In turbulent and uncertain times the value of vigorous interaction by governments should not be underestimated, says Peter Young.
The Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day is invariably a must-see for many people in Britain. Normally screened by BBC TV at 3pm, the timing is ideal for those who any later in the day might have lapsed into blissful somnolence after overindulgence at the lunch table.
Her Majesty’s theme this past year of peace and reconciliation was notably apposite and reassuring in a world apparently beset by endless conflict and turmoil.
In reality, such turbulent times may be no worse than in earlier years. But the immediate transmission of unpleasant (more often than not) news from across the globe unsettles people and creates a perception of disorder, confusion and lack of control.
Recently, for example, the unending strife in the Middle East and the heinous crimes of ISIS, conflict in the Ukraine, Afghanistan and Pakistan, race riots in the United States, the Sony hacking and North Korea – followed by the terrorist attacks in Paris in early January and new currency problems in Europe arising from political change in Greece – have inevitably attracted worldwide attention and make people wonder why more is not done by those in authority to try to pre-empt such tumult and to mitigate its harshest consequences. It is also alarming that, since 9/11, acts of terrorism have spread so widely elsewhere - London, Madrid, Mumbai, Glasgow, Boston, Ottawa, Nairobi and Sydney as well as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
With a growing sense of doom, such concerns lead to questions about possible failures of diplomacy and about the use of negotiation rather than force in the conduct of international affairs - as Winston Churchill famously said, ‘jaw-jaw is always better than war-war’.
At a time of reflection during the start of a new year, these thoughts prompt a look - if necessarily limited - at what diplomacy is all about.
The dictionary definition of the term is the conduct of the relations of one state with another and skill in the management of international relations. The renowned British writer, politician and diplomat of the last century, Harold Nicolson, defined it similarly as the management of relations between independent states by a process of negotiation (and the use of tact) rather than force in gaining strategic or tactical advantage. The obvious corollary is that, when negotiation fails, war or some form of conflict ensues.
To the man in the street, who may be unaware of the working of governments, the art of diplomacy simply means being nice to someone else by sugaring the pill or avoiding criticism and, without necessarily realising it, using euphemism to soften reality.
In practice, at the government level it is the tough and hard-headed task of promoting and protecting the interests of one’s own country by seeking to strengthen mutual interests and to reconcile conflicting ones, either multilaterally through the United Nations and international organisations and conferences or bilaterally via diplomatic missions overseas. As well as negotiations on political and security matters, including conflict resolution and counterterrorism, these missions conduct, when necessary, the whole range of government business including, for example, consular protection and immigration, aid work, trade and investment promotion and cultural exchanges.
Amusing descriptions of the art of diplomacy abound; for example, ‘telling people to go to hell in such a way that they enjoy the experience’ or ‘providing ladders down which other people can climb’. But there is an element of reality in both of these.
Having won an argument and achieved an objective, it is inadvisable to upset an interlocutor to such an extent that further negotiation, which might lead to more concessions, is precluded – and, even though a Machiavellian approach (duplicitous opportunism) has become discredited, the apparently mischievous claim by 17th century British diplomat Henry Wooten that an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country has some resonance in these days of ‘spin’ and dissimulation at the official level.
Dr Henry Kissinger, former US National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, developed the art of constructive ambiguity which he describes in his recent book On China. This allows for differing interpretation of a proposition or agreement and thus provides possible retreat (a ladder to climb down) from a fixed position without loss of dignity or ‘face’ - an important commodity, especially in Asia.
By contrast, there is another school of thought that precise language and clarity of expression are essential elements of successful diplomacy, while often overhanging a negotiation is the implicit threat of force which generally is available only to the larger nations – as expressed by US President Theodore Roosevelt, ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’, or by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, one of Britain’s most respected and effective Foreign Secretaries, whose policy was ‘conciliation based on strength’.
An interesting example of the diplomatic ladder was the correspondence, following the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nassau in 1985, between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the South African President, PW Botha. Without seeking to dictate to the leader of another sovereign country, she asked for his help in her stand against economic sanctions by urging him to announce publicly specific steps, including the release of Nelson Mandela, towards the ending of apartheid.
During the course of history the outcomes of grand world conferences have - for good or ill - shaped the geopolitical landscape; for example, to mention just a few, the Congress of Berlin in 1884, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 following the end of the First World War, and the Yalta Conference in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War. At the risk of oversimplifying, it can be argued that these, respectively, carved up Africa with arbitrary frontiers determined by the European colonial powers, set such harsh terms on Germany that another war only 20 years later was inevitable, and condemned the nations of Eastern Europe to the dead hand of communism for more than 40 years.
Despite recent disasters like the war in Iraq, there are numerous examples of diplomatic successes over the years. Again, to mention just a few in more recent times – decolonisation and growth of the UN, President Nixon’s historic visit to China, the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, German reunification, the broad coalition put together for the first Gulf War in 1990, the peaceful handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the avoidance of civil war in South Africa after the ending of apartheid. Another success, much heralded at the time, was the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 which ended minority rule in the then Rhodesia but, as an unintended consequence, precipitated tyranny in a newly independent Zimbabe.
While trained diplomats do the heavy lifting for international gatherings and in the day-to-day conduct of international affairs, under the Westminster system of governance ministers rather than an appointed meritocracy are responsible for foreign policy. If the latter were allowed to call the shots, that could open the door to totalitarianism because unknown, faceless bureaucrats cannot easily be held accountable for their actions whereas elected ministers are public figures subject to scrutiny in parliament and by the press. The role of diplomats is to represent their country overseas and conduct their government’s business as well as to gather information and make policy recommendations, but it is for ministers to lay down policy guidelines and make the decisions on major issues.
Of course, in order to fulfil their function diplomats need to be properly qualified through professional training and experience. Harold Nicolson listed the ideal qualities: truth, accuracy, modesty, loyalty, intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and tact. Few, if any, can satisfy all such demanding requirements, but many aspire to at least some.
As well as the ability to communicate, another quality in modern diplomacy is humility. Far from the imagery of a humble beggar, this is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. It means having self-confidence and being secure in one’s own beliefs and abilities to the extent that one is open to the opinions of others and able to take into consideration conflicting views. This is important because, without recognising the negotiating position of an opponent, it is more difficult to outflank him and successfully impose one’s own views.
Separately from Nicolson’s exhaustive list of qualities, the most often quoted advice for diplomats came from the distinguished 19th century French diplomat and European statesman, Talleyrand – ‘surtout, pas trop de zele’ or ‘above all, not too much zeal’, which in modern parlance roughly translates as ‘always play it cool’. By this, he meant that important diplomatic decisions involving war and peace, as well as negotiations at any level, should always be based on calm reasoning rather than on emotion, anger or even misplaced enthusiasm – as the French philosopher Montaigne explained it, the passion of anger ‘wounds’ judgment.
While recognising that in any discourse there will be divergent opinion and competing thought, the skill is to convince your opponent or critic of the merits of your case and that it might be in his own interests to concede to your demands; for, in the words of Dale Carnegie in his popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’.
At no point should a diplomat take personal offence at the actions of those opponents and critics or indulge in the empty rhetoric of personal and public abuse, since that will ensure that they will fight back in one way or another with the result that his position will become less secure than it was before. Thus, any victory will have been a hollow one.
Today’s instantaneous communications should, in theory, make it easier to maintain international dialogue, to resolve differences and to promote understanding and co-operation. But, ironically, it seems that there is now greater scope for misunderstandings and rows to develop and to fester unless there is an immediate satisfactory reaction, which is not always practicable.
In what has become an increasingly dangerous world, it is hard to judge the effectiveness of pre-emptive diplomacy since that depends on an imprecise evaluation of something that might have happened but which, for one reason or another, was prevented from doing so.
But, what is beyond doubt is that, in the absence of interaction by governments behind the scenes through vigorous diplomacy, things would be even worse than they already are and the world would be in permanent crisis. At a time of such uncertainty the Queen’s latest Christmas message surely succeeded in hitting just the right note.
• Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was the British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.