Diplomatic Baggage

In 1949 the Vice Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps advised new British diplomats that they “should always take the option that is more pompous and old fashioned”. He might have been right then, though somehow I doubt it. He is certainly wrong now. 

At a moment of rapid transformation of other trades, ours retains customs first constructed around the diplomatic encounters of the Renaissance. Here are seven changes that would make us leaner and more competitive in the digital century. 

1. Junk the jargon. I’ve written before about meaningless diplatitudes such as “discussion of regional issues” or “matters of mutual concern”. Diplomats talk about “being unable to remain indifferent” to human rights violations – a phrase that drips indifference. There are ambassadors who could write of a mugging that “he took all my possessions, but the atmospherics were warm”. Just sometimes there is a place for obfuscation. But we should replace the jargon with more candid and authentic communication.

2. Stop the summits. Leaders need to meet, but too many international conferences have become exercises in political vanity. Content is heavily prepared – diplomatic foreplay. Many diplomats see it as their role to minimise any actual debate among leaders, leaving a fudged public communique and a photocall in a local hat. Al Gore, who sat through more summits than most, says the “habit of wearing colourful shirts that represent the fashion motif of the host nation recalls the parable of the child who noticed that the emperor has no clothes. Except in this case, the clothes have no emperor”. We should strip away the set pieces and grandiose declarations, and give leaders time and space for practical, direct and honest diplomacy. We should replace the choreographed summit with a Skype call and a fireside chat.

3. Can the credentials. On arrival in a country, the Ambassador is not meant to meet anyone until he has presented his credentials to the head of state. This can be moving and memorable – I will never forget hearing the British national anthem at the president’s summer palace high in the Shouf mountains of Lebanon. But while the private sector focuses on the first 100 days of a CEO’s tenure, the Ambassador is often spending his or her first weeks marooned at home, waiting for permission to hand over a piece of paper. The practise was established to show that an envoy was genuinely representing his leader. That is now easier to verify. We should replace the letter of credentials with a Google search. 

4. Nix the note verbale. Many Foreign Affairs Ministries still insist that formal communication between embassies and the host government is by a verbiose letter covered in stamps and seals. A typical one might run “The embassy of x presents its esteemed compliments to the Foreign Ministry of y. The embassy respectfully requests that the ambassador be permitted to park his vehicle in the main courtyard of the esteemed foreign ministry on his next visit. The embassy of x takes this opportunity to share its respect and warmest regards with the distinguished ministry”. Many ambassadors write in similiar terms to their diplomatic colleagues: I receive notes telling me that ambassadors I have never met will be out of the country for three days. We should replace the Note Verbale with a text message.

5. Drop the diplomatic bag. “The bag”, that transported diplomatic reports without the host country reading them, has a special place in diplomatic history. Wolsey was a serial violator in its early days. 19th century Lord Curzon exploded with fury when the Turks opened his, “and condemned them to a thousand hells of eternal fire”. In 1964, Italian authorities found a kidnapped Israeli in an Egyptian bag. When blood was spotted seeping from a bag on arrival in London, we discovered that it contained bush meat for a visiting Head of State,  evidently no fan of British cuisine. I suspect the modern pouch is now filled with DVD box sets from Amazon. We should replace the diplomatic bag with an email.

6. Can the canapés. We need to show that every truffle has a tangible effect on national interests. Most of them do. But there is still too much valuable time lost at diplomatic receptions. Harold Nicolson in 1961 captured the curse of the traditional national day function – “these parties tend to degenerate into stagnant pools in which the same old carp circle round and round gazing at each other with lacklustre eyes”. Diplomats need to get out of their comfort zones, stop talking only to each other, and engage wider society. We should replace many of our receptions with Twitter.

7. End the “Excellencies”. Master diplomat Talleyrand advised that “only fools mock etiquette, it simplifies life”. But it often complicates practical diplomacy. I frequently observe the frisson which some Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary feel when addressed as “Your Excellency”. As a rule, the more an envoy insists on being called “Excellence”, the less excellent they are likely to be. Elitist labels are a barrier to meaningful communication. We should replace the titles with an avatar.

His Excellency thanks the esteemed and distinguished reader for taking the time to peruse this despatch, and hopes respectfully that it addressed issues of mutual interest and concern. 

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