One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why We Need Diplomats

Last week, a gaggle of US Republican Senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, in which they said that as soon as their party wins the next election, they'll reverse a treaty on nuclear energy and weapons. 

Right. We're going to leave behind the content of the letter for the rest of this blog. Let's focus on the method of communication.

By writing directly, these Senators took it upon themselves to speak directly to a foreign government, bypassing the centuries-old practice in which countries talk to each other via ambassadors and diplomats. They took upon themselves the responsibility which is reserved for the President, thereby breaching the Constitution.

A US senator is a domestic politician; he or she is elected to represent his constituency and not his country. He or she should concern themselves with the laws of the land and how it affects his or her constituents, rather than agreements among nations.

Presidents and heads of state, diplomats and ambassadors are the ones who are appointed to talk to other countries on behalf of senators, Congressmen and pretty much everyone else in the country.

So when this troupe of senators put pen to paper to warn a foreign nation that as soon as their party gets into power they'll tear up an agreement their two countries have made, they've essentially gone rogue. They've exceeded their brief, they've undermined the position of their country's leadership and its ambassadors, and they've lowered their country's standing in the community of nations.

Diplomacy evolved for exactly the same reason that traffic lights were invented. If we left it to each citizen to carry on relations with citizens of other nations, there'd be seven billion shouting matches going on at the same time. These 47 fools just went and proved why we need diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's finance minister, and his German counterpart Wolfgang Schauble are embroiled in a less-than-ministerial tussle. Varoufakis claims Schauble has insulted him by saying that the recently-appointed Greek minister has been naive in his dealings with the media.

Not only that, but Varoufakis' boss, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, popped up in the Greek Parliament this week saying that Germany still owes Greece money from World War Two: not the most sensitive way to shepherd tense negotiations.

This mudslinging and name-calling may persuade you that those US Senators were on to something when they decided to bypass the normal procedure. But all this unedifying spectacle tells us is that politicians have started to believe that they are more important than the system. 

I've met my share of politicians, and more than my share of diplomats over the years. Let me tell you, politicians are desperate to talk. It's their job. They can't stop themselves from spouting forth on anything and everything. All you have to do is wind them up by asking a question and you're good for the next 45 minutes.

Diplomats, in contrast, have to be cajoled, encouraged to say something. And when they do say it, it's spoken in a code, in a formula that may not mean much to you or I, but means a great deal to other diplomats. And it's delivered slowly, carefully. You can see the gears working in a diplomat's head when you ask him for a comment on something. And when diplomats write to each other, it's even worse. Long, formal sentences full of "heretofores" and "without prejudices". It's basically lawyer-speak.

Which makes perfect sense. Whether we know it or not, there are laws, or conventions that govern the way countries relate to each other, and diplomacy is the practice of that set of international laws and conventions.

My grandfather - a diplomat up to the 1970s - once taught me a guiding principle of diplomacy. He sat me down and presented the following scenario:

"There's been a coup in the country of X-land, and the president's been shot. The next morning you, as the British ambassador in the capital city of X-ville, receive a letter from the new leader of X-land in which he asks for assistance in rebuilding X-land's economy and promises to be a faithful ally in the future. What should your reply be?"

I thought for a while and suggested that I would compose a stalling reply to say that my country would consider what to do next once we had assessed the situation. My grandfather shook his head.

"You would do nothing," he said. "You don't say anything or send anything. Why? Because your government hasn't recognised the new government of X-land. Until it does, the new government is in your official eyes, illegitimate and you don't talk to them or acknowledge their existence. Your relationship is, was, with the deposed leader until you are told otherwise." 

That shut me up.

I add this anecdote only to point out that there isn't a politician alive who could manage to follow those rules, to stay silent and follow protocol.

Politicians have started to believe that they have the right to get involved in issues that are outside their remit, and to ignore the fundamental principles of international relations. Because they're elected, they think they have the rights to *all* the buttons and levers of power, even ones they're not trained to operate.

Diplomacy has been practised, without interruption, since the 13th century. There's a code of conduct, and a reason why that code of conduct has remained in essence untouched since then. Firstly, it works, and secondly, it keeps the grubby, ignorant hands of politicians out of international discourse. Let's hope it stays that way.


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