities, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in consultancies. And if we don't trust them we can turn to others, elsewhere in the world. How often does the BBC, for example, turn to the Foreign Office for comment in preference to the US State Department? If that weren't enough there are also a very large number of emigres and political refugees of different background and experience, a rich repository of opinion, personal insight and expertise to be tapped at will. There is also the ceaseless round of summits, G8, G20, EU, IMF, World Bank, NATO, WTO, to say nothing of bilaterals and emergency summits. World leaders are on first name terms and in frequent communication. From Heads of Government downward ministers are more hands on.
Times change and perceptions and priorities change with them. But they do not always change at the same pace everywhere, in the same direction or to the same degree, in spite of mass communication. What foreigners think about us, the way we speak, the way we behave, what values we claim to represent, our capacity--in the widest sense--to deliver, economically, commercially, militarily and politically--determines our international ranking, the weight we in the UK carry in negotiation and hence, in the promotion and protection of British interests. It is partly a matter of presentation and in a highly mediatised age presentation counts. It can cover over a lot of cracks, as ageing TV presenters and charismatic ex-Prime Ministers know. But it needs to rest on more than mateyness and mastery of platitude if the audience is to be carried with it through those long and tedious vicissitudes when the euphoria has vanished. The vulgarity and narcissism of the Blair years lent the contemporary image of Britain a superficial gloss but left it with a legacy not only of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also of a budget deficit of hitherto unheard of proportions. These are liabilities with whose consequences Britain will be saddled for decades, if not permanently weakened. Everybody knows that but how does diplomacy help Britain get out of the mess? Is it necessary to national recovery? If it is, is our Diplomatic Service up to the job?
The answer to that depends on how much governments are prepared to invest in it. 'War', Clausewitz is paraphrased as saying, 'is a continuation of politics by other means'. Modern warfare makes that proposition less tenable today. War is a failure of diplomacy. If diplomacy has any purpose that cannot be achieved by other means it is to prevent, if possible, the vase being broken and to pick up the pieces afterwards. Its metier is the antithesis of the immediate and newsworthy. Its task is to build, not destroy, to protect people, not kill or maim them, to create a framework of mutual well-being, not a reign of terror. It seeks to persuade, not to intimidate. The words 'shock and awe' are nowhere part of its vocabulary. Diplomacy is there, along with refuse collection and the Royal Mail, to tidy up and deliver messages, part of the world on which the rest of us depend for the smooth running of our lives, a public service, no more, no less. A demoralised diplomacy is no more effective than a demoralised refuse collection service and has even less reason for being the beneficiary of public funding since it is less obviously essential to the public good.
Fortunately we cannot, ourselves, simply decide to do without a diplomatic service, or privatise it, as we might another public service. Diplomacy is an attribute of statehood, of recognition by the international community of sovereign independence, an act of reciprocity which allows states the means of interchange, more specifically of the management of confidential business. An accredited diplomat embodies, in his person, more than the expression of his government's policies, its ideology. He or she is an extension of what the Head of State, by whom he or she is sent, is thought to embody constitutionally. If we disown diplomacy we disown ourselves, our history and constitution. We disown also whatever ambitions we might have for the future. And whatever the advantages of modern communication, we abdicate our place in the global village and turn our backs on our neighbours in more than a purely formal sense. We must, in this claustrophobic new world, think of them as well as ourselves. But what people want from their neighbour is what President Roosevelt said they did, someone who will lend them their garden hose when the house catches fire, not someone plucking nervously at their sleeve. If we disown diplomacy we make those other means of Clausewitz more likely.
As the Prime Minister repeated on several occasions at the height of the economic crisis, its causes were to be found both beyond our shores and within them. The two cannot be separated and recovery will depend on what is done abroad quite as much as what we do at home. We need to dissuade others from taking unhelpful decisions which might impede recovery and encourage them to take those that will help to sustain it. Our influence and the persuasiveness of our arguments and actions matter in distant countries and in near quite as much as they do at home. Someone has to do the legwork, deploy the arguments and do the lobbying, often to an unsympathetic audience. These are not an academic excercise, of purely intellectual content. They depend for their effectiveness not only on the way they are presented but on the recipient's perception of the realities behind them, often as represented by his embassy in London.
Britain's international standing today is less than it was fifty years ago. Its industrial and military base have declined along with its export trade. But its interests are still world-wide and the well-being of its people no less important. It is a well-being less easy to guarantee. Peoples' appetites have increased as personal wealth and the welfare state have made their gratification easier. To satisfy that appetite requires more and more resources of money, raw materials and technology. We can no longer help ourselves to the resources of the Commonwealth nor treat our colonies as a captive market. They are now independent nations, proud of the fact that they have a voice. Some are sensitive about their colonial past and resentful of any hint of patronage, of being taken for granted. The excercise of choice has liberated them. The UK's arguments and example have to take account of these sensitivities. It needs allies and friends, not just those to whom it finds itself talking in multilateral forums where there is a basic identity of interest, as in the EU and G8, but outside them, in the wider world. The UN gives even the smallest and poorest state the vote, which counts as much as that of the most powerful when it comes to adding up. Every vote has to be earned and there are plenty of countervailing arguments, seductively deployed by others. Someone must spell out these realities so that the Foreign Secretary can lay the facts before the Cabinet. That someone is the diplomat. That same someone must also be capable of assessing the impact on UK interests of decisions taken in forums where it has no voice at all, like ASEAN or the OAU. The government might not accept his advice but they should not ignore it.
The Diplomatic Service lacks the appeal of heroism, of self-sacrifice and hi-tech glamour of the Armed Forces, the front-line image necessary to create a public image and keep it. Nor is it a front-line department in the more intimate sense of the Ministries of Health or Education. Moreover, as other government departments are forced to acquire their own expertise, through the growth of institutions like the EU and the WTO, and more recently, the emergence of global issues like the environment, in mastering the international dimensions of what had hitherto been essentially domestic portfolios, the Diplomatic Service's monopoly of negotiating and lobbying, of getting the UK's point across, has long since ceased to be such. No-one can yet predict the long-term effect of the EU's recent establishment of a full diplomatic service. In some larger embassies there are as many, sometimes more, non-diplomatic personnel on the diplomatic list than there are diplomats. Like royalty its prerogatives have been progessively reduced as pressures on government have shifted across the years and public perceptions have changed.
None of this is new, though the pace and intensity of change has accelerated even in the thirteen years of New Labour administration. But the question of what is diplomacy for and where does it fit in the wider structure of government in a country undergoing social change as extensive as that experienced by Britain over the last fifty years needs answering. Since the 1960s there have been two major reviews, Rothschild and Berrill. Berrill's approach was the more self-confessedly radical but neither produced anything dramatic in the way of reform. Both favoured concentrating resources where they counted most, in countries where we had the most interests. They could not have forseen that international terrorism would promote in importance many countries considered of only the most marginal interest then. In the same era the Diplomatic Service budget has steadily declined in real terms by comparison with others, including the Security Service, MI6. It feels unappreciated, misunderstood and vulnerable. Lady Thatcher's tendency to class it among the 'wets' was bad for it. More damaging was the practice of appointing Diplomatic Advisers to the Prime Minister at No 10 which was tantamount to Manchester United's relegation to the First Division from the Premier League. Presidential style of government, a new aggressiveness in public life, of spin doctoring and bullying Press Secretaries, of highly personalised ministerial fixes, of a growing contempt for public institutions, created an atmosphere in which the Diplomatic Service finds itself at a disadvantage. Not all Foreign Secretaries might have succeeded in fighting its corner as effectively as they should and leadership in the higher echelons of officials might not always have inspired confidence. Restucturing, the ethos--such as it is--of competitivity and accountability, staff reductions, downscaling, dilution of sense of purpose, have had a debilitating effect on morale at a time when the pressures on diplomacy have never been greater.
In an era of emotional highs the virtues of diplomacy might seem doubtful, even irrelevant. Nevertheless the short attention span of media and public cannot do away with the inescapable reality that a solution to any given set of problems lies years, perhaps decades, in the future or that some problems are not capable of resolution by outside intervention but must be left to time to sort out. The management of our external relations is a full-time job which goes on when ministers and public are preoccupied with other things. The most important achievement is to stay out of trouble and if the investment required for this might seem unnecessarily generous the consequences of failure are usually unquantifiable. The phenomenon of mass opinion tends to leave an impression that people everywhere want the same things. There are enough recent examples to show that this is an illusion. What the public sees, through the media and other means, is real enough. Its immediacy is compelling and often forces politicians to act in response to public opinion where they would much rather not do so. But there is another reality which the public does not see. The causes of a crisis often lie hidden out of sight, might have been germinating for decades and perhaps longer. Likewise the solutions to a crisis are often similarly invisible, to be found in the strength of a country's institutions, the crediblity of its alliances, the apathy or energy of its people. It is often only possible to assess these factors by reference to the past, by what is called 'feel', the product of a sensitive and highly trained instinct. Foreign correspondents, especially those with long residence in a country, are usually very good at bringing these factors into play in their reporting. But there is such a thing as institutional experience, common to both media and the Foreign Office, which is no less than historical memory, often very detailed, which offers a guide in interpreting the course of a particular issue. The difference between the two is to be found in the priorities of their employers. The media is there to report; it does not have to cope with the consequences. Nor do outside experts and political exiles who have their own agendas to promote. The responsibilities of the Security Service, M16, are minimal by comparison.
Summitry, likewise, possesses its own in-built liabilities. Euphoria and exhaustion are probably the most successful negotiators in the business. Ministers--even Prime Ministers--cannot be expected to have their eye on the ball all the time. A politician usually has several in the air at one, the largest and most difficult being the one marked 'Westminster', for that, rather than New York or Brussels is where political futures are made and unmade. The more globalised government business becomes the wider the input from home departments and the more complex the ramifications and interdependence of government interests across the board. All have, somehow, to be compressed into a single credible negotiating strategy, thus placing a premium on coordination. Traditionally it is the Diplomatic Service which provides this, which ensures that the briefing is delivered on time in a comprehensible and digestible form, and, most crucially, advises how best to get the points of importance across in a way to bring others on board. It is often this last point, and this alone, on which a minister has time to concentrate, in a hotel lift between one meeting and the next.
Of all negotiations the UN Law of the Sea Conference (UNLOSC) which ran for almost two decades from the mid 70s to the early 90s generated the most paper and had the least sex appeal. Public interest was negligible. The content was arcane and complex, legalistic and heavily flavoured with historical precedent. Yet it touched vital British interests at every point since it encompassed an exhaustive list of maritime rights, most of which had been formulated to our advantage when we were unquestionably the major maritime power, before the advent of nuclear powered warships and offshore oil, of the exploitation of seabed minerals, of protection of the marine environment, of independent states controlling archepelagos of strategic importance, of commercial fishing on an industrial scale and the Non-Aligned Movement--the G77--which set itself in opposition to the UK, partly for reasons of ideology but also because it believed in a redistribution of the world's resources with themselves as principal beneficiaries. Given the scale and importance of the negotiation there was scarcely a government department in the UK which was not involved, some more consistently than others. There was non-governmental representation too, from the oil and mining companies, from the shipping industry and from the deep sea and inshore fishing interests. Someone had to hold it all together, provide the continuity, 'read' the conference, interpret any shift in mood, the impact of key personalities like committee chairmen, woo the secretariat, debrief after each eight-week session and prepare for the next. It was diplomats and Foreign Office Legal advisers who fronted in negotiation. The scale of UNLOSC interests, like the number of participating states, was perhaps unprecedented for its time but it was no more than a precursor for what is rapidly becoming the norm. Multinational negotiations on global issues like the environment encompass the same wide range of interests and participation.
Nevertheless bilateral relations are still the bedrock of diplomacy for that is where successful conference diplomacy is built. It makes sense for countries to try to reduce the points of friction between them since this frees them for more constructive business. Countries on good terms with one another do not take each other's citizens hostage or attack embassies with grenades or beat up their staffs, as Iran did in the 1980s. Nor would you expect a friendly country to sanction the misuse of British passports to conduct assassinations, as Israel is said to have done in Dubai. But no diplomat is so naive as to believe that good relations aren't vulnerable to peremptory and painful change. The British have been scapegoats too often for diplomats to be anything but pessimistic about the caprices of governments, most of all revolutionary ones. The British, after centuries of close and on the whole mutually beneficial relations with Iran, remain President Ahmedinejad's favourite whipping boy to this day. A diplomat's task is not made easier by disinformation and prejudice at home, the mismatch between what the public sees on holiday and the realities out of sight. Democracy and free market capitalism have done a lot to create a climate of convergence and the growth of middle class aspirations but beneath its rather brittle surface there are disparities and tensions which rub together like tectonic plates. The disparities in wealth between the world's rich and poor is growing greater. Successful states like India and China contain some of the greatest. At some point economic growth will falter, possibly fail, while the population continues to grow. There are vast armies in many countries and the temptation to use them will always be present. National boundaries resemble fault lines in many of the more sensitive regions.
Of the many vicissitudes the UK has faced Suez is not the only one which exposed the limitations of its influence and underlying weaknessses, the disparity between ends and means. Before Suez it might justifiably have been criticised for complacency. After it that could never have been said, at least not in the Middle East. The UK could never, obviously, aspire to return the situation to what it was, since it had neither the means nor the wish to do so. What emerged was a new and in most respects much healthier relationship with the countries of that part of the world, whose own prospects and political and economic weight were to be transformed by the quadrupling of oil prices in 1974. Its long-term effects were more profound even than of Suez. The consequences of major events such as these, combined with others such as the Arab/Israel dispute, the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, needed management to protect investment, the lives and properties of expatriate citizens, relations with states of the region and the UK's qualifications as an intermediary if no longer an arbiter, in other words its relevance as a facilitator. Acting in concert in one field adds weight and protection in others: relations with Iran after the 2009 Presidential elections might have been even more difficult but for the UK's membership of the Contact Group on the Iran nuclear programme. But it is bilateral diplomacy which binds such arrangements together, ad hoc and permanent alike.
At the top of the list of international organisations in which UK participation is obligatory comes the UN. As one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council the UK must be in a position to deal with every issue raised there. It is followed, in order of importance by membership of the EU and NATO with a host of lesser satellites at their heels. Add to these permanent obligations the series of important negotiations taking place under the aegis of the WTO, and UN conferences on Climate Change, the scale of obligations becomes clear. The reputation of the UK's permanent delegations to, for example, NATO and the EU, is among the highest. In NATO especially it is the consequence of decades of hard work over a long period in which US efforts were vitiated in part by domestic pressures, in part by the temptation to deal with the Soviet Union as an equal. France was only partially a member of the Alliance and its, like Italy's, participation on its political side had to take account of a powerful national Communist Party. Germany was still divided. In the EU British membership is still partial and conditional. The fact that the UK delegation is among the best owes nothing to assets, visible or invisible, other than the quality and hard work of diplomats.
Almost as much work on NATO and EU issues goes on between the capitals of member states as it does in Brussels. It might be described as the superstructure. It must rest on a solid something and that something is the variety of issues where the interests of two countries touch. The spin-off is called goodwill when they go well, not immediately quantifiable but undeniably helpful in some quite unrelated and surprising contexts. Though the real credit must go to his constituency MP, Anne Widdecombe, the official visit of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd and then of Sir Bobby Robson to Morocco in 1996, to launch a football training programme for boys, undoubtedly helped in securing the release from prison of a British lorry driver. The day to day business of diplomacy usually touches the lives of British citizens much more closely than more dramatic events. The settlement of claims against the Egyptian government for confiscated British properties and other assets took years to negotiate but made a real difference to pensioners living on an income whose value was being eroded by inflation. Undramatic though it was it was very much the stuff of diplomacy. The settlement was dependent on Egyptian goodwill, which had to be earned.
The ability of countries single-handedly to influence the outcome of a particular set of problems has declined almost to vanishing point. Not even the USA can any longer hope to do it, as President Obama has acknowledged, and emerging powers like India, China and Brazil will soon find, if they have not already done so, that a combination of domestic and external factors will bind their hands as effectively as the USA's. The nexus of trading and financial interests are too close, and the obligations they impose too acute, for it to be otherwise. The lessons of history are quickly forgotten. The first lesson is that disasters are rarely the fault of diplomats. Where diplomacy has been allowed to function properly, as in the Falklands War, it has served the country well. Three outstanding diplomats, Sir Anthony Parsons at New York, Sir Nicholas Henderson at Washington and Robin (later Sir Robin) Fearn in London, achieved what many people thought impossible, the backing of a doubtful UN Assembly and a reluctant US Government without which we could not have recovered the islands. Their efforts were seconded by diplomatic lobbying in capitals worldwide. Yet three decades later Lord Hurd--a rather unique combination of former Foreign Secretary and former diplomat--stated on yet another BBC documentary in February that 'the Foreign Office in London has been hollowed out' by recent changes made by government.
What of the future? We all know what we would like it to be. But 'There goes more to it, than bidding it be done', as one of his secretaries said to Charles I at a critical juncture of the Civil War. Anyone sitting down to write a list of those international issues of pressing concern to the UK would have to include nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, the growth of religious extremism, the Middle East standoff, the increasingly sophisticated articulation of opposition to the dynastic ambitions of Colonel Qaddhafi and President Mubarak, Russia's determination to protect its interests in neighbouring states, including the Ukraine, the decline of US power and the growth of Chinese. These might be described as solid traditional subjects of a kind the UK is accustomed to confront. More nebulous are those whose implications are for the longer term, more complex and less quantifiable. But we must nevertheless prepare ourselves to deal with them. They include the effects of climate change, population growth and pressures on resources, the migration of hungry and desperate peoples, the growth and independence from conventional controls of sovereign funds and oligopolies, official corruption and public alienation, of the spread of minorities prepared to fight for a share of economic benefits and political rights and of government persecution. The list is by no means exhaustive in either instance but we must leave them there.
They leave no room for complacency. Europe, the UK in particular, will always be vulnerable because geography and climate have made it fertile and social welfare acts as a magnet. Its economic weight and political influence are still great but are being challenged, not just by China, but by emerging powers like India, Brazil and South Africa, all countries with burgeoning, but more to the point young, dexterous and computer literate populations. We would be unwise to trust to inertia alone to keep our Permanent Membership of the Security Council, whose essential qualification is worldwide representation. We are a long way from an European Federation and still further from world government but both exist in practice in the growth of international bureaucracy which raises complex questions of coordination and corresponding difficulties over focusing on particular national interests. It would be quite wrong to underestimate the expertise and skill, collectively and individually, of international civil servants. Dr Mohammed el Baradei, the former Head of the IAEA, Dr Hans Blix of the UN Weapons Inspectorate, the late Sergio di Mello and Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Representative of both Butros Ghali and Kofi Annan are cultivated men of exceptional intelligence and probity, possessed of a high sense of duty. It would be very difficult to find better but there are others as gifted. The diplomatic services of the Western industrialised countries are not, as they sometimes seem to think, in a class of their own. Ours is not the only one to suffer from loss of morale but the Turkish, Indian, Brazilian and Mexican, to go no further, tire of a very high class indeed and on the way up. Negotiating with such people requires the UK to employ public servants of the same calibre.
It is beyond the scope of this article to suggest how Britain should prepare itself to meet these challenges. Much depends on what happens in Britian itself. But clearly they will have to be met if the country is to keep its place in the world. The 'more to it' to which Charles I's secretary referred includes an effective diplomatic service, one that is properly funded, outward looking and focused, free of the prejudices and misconceptions under which it labours today. In the current climate it is unrealistic to talk of more funding. The answer might be for the diplomatic service to be required to do less in order to do it better. Consular work, with its high public profile and increasing specialisation, might be made the responsibility of a separate department, like Development Aid, with its own budget and career structure. Trade promotion (in part a by-product of the distant epoch of socialist economies) might be handed over to the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and the Confederation of British Industry and be funded by them. The balance between administrative tail and operational teeth might be reassessed and mechanisms put in place to compensate for budgetary losses through exchange rate fluctuations. These sugestions come off the top of the head, but the aim of restructuring should be to allow the diplomatic service to concentrate on the primary task of promoting and protecting UK interests with enough clout and self-confidence to do the job properly. But it first needs to ask itself what those interests are.
Since the mid-1980s there have been three, perhaps four, Defence Reviews but none on Foreign Policy. Given the way the balance of power in the world has shifted in that period, the way in which the world and Britain itself have also changed, and the new challenges which have arisen in consequence it is surely time for us to examine our diplomacy, to ask ourselves what our priorities are and whether its structure and resources are what they should be. The idea won't be popular with diplomats but an inquiry, chaired by a political heavyweight like Lord Hurd, shorn of the iconoclastic baggage and tough enough to withstand pressures of political correctness and the special pleading of diplomats should be able to form an independent judgement. Rather like a decaying religion diplomacy accepts, as inviolable, certain mantras, eg the primacy of the 'special relationship' with the USA without stopping to ask if the USA sees it in the same light and how far demographic change, shifting perceptions and growing disparities in military strength might have affected it, whether it is so truly special after all, whether we need to do more or less and how. Likewise with the EU: how far can we persist in the present hybrid relationship without damaging ourselves and the EU in the longer term? That is just a beginning, for the sake of example. But the inquiry must also look at the communications revolution and the growth of public interest in humanitarian questions as well as bread and butter ones like career structure, recruiting and pay and conditions of service.
The first priority for any new government will be for the Prime Minister to do as President Obama did immediately after taking office in 2009, and restore diplomacy to its traditional primacy. It needs a new sense of purpose, of appreciation and recognition. Its effectiveness and morale are as important to the UK's future as that of the Armed Forces and it is far less expensive. 'Jaw-Jaw is better than war-war', said Churchill. It always comes back to that in the end. 'We exert our influence through soft-power', said the Indian Foreign Minister in a recent Channel Four interview, instancing the fact that Indian restaurants in the UK employ more people than are employed in the coal, iron and steel industries combined. It is not quite the whole picture since the Indians have an impressive military capability as well. But it shows what the UK is up against.
Sir Allan Ramsay is a retired British diplomat and former Ambassador.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
|Previous Article:||The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War.|
|Next Article:||After the Copenhagen conference: carbon is not the planet's greatest threat.|