Truth and Diplomacy

Should Diplomats be Good Liars? 

Sir Henry Wotton, a sixteenth-century English diplomat, joked that an ambassador was “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. There are plenty of history’s diplomats who would agree. Wotton’s contemporary Machiavelli, who wrote the handbook on how to take, maintain and use power, certainly did. 18th century Austrian master diplomat Metternich also saw deviousness as part of the diplomatic DNA. On hearing of the death of a rival he mused, “now I wonder what he meant by that”. 19th century Foreign Secretary Palmerston claimed that “I tell ambassadors the truth, because I know they won’t believe it”.

Another 19th century statesman, Italian Count Cavour, saw a lack of morality as central to statecraft, concluding that “if we did for ourselves what we do for our country, what rogues we should be”. There have been plenty of diplomats prepared to break the rules in the service of a higher cause. I find that it is a working assumption of many in the Middle East that the perfidious Brits have a cunning scheme up their sleeves. But if we were that clever, we would still be running the world. 

Perhaps it is true that the best diplomats understand when to say nothing, or not to say everything: no negotiator shows his full hand. But in reality honesty remains one of the most important qualities of a decent diplomat. Deviousness backfires. In negotiations, you live or die on your reputation. As a former French ambassador, Herve Alphand, put it – “a diplomat is a person who can tell the truth to anyone in the government to which he is accredited without offending him, and to anyone in his own government at the risk of offending him”. Harold Nicolson, writing a guide to diplomacy in 1961, agreed. “Good diplomacy is akin to sound banking, and depends on credit. Even if your opponent gains a trick or two by sharp practise, you should yourself abide by the rules of the game”.

There will always need to be a place for confidential diplomacy, and secrets. And of course any diplomat is going to present his or her country in the best possible light. But you want the truth? People can usually handle the truth. More importantly, they can see through platitudes and propaganda, as I’ve argued on this blog. So the devious diplomat is another stereotype that needs to be binned as we work towards a more candid and authentic diplomacy. We can update Wotton. A diplomat is an honest man or woman sent abroad to tweet the truth about his or her country.