Diplomats are good at making simple issues more complicated, more fudged, less transparent.
Sometimes with good reason, but often not. We can spend hours in international conferences debating whether we are ‘concerned’ or ‘gravely concerned’. Too many statements follow the tired formula – ‘Minister x and Minister y discussed a wide range of issues of mutual concern’. Meaningless platitudes – did anyone think they were meeting to discuss issues that weren’t of mutual concern?
My personal teeth grinder is ‘warm bilateral relations’. As in ‘my objective in Lebanon is to promote warm bilateral relations’. There is a sliding scale only really understood by diplomats. Heaven forbid that relations become just ‘cordial’, ‘businesslike’, or that a meeting be ‘candid’ or ‘full and frank’. This is the kind of logic that leads some to judge the quality of a meeting by the length of the press conference or the official gifts exchanged.
There are several reasons why ‘warm bilateral relations’ particularly gets on my nerves.
First, it is meaningless. It is too often defined in terms of the number of visits, or feedback from courtiers. There is no league table of the warmth of our partnerships with other countries. There is no way of saying whether our relations with Lebanon are warmer than a year ago (though if you believe the telegrams most of us ambassadors send, relations with each of our countries are getting warmer and warmer …). There is no public opinion survey against which to rank changes in temperature.
Second, it turns people off. By reducing everything to such froth, we patronise and underestimate the public. I love it when a diplomatic meeting is described more honestly, when a leader or ambassador says ‘actually, it was a very tough meeting. I respect Russia’s position but I profoundly disagree with it’. People have a right to authentic communication from those who work for them.
Third, it makes us diplomats lazy. By hiding behind platitudes, we are not put on the spot to explain what we’re trying to do. By spending time debating whether we ‘condemn’ or ‘have concerns’ we waste time that should be spent actually doing something about the thing we condemn.
Fourth, it prioritises relationships over outcomes. Diplomacy of course depends on the quality of relationships you can build. But they have to be for a purpose. Do they make us more secure and more prosperous? The objective of a diplomatic meeting should not be to leave everyone feeling warm, but to pursue the national interest. Finance Ministries often understand this better than Foreign Ministries. Don’t get me started on ‘warm atmospherics’.
So, for the record, it is not concern I feel about the human cost of the war in Syria, it is outrage, frustration and a determination that we must stop it getting worse. It is not warmth I feel about what we can do to promote Britain, our brilliant ‘small island’, but passion and pride to wear the shirt.
I am not in Lebanon to promote warm bilateral relations. We’re here to double UK/Lebanon trade, double the number of students learning English, and maximise tangible support for Lebanon’s stability. Sometimes we’ll succeed, sometimes we’ll fail. But we’ll try not to describe the effort in tired cliches.