Decoding Diplomacy: A Bluffers Guide to International Meetings

I’ve posted on the FCO site on why this year’s UN General Assembly matters for Lebanon, and all of us.

Following the coverage from New York prompts me to share again explanations for some of the unnecessarily mystifying diplomatic terms.  

The rough league table of diplomatic meetings, our equivalent to speed dating, runs through: plenary (several countries), bilateral, 1-1, brush by, pull aside. Most are carefully choreographed, but not all. At one UNGA, I organised an ambush of a President who wanted to avoid a difficult meeting with the Prime Minister over Zimbabwe.

Before key exchanges, diplomatic advisers will haggle over the length and size of the meeting as well as the substance of any press statement. Even translation can a contested area, with some delegations adept at using up meeting time to avoid reaching the issues they want to avoid, or changing their country’s nomenclature to avoid a graveyard speaker slot or uncomfortable placement.

The type of press conference is also heavily contested. There, the rough ranking is in descending importance and difficulty: full press conference (podiums, flags, prepared statements and media questions), pool spray (more informal, with cameras at the start of the meeting), grip and grin (handshake but no words). The former are the hardest to get right. They present more practical challenges, such as finding a hidden step for smaller leaders. And if the UK media are involved, you have to warn foreign leaders to expect more personal and provocative questions than they get at home.

How you describe the meeting also matters. The rough sliding scale is: excellent, productive, constructive, practical, warm, good, businesslike, cordial, full and frank, difficult. In a separate category is a ‘summons’. Given the diplomatic tendency to understatement, anything below ‘cordial’ implies a serious dust up …  

Diplomats are so good at languages that we decided to create our own. I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog on why that needs to change.


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