Diplomacy is the art of giving all parties in a conflict what they need, if not what they want. Right now, the underpaid, mismanaged FCO staff are getting neither what they need nor what they want. Britain is weaker and less safe as a result.
So writes the Editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan, in Thursday’s London Evening Standard, in a stinging account of the marginalisation of a once great department of state (full disclosure: for which I worked for 30 years).
In her resignation letter of 5 August, Baroness Warsi, a former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party and Foreign Office minister, denounced the government’s policy on Gaza as –
[in]consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice. In many ways the absence of the experience and expertise of colleagues like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve has over the last few weeks become very apparent… William Hague was probably one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country has seen… He dismantled foreign policy making by sofa government and restored decision making and dignity to the Foreign Office. There is however great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both Minister[s] and senior officials, in the way recent decisions are being made.
The two greatest disasters in British post-war foreign policy, Suez (1956) and UK participation in the illegal attack on Iraq (2003), were at least partly attributable to the failure, indeed deliberate refusal, of the responsible prime ministers, Sir Anthony Eden and Tony Blair, to listen to the advice and warnings of the professional foreign affairs experts, including the legal advisers, in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
As Rajan’s article points out, one consequence of the steady devaluation of the FCO over many decades, as its resources have been mindlessly reduced while its responsibilities have been relentlessly increased, has been the absence of any coherent identifiable British foreign policy. Successive governments have constantly over-estimated British influence in world affairs, endlessly boasting about Britain’s ‘leadership role’, blind to the evidence of relative decline and indeed often explicitly denying it, while actually accelerating it by an extraordinary failure to play an active, constructive and cooperative role in Europe. Neither party has an identifiable policy on military intervention in the affairs of other states: in the weird muddle over the abortive proposal to join in air attacks on Syria, neither Labour nor the Conservatives felt able to declare unequivocally that such intervention without the prior authority of the UN Security Council (and other than in self-defence) would be in clear breach of the UN Charter and thus of international law — therefore an act of aggression and a war crime. No British government in recent times has laid down a coherent policy on the middle east, on China (threat? opportunity? who knows?), on reform of the Security Council (is Britain willing to give up or share its permanent seat and veto?) or on nuclear disarmament and the scandalous distortion of UK defence policy by the irrational refusal to scrap Trident, a so-called independent nuclear deterrent which is not independent and has no-one to deter, as crisply demonstrated by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of 15 August. In a crisis, why do our prime ministers instinctively rush first across the Atlantic, not across the English Channel? It’s too late to reverse NATO’s reckless expansion eastwards or Putin’s reactive retrieval of Crimea, but why are we intent on punishing Russia instead of discussing a Ukraine settlement that will respect the interests of all parties to the conflict?
Amol Rajan tells us that –
Cameron’s close circle of foreign policy advisers in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office has explained in closed-door meetings to the diplomats in the FCO that the Prime Minister does not really think about strategy at all. Moreover, the feeling in King Charles Street and some of our missions is that many of these advisers owe their positions to old school ties rather than ability.
This persistent legacy of failure offers Ed Miliband and his colleagues an enormous opportunity to set out a coherent, rational and law-abiding foreign policy, rooted in and executed by the FCO, for an incoming Labour government. This will call for a degree of courage that has been conspicuously missing from our political leaders of all political colours in recent years: courage to take on the puerile sabre-rattling of the tabloids and the Murdoch press; courage to attack such shibboleths as Trident, the burned-out ‘two-state solution’ in the middle east, and the indefensible current composition of the Security Council; not least, courage to acknowledge the foreign affairs blunders of the Blair government, some of whose senior members still insist on defending their flawed records in parliament and the media. Labour’s motto in these and many other matters should be Danton’s: “il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!” If Labour dared to adopt it, Mr Miliband’s fate might be happier than Danton’s: not the guillotine, but the keys to Downing Street.
As of now (6 August 2014) the best guess must be that Scotland will vote to reject independence in the referendum on the 18th of next month. But there are still many undecided voters and most pundits predict a closer result than the opinion polls currently suggest. The possibility of a narrow majority for independence can’t be ruled out, and politicians and media analysts alike should be doing much more contingency planning and discussion against that possibility than seems to be happening. Among the major issues in the event of a majority Yes vote that ought to be actively considered by all the UK parties between now and the referendum is whether the coalition government should resign at once if defeated in the referendum, with fresh elections before the end of this year to elect a new government with a mandate to conduct the independence negotiations with Scotland. In my view it would be a constitutional outrage if Cameron and his coalition government refused to resign in such circumstances, for the reasons (among others) set out in my letter published in today’s Guardian:
A vote for Scottish independence is a vote for a pig in a poke
• The Guardian, Wednesday 6 August 2014
Martin Kettle’s dystopian and all too credible prediction of the disastrous consequences of a majority for independence in the Scottish referendum in September (Remember 2014, the last summer of the old Britain, 31 July) suggests two possible variants of his scenario. First, David Cameron’s coalition government would surely have to resign immediately following such a catastrophic defeat. The incumbent government that had presided over the disintegration of our country as a direct result of its failure to offer Scotland a credible alternative to independence could hardly carry on as if nothing terrible had happened; and anyway there would be a pressing need for a new government with an electoral mandate to open and lead the negotiations with Edinburgh on the detailed terms of Scotland’s secession.
Second, the negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) on the terms of secession would be quite likely to get bogged down in failure to agree on some key issues. If the best terms that the government at Holyrood was able to extract fell significantly short of the SNP’s demands, there might well be justified pressure from the Scottish people for a fresh referendum to establish whether those who had voted in 2014 for independence still favoured it on the only terms on offer following the negotiations. Come September, Scots will have to decide whether to buy a pig in a poke. They may well find that they don’t like the pig when it eventually emerges. However, it would be risky for Scots considering a yes vote in September to assume that they will have an opportunity later to change their minds if they don’t like whatever may emerge from negotiations with rUK.
On the second point in my Guardian letter, there seems to be some doubt about whether ministers have allowed Whitehall to start planning for the consequences of a possible vote for independence on 18 September. Such an outcome would launch several years of intricate and often deeply divisive negotiations between a Scottish team, led by or perhaps comprising the SNP, on the one hand, and a team representing the rest of the UK (rUK), probably representing all the mainstream UK parties, on the other. Does the main steering brief for the rUK team in the negotiations already exist in Whitehall, setting out the rUK’s main aims in the negotiations, including its red lines on an independent Scotland’s currency; the future of rUK naval and military bases in Scotland (including HM Naval Base Clyde); and the allocation as between Scotland and rUK of North Sea oil revenues, the national debt, the armed forces, and a host of other assets and liabilities? Have the three main UK parties worked out agreed or differing policies on each of these vital issues? If they differ, how are the differences to be reconciled in conducting the negotiations if not by a mandate from the rUK electorate — which would mean publicly disclosing the rUK’s negotiating positions in advance? Perhaps most important of all: what will happen if, after perhaps several years of difficult and stormy negotiations, the two sides simply fail to reach agreement? In the last resort the rUK side can lay down the terms on which the UK parliament will be prepared to grant independence to Scotland, whether or not the Scottish side — almost certainly after fresh elections in Scotland — has agreed to them. What if the majority of Scots who will have voted Yes in 2014 don’t wish to become independent on the terms laid down by rUK following a breakdown or deadlock in the negotiations? In that perfectly plausible situation, is rUK prepared to force independence on Scotland even if a majority of Scots don’t want it on the rUK’s terms?
All these issues urgently need to be publicly aired and debated in the next six weeks if Scottish voters are to have even a hazy understanding of the likely consequences of their votes on 18 September. Have ministers and their officials, and the Labour leadership separately, thought them through and arrived at firm decisions on how to handle them in the negotiations with the Scots if the Yes vote wins? Are any of the three main UK parties ready for an October or November general election fought on the issue of the terms of separation to be offered to Scotland after a Yes vote on 18 September? I rather doubt it.
This information is for university teachers of diplomacy or international affairs, and for editors and book reviewers. It supplements the information about What Diplomats Do, Brian Barder’s new book, now available at the publishers’ (Rowman & Littlefield) website, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357; on my previous blog post at http://www.barder.com/4229; and in a new section on my website, starting at http://www.barder.com/wdd/.
University teachers who are considering whether to include What Diplomats Do in their students’ recommended or required course reading lists, or who have decided to do so, can request a free copy (“desk copy”, “inspection copy” or “exam copy”) from the publishers in order to assess it.
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This blogger is the author of a book published by Rowman & Littlefield last week, What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats. This is precisely what it says on the tin; it’s not another ex-diplomat’s thinly disguised, self-published memoirs. After writing millions of words in blog posts, articles, emails and letters, I have at last got round to writing a book. I shan’t do it again, so buy it now before the 20% discount offer lapses.
There’s more information about the book at http://www.barder.com/wdd/ (and pages to which it links — hat-tip: my IT guru, Owen), including: the full texts of two sample chapters (one of them the explanatory Introduction); extracts from some flattering pre-publication reviews by eminent academic teachers of diplomacy and international affairs and by some equally eminent former ambassadors; and an order form that you can download, fill in and send off if you want to get that 20% discount while it lasts.
What do diplomats actually do, not according to academic theory but as a matter of day-to-day reality? That is the question that this book seeks to answer by describing the various stages of a typical diplomat’s career. The book follows a genuinely fictional diplomat — no, he’s not me thinly disguised — from his application to join the national diplomatic service, through varied postings at home and overseas, culminating in his appointment as an ambassador, and eventually his retirement. Each chapter contains illustrative factual anecdotes, some more serious than others, drawn from the author’s 30 years’ experience as a diplomat, ending with postings in four countries in three continents as an ambassador and high commissioner.
What Diplomats Do examines various aspects of the life of a diplomat, contrasting his or her work in an affluent, friendly country with that in a developing country and one with a hostile government, describing the impact on personal and family life and personal security, as well as the privileges and drawbacks of serving as an ambassador. The writer discusses the potential influence of the individual diplomat in helping to formulate and carry out his government’s foreign policy decisions.
Rowman & Littlefield, the book’s publishers, say of What Diplomats Do:
Rigorously academic in its coverage yet extremely lively and engaging, this unique work will serve as a primer to any students and junior diplomats wishing to grasp what the practice of diplomacy is actually like.
Sir Ivor Roberts, a distinguished former British ambassador and currently President (Master) of Trinity College, Oxford University, contributed a generous foreword to the book, writing –
With that [diplomatic] experience and as the editor of the new edition of the classic diplomatic textbook Satow’s Diplomatic Practice, I hope that I can be considered capable of distinguishing a diplomatic hawk from a handsaw. So while books on diplomacy and diplomatic life are not a rarity, Brian’s offering fills a real gap in the market. It is neither a manual, though it offers excellent practical advice, nor is it a memoir though the text is interspersed with often entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. It does instead what it promises: it tells you exactly what it’s like to be a diplomat and what sort of challenges you face on an every-day basis.
The Lee E. Dirks Professor of the History of Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, wrote about the book:
Barder’s account is informative, humanly sympathetic, distinctly British, and thoroughly engaging. I found reading its chapters irresistible, like eating peanuts.
I know of no other book on diplomacy which is so instructive as to procedure, entertaining in its examples, vivid and engaging in its style, massively authoritative, and original in its structure. A few passages dealing with real events are also gripping, notably that describing Sir Brian Barder’s recommendation – in the event momentous in its significance – to recommend a green light for RAF relief flights to Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine in 1984. I think it is a brilliant book…
More information about What Diplomats Do is on the website of the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357.
University and college teachers of diplomacy and international affairs can request an inspection or exam copy of the book from the publishers by clicking the relevant tab in the left-hand panel of the relevant web-page. Editors or reviewers at learned — or indeed unlearned — journals and newspapers can similarly ask Rowman & Littlefield for a review copy in the same way. Academic teachers in the field who have already read the book are unanimous — so far! — in saying that they will use What Diplomats Do as a teaching tool and will include it in their students’ recommended or required reading lists.
But What Diplomats Do is not formally a text-book, although it can serve as one; it is written just as much for the general reader with an interest in current affairs, who knows about diplomacy in general terms but who may be curious to know the kinds of things that individual diplomats — junior as well as senior, third secretaries as well as ambassadors — actually do between getting up in the morning, and slumping back into bed early the following morning, after a long day’s unglamorous work and (probably) a spectacularly tedious diplomatic dinner party that has dragged on into the small hours. What Diplomats Do fills in the gaps and aims to be an enjoyable as well as an informative read.
Britain has belonged to the European Union and its predecessors for the past 42 years. Yet some of our leaders, Conservative and Labour, apparently have little idea about the way it works. Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, have both complained, in terms that suggest a surprising ignorance of EU realities, about the possibility of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, becoming President of the European Commission in the face of David Cameron’s ferocious opposition to him.
According to Nicholas Watt in today’s (23 June 2014) Guardian, Mr Duncan-Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party, said yesterday:
If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally [sic] flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, ‘We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.’
And Mr Alexander, for Labour, who according to Mr Watt “has instructed Labour MEPs not to support Juncker” [what, even if he's unanimously nominated for the job by all the EU governments?], spoke in equally revealing terms:
There can be no excuses. David Cameron has a clear mandate from political parties here in the UK – including Labour – to build consensus across Europe for an alternative candidate for president of the commission.
Mr Duncan-Smith seems to think that the majority of the EU electorate has just voted to reject Mr Juncker for the post of Commission President. In fact, Mr Juncker was the preferred candidate of the EPP, the main centre-right group in the EU parliament, which won the most seats in last month’s election. So if the EU elections are any guide (which is debatable), Mr Juncker has a better claim on the job than anyone else.
It’s also meaningless to suggest, as Mr Alexander seems to have done, that at least the UK voters voted at the European elections in support of Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker. Because of Mr Cameron’s eccentric and ill-judged decision, before becoming UK prime minister, to pull the UK Conservative party out of the EPP group to which its main natural allies in Europe belong, and to form a new group which he thought could be made more Euro-sceptic, there is now no UK party that belongs to the EPP group, and it was therefore impossible for any UK voter to vote either for or against Mr Juncker for the Commission Presidency. Where Mr Alexander’s “clear mandate” for Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker comes from remains a mystery. If all he means is that he, Ed Miliband and Clegg have all agreed to oppose Juncker and to support Cameron’s reckless campaign against him, that hardly amounts to a ‘mandate’: it’s more of a joint misjudgement.
It’s just as bizarre for Duncan-Smith and Alexander to speak as if the elections to the European parliament effectively equated to elections to the Presidency of the European Commission. The parallel with elections to the UK parliament, where the leader of the party winning the most seats in the House of Commons will normally become prime minister, is seriously misleading. In the case of the EU, it’s the European Council of Ministers – i.e. the EU heads of government – who have the duty and right to ‘nominate’ their preferred candidate for the Presidency of the Commission, who is then ‘elected’ – or rejected – by the European parliament. Of course in deciding whom to nominate to the EU parliament for the Commission Presidency, the EU governments will take account of opinion in the elected EU parliament, the biggest group in which campaigned last month for Mr Juncker as Commission President. If Mr Cameron somehow persuades his fellow members of the Council of Ministers to nominate a candidate other than Mr Juncker, the EU parliament might well refuse to elect him or her, and go on rejecting the EU governments’ nominees until they consent to nominate Mr Juncker. But the idea that in electing Tory, LibDem, Labour or UKIP MEPs to Brussels and Strasberg, British voters were expressing an opinion about Mr Juncker’s – or anyone else’s – suitability for the Commission Presidency is frankly fatuous. I doubt if as many as 1 percent of UK voters had ever heard of Mr Juncker.
Iain Duncan-Smith and Douglas Alexander might usefully be reminded of two further points.
First, last month’s EU elections in the UK can’t by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as an indication of the British people’s views on the best candidate for the Commission Presidency. No UK party campaigned at those elections for any particular candidate for that post, no UK party putting up candidates for the European parliament belonged to the EPP group which, elsewhere in Europe, was championing Mr Juncker for the job, and since the UK is unrepresented in the EPP group which won the elections, the UK’s MEPs will have little or no influence in the decision of the EU parliament on whether to elect or reject whoever is eventually nominated by the EU governments. This sorry situation results directly from David Cameron’s decision to pull his party out of the EPP group, ignoring the pleas of a bewildered Mrs Merkel and other European leaders who might otherwise have had some sympathy with Mr Cameron’s problems.
Secondly, our party leaders might be reminded that there is no consensus in Britain about the kind of EU reforms that Mr Cameron and his Euro-sceptic party are demanding. Just because all three of the main political parties in Britain, and indeed in many other European countries, recognise the need for “reform” of the EU, it doesn’t mean that they agree on which reforms they want. The UK Tories, for example, want to weaken the power of the EU to regulate safeguards for employees’ work conditions throughout the Union. They resent this EU power in the name of what they euphemistically refer to as “flexible labour laws”. Our UK Tories want to be relieved of EU constraints on their right to make our workers work longer hours, for lower rates of pay, with fewer rights to maternity, paternity and other holidays, and generally in worse conditions, than those in our more enlightened EU partner countries. We need a promise that this is one of many Cameron ‘reforms’ that Labour will never support.
Nor should Labour support the Tories’ demand for limits to be imposed on the free movement of people within the EU, or for abandonment of the principle that all EU citizens, in whichever EU country they live, work or visit, are equally entitled to health and other social benefits. We all favour ‘reform’, as we all favour motherhood, but one party’s reforms are another’s erosion of the basic principles underlying the EU. The Union, that institution to which we belong, and from which we derive such enormous benefits, is one which many people all over our continent still, despite all the disappointments and disillusionments, find genuinely inspiring. Labour should never compromise its European credentials in order to try to appease the Euro-sceptics of the Murdoch press and the wilder reaches of the Conservative back benches. We can leave that doomed attempt at appeasing ignorance and reaction to Mr Cameron and Mr Duncan-Smith.
Our prime minister has embarked on another of his wild gambles. If he pulls it off and our partner governments are blackmailed into dispensing with Mr Juncker’s services, David Cameron’s and other Tories’ triumphalist gloating will be hard to endure, and Britain will incur the odium of widespread opinion throughout the EU for depriving them of their favourite candidate. If he fails, Britain will have to cope for five years or more with a powerful President of the Commission who’ll bear an entirely understandable grudge against all three of the UK’s political parties for having tried so hard, for so little reason, to prevent his selection for the job. It’s a lose-lose situation, as usual.
Footnote (27 June 2014): An abbreviated version of this post has been published by LabourList: please see http://labourlist.org/2014/06/on-foolishly-trying-to-junk-mr-juncker/. It has attracted some very interesting comments there, to some of which I have tried to respond with a number of additional points on various aspects of the issue.
Since I wrote about Ukraine in my blog post of 2 March, provoking a vigorous and mostly healthy debate, the role of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine has looked increasingly significant. The UK media – those parts of them that I see and hear, anyway – have been curiously reticent about this agreement and what it says about the west’s intentions as regards relations with Ukraine. I wrote to the Guardian about it.
[Letter to the Guardian letters editor, 21 March 2014:]
The EU has reportedly carried out its threat [on 21 March 2014] to sign the ‘political parts’ of its inflammatory and divisive association agreement with Ukraine’s interim (and dubiously legal) government, as forecast in [the Guardian's] report under the sadly inappropriate heading “EU showing reluctance to escalate Crimea backlash” (p2, 20 March). This deserves much more attention and indeed alarm than it has so far received. It was the then elected Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign this agreement that triggered his unconstitutional deposition and the installation of the current western-backed interim régime in Kiev.
The agreement requires Ukraine steadily to “approximate” its legislation to that of the EU, a process to be monitored and even enforced by the EU, and sets up a political dialogue designed explicitly to “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area”. It’s difficult for Moscow or anyone else to interpret these proposed commitments otherwise than as steps leading to eventual Ukrainian membership of the EU and subsequently of NATO (“the European security area”). For the EU now to sign such an agreement with the unelected interim Kiev régime, months ahead of the election of a new government and president, is bound to escalate the crisis. It will intensify Russia’s understandable suspicions of western intentions and fears of encirclement. If the EU genuinely wants de-escalation, it should seek to allay, not intensify, Russia’s suspicions by declaring that Ukrainian membership of either the EU or NATO is not on the cards and never will be, leaving the political elements of the ill-conceived association agreement permanently in the Pending tray. We hear plenty about the stick, but where’s the carrot?
A sharp western response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea is plainly required, but we need much more clarity about whether current and proposed sanctions are meant to be a punishment or a deterrent (quite different things), and about the exit strategy that western governments have in mind, given that annexation of Crimea now seems a fait accompli.
21 March, 2014
My letter was not published. No complaint: it was rather dry.
Ten days later the following Parliamentary Question and (written) Reply appeared in Hansard:
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green)
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether the commitment in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signed by the EU and the interim Ukraine administration on 21 March 2014 to a political dialogue designed to promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area reflects an EU policy objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO; and if he will make a statement.
David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
While NATO and the EU play complementary and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security, they are separate organisations. There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.
Ukraine, has a long standing relationship with NATO and is a valued contributor to a number of NATO operations. The UK Government continues to support defence reform in Ukraine and hopes that its Government will continue to work with NATO in the future.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 31 March 2014, c433W)
Caroline Lucas MP (Green) asked an excellent question. The minister’s reply is not however satisfactory, because it doesn’t answer the question (does the passage quoted from the EU-Ukraine agreement reflect an EU objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO?), and the Russians will have their work cut out parsing the carefully worded statement that “There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.”
Why did Russia act with such blatant disregard for international law and with such haste to annex Crimea? It’s no excuse for President Putin to say, as he does, that the west has behaved with far more contempt for international law with their bloody attacks on or military interventions in Yugoslavia (over Kosovo), Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (in the last two there was UN authority for a limited intervention but the limitations imposed by the Security Council’s mandate were ignored). As for Russia’s unseemly haste to grab back Crimea, why was the EU in such a hurry to sign the EU Association Agreement with an unelected interim administration in Kiev, headed by an unelected interim President and blatantly unrepresentative of the Ukrainian people, when the previous democratically elected President had been deposed, with western encouragement, for refusing to sign the agreement and when democratic elections for a new President and a new government of Ukraine are to take place in just a few weeks’ time?
Perhaps the Russian policy analysts in Moscow had taken the trouble to read the EU-Ukraine agreement signed on 21 March (unlike most of the commentariat servicing the UK media, apparently). Perhaps they had spotted the passages in the agreement highlighted in my unpublished letter to the Guardian and in Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary question. Perhaps they, like some of us in the west, wondered whether the EU was in such a hurry to get the agreement signed because they planned to act quickly to link the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea with its vital Russian naval base, so tightly to the EU and then to NATO that it would become impossible for Crimea to continue to act as host to a major Russian naval base. Immediate action by Russia to re-detach Crimea from Ukraine and re-integrate it with Russia might have seemed a prudent way to pre-empt any such western intention with a minimum of bloodshed and international fuss. From Moscow’s point of view a policy of wait-and-see may have seemed simply too risky, with so much at stake.
And perhaps, after Crimea had been unceremoniously re-attached to Russia, those Moscow policy wonks might have read the British government’s non-reply to Ms Lucas’s pointed question, and concluded that they were probably right to interpret the EU agreement in the way they did, and right to recommend securing Crimea and the vital base in Sevastopol for Russia in the way the Russian government did, before it was too late.
It’s time for the west – the EU and NATO – to decide what it wants in its future relations with Ukraine, and whether to treat Russia as a competitor or an associate in those relations. The west currently adopts a nakedly adversarial attitude towards Moscow, apparently aiming to subvert Russia’s influence with its near neighbour and to replace it with Ukraine’s “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of … ever-deeper involvement in the European security area” – in the words of the EU-Ukraine agreement. Such a policy risks widening the divisions within Ukraine in a way that can only destabilise the country to the point where Russian intervention may become inevitable. Ukraine is far more important to Russia, both psychologically and in terms of security, than it is to the EU or NATO: so if competition for influence becomes a game of chicken, the west is bound to blink first. But the consequences of a competition culminating in Russian physical intervention in Ukraine would be disastrous, both for Russia and for the west. Such a crisis could well wreck any chance of a constructive relationship between Russia and the west for a generation. Russia would be driven back into xenophobic autocracy; any lingering hopes of a recognisable Russian liberal democracy would be crushed.
There’s an obvious alternative: instead of seeking to supplant Russian interests in Ukraine, the west could actively seek Russian cooperation in stabilising the area and jointly promoting its economic and political recovery. Two acts in particular would signal a constructive change of course. First, the west should declare that Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO is not on the cards, since Ukraine’s geography and history alike point to the need for its neutrality between east and west. Since neither the US, the UK or France would in any conceivable circumstances go to war with Russia over Ukraine, its admission to NATO would constitute a betrayal in waiting, so ruling it out in advance would cost nothing and could potentially represent a major advance as a reassurance to Russia, as well as forcing the Ukrainians to face up to the reality of their geography. Secondly, the west should endorse Russia’s proposal for a federal system within Ukraine and offer its practical help, in collaboration with Moscow, in bringing it about. Greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine within a federal state would satisfy the ambitions of many Russian-speaking Ukrainians. It’s hard to understand why the west has so far ignored this constructive proposal from Moscow.
Time is short. Small pro-Russian groups are occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declaring themselves independent, arousing suspicions that Russia is encouraging them to create a pretext for intervention, when the reality might be that these groups are acting independently of Moscow in the hope of forcing the Russians to step in. Current four-power talks at official level have a great deal hanging on them: not just the future of Ukraine, which is important enough, but also the future of Russia and its role in the world, which is incomparably more so.
[Footnote: Much of this blog post goes over ground partly covered by an earlier post at http://www.barder.com/4126. That attracted a good many comments, some hostile and vigorously expressed, some strongly supportive. The authors of all such comments on that earlier post can take it that their comments apply equally to this one, and that there is no need to repeat them here, unless of course they have something new to say or new information to supply.]
Solemn British commentators on the Ukraine crisis are wringing their hands over the west’s alleged inability to do anything to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine in the face of alarming Russian military activity, including powerlessness to persuade the Russians to pull back from their militaristic moves before the tension breaks out into war. They are wrong. There is one move that the west can and should make that would help to undo the consequences of recent western policy blunders, reassure Moscow about Russia’s legitimate strategic and security interests in its own region, and compel Ukraine’s leaders of all communities to adopt a more realistic attitude to its geopolitical situation and the limits which that imposes on its options. The west needs urgently to give a clear and unconditional assurance that there can be no question of Ukraine, or any part of Ukraine, ever becoming a member of either the EU or NATO.
This would be no more than a recognition of reality. Russia’s interests in Ukraine – strategic, cultural and historical, and personal (a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, nearly a fifth are Russian citizens) – are such that no government in Moscow could passively stand by while the closest of its neighbours is being drawn into the west’s orbit. The west’s reckless dangling of an unfulfillable promise of EU and even NATO membership in front of successive incompetent and corrupt Ukrainian regimes, contemptuously ignoring Russian concerns, bears a large part of the responsibility for the mess we’re all now in.
The dangerous crisis in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, will not be resolved by pompous condemnation of Russia’s aggression or by unconvincing warnings of high but undefined costs for Russia if it continues to violate Ukraine’s integrity – warnings that sound especially hypocritical coming from politicians (not, incidentally, including Barack Obama) who vociferously supported western illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003. The grandstanding rush by our foreign secretary, William Hague, to Kiev today is misconceived. It will be interpreted as implying a renewed commitment of some kind to UK support for the revolutionaries in Kiev, many of whom are still dreaming of eventual membership of the EU, if not also of NATO. Is that interpretation what Mr Hague intends? If so, he should not be in charge of UK foreign policy.
If anyone should be rushing overseas in search of de-escalation, it should be to Brussels to agree without more delay on declarations by the EU and NATO of the impossibility of Ukrainian membership of either. Meanwhile western leaders should be telling the Russians that we are working towards such a declaration; that it is no part of EU or NATO policies to threaten Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea or the rest of Ukraine: that it is in Russia’s, the west’s, and Ukraine’s interests that stability, prosperity and uncorrupt government should be promoted in Ukraine; and that the EU and the US wish to discuss with Moscow institutional arrangements for cooperation in economic support for Ukraine once a stable, representative and democratically legitimate régime has been installed in Kiev.
The basis for such a peacemaking initiative by the west as an alternative to the spear-waving bluster advocated by, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (among many others), is set out in eloquent and scholarly terms by one of the greatest British diplomats of our time, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in an article in today’s Independent on Sunday which should be required reading for all those who are indulging their out-dated cold war prejudices by sanctimoniously denouncing Mr Putin for doing what any great power leader in his position would be bound to do. Selectively quoting Sir Rodric, –
Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution….
Today 77 per cent of the country’s population is Ukrainian. But 17 per cent is Russian, a third of the population speak Russian and many of these people have strong family ties with Russia. Only the Ukrainians from Galicia look unequivocally to the West.
Meanwhile, most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb. …
… Putin arrived in 2000, ambitious to strengthen Russia’s influence with its neighbours. And the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities.
… The first is respectable but merely rhetorical: Ukraine is entitled to decide its future for itself, and Russia has no legitimate claim to a voice. The second is a piece of old-fashioned geopolitics: Russia can never again become an imperial threat if Ukraine is incorporated into Nato and the European Union. This part of the policy is impractical to the point of irresponsibility. It ignores four things. The members of Nato and the EU have lost their appetite for further enlargement. Most Ukrainians do not want their country to join Nato, though they would be happy to join the EU. A majority want to remain on good terms with Russia. Above all, the West does not have the instruments to impose its will. …
The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.
An eventual deal would doubtless have to include verifiable agreement by the West as well as the Russians to abandon meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a credible assurance that Nato will not try to recruit Ukraine and arrangements for the both the Russians and the West to prop up Ukraine’s disastrous economy….
Further obligatory background reading is a piece for Chatham House by another distinguished former British diplomat, former British ambassador in Moscow, and current member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, the Rt Hon Sir Roderic Lyne.
And, finally, a comment by yet another equally distinguished British diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge:
The key point, I believe, which the media largely overlook, is that the revolution in the Ukraine is primarily a protest against domestic corruption and misrule, not a vote for the EU or against Russia. The EU issue provided the occasion but was not the cause. In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake — Putin, of course, has been bound to follow suit. And quite apart from all this, the last thing the EU needs now is responsibility for an almost bankrupt and almost failed state.
These three know whereof they speak. Our noisy and belligerent political leaders and their media cheer-leaders with their crude and counter-productive posturing would do well to listen to them.
[Full disclosure: both Bryan Cartledge and Roderic Lyne are friends and my former Diplomatic Service colleagues. All three of us served together many years ago in the British embassy in Moscow.]
 Postscript and correction: as Roland Smith has helpfully pointed out in his comment below, I should not have written that nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian population are Russian “citizens”: i should have written “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers”. Of course the Russian habit of issuing passports to Russian speakers in neighbouring countries and then claiming the right to intervene to protect their ‘citizens’ across the border tends to blur the distinction between ‘Russians’ living abroad who are citizens of Russia, and those who are not.
In recent years no scholarly article about diplomacy or report on the subject in the toffs’ press has been complete without a knowing reference to “soft power” – the deployment of cultural and other peaceful assets as means of persuasion. It is often contrasted with “hard power”, persuasion by use of bombs, drones, Special Forces, blackmail, threats, and the like. Now the term soft power has been comprehensively discredited by the person best qualified to torpedo it, Emeritus Professor G R Berridge, the guru of diplomatic studies and author of their classic text, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, among many other books and articles. In a few witty and pithy paragraphs on the home page of his website, Professor Berridge expertly deconstructs the definition of “soft power” rashly recorded by its inventor, the distinguished American scholar “Joseph S. Nye, Jnr., a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex”. Berridge castigates Nye’s definition as “cluttered with redundant words”, and for describing “something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious.” He thereupon surgically excises the clutter, exposing what remains as nothing more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of “influence”.
Berridge offers three possible reasons for the virus-like spread of this “silly and inelegant synonym for influence”: first, that it’s easy to grasp, whereas ‘influence’ is hard to define even though not hard to understand; secondly, because of “the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment … and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language”; and thirdly because the enthusiasts for soft power (and for its originator) have yielded to the temptation to describe it as a concept, rather than simply a term, “thereby suggesting the discovery of something new”, even though Nye himself is on record as admitting that “the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history”.
Practising diplomats, especially typically pragmatic British practitioners, as distinct from academic teachers and students of the theory and history of diplomacy, are sometimes bewildered by theoretical expositions of what they are supposed to be up to and why they are up to it. Here is a refreshing example of the reverse: a leading academic demonstrates that the soft power emperor is sartorially challenged, that calling influence “soft power” adds precisely nothing to our understanding of it, and that the exercise of non-coercive influence has been one of the principal features of diplomacy, among several others, since the first human tried to persuade the second human to have a bite of the first apple. Diplomats need no longer feel uneasy about their activities being defined as the deployment of soft power, when what they do is largely simple common sense. Influence is the diplomat’s primary tool, almost always preferable to the use or threat of force as a means of getting others to behave in the way you want them to. Calling it soft power is neither here nor there.
(Full disclosure: Geoff Berridge is an old friend. I was privileged to be invited to read an early draft of his short essay on soft power and to encourage him to publish it on his website. If his piece succeeds in killing off this superfluous and pretentious term, I shall have to plead guilty as a minor but enthusiastic accessory to the assassination.)
This is a post-script to my previous post (http://www.barder.com/4101), “Denying the Scots the option most of them legitimately want puts our country’s future in danger“. The eminent historian and commentator Professor Linda Colley has just published an important book, “Acts of Union and Disunion“, telling the story of changes in the relationships between the constituent nations of the present United Kingdom over the centuries, including the various proposals at different times for a formal federation of the four nations. These have been supported in one form or another by such powerful former leaders as Churchill and Lloyd George. It is legitimate to ask why none of our present political leaders apparently has the imagination or courage to espouse such a radical cause.
According to the Profile Books website,
One of our most distinguished historians, Linda Colley is Shelby M.C.Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton and a Fellow of the British Academy. She has previously taught at Cambridge, Yale and LSE. Her earlier books include Wolfson Prize-winning Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837; Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 and The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History.
Her new book is based on a series of talks on BBC Radio 4, starting today (6 January 2014) at 13:45 and continuing for the next two weeks.
The relevance of Professor Colley’s books and talks to the issues arising from next September’s referendum on independence for Scotland is amply demonstrated by the following extract from her fascinating article in today’s Guardian:
One of the notable features of present-day debates on possible Scottish independence has been the lack of imagination and creativity thus far displayed by most of those seeking to make the unionist case. The assumption appears to be that appeals to economic individualism and fostered fears of the unknown will by themselves be sufficient to make Scots hesitate about opting for independence. This strategy may or may not prove effective, but it shortchanges the public, and not just in Scotland. Scots are being offered arguments in support of independence, and warnings against it. Neither they, nor anyone else in the UK, are being provided with alternative visions of what an amended, re-imagined union might conceivably be like, or what it might be for.
This is very different from the quality of debate out of which the Government of Ireland Act of 1914 emerged. The late 19th century saw all sorts of federal solutions being proposed for the UK’s many fault lines, sometimes at a high level.
Amen to that! It’s tempting to wonder whether the professor has been reading my latest blog post on the subject and its many predecessors, all making exactly the same point about “the lack of imagination and creativity thus far displayed by most of those seeking to make the unionist case“, were it not for the fact that Linda Colley has been deploying the same arguments in her books and other writings for many years, and basing them on her encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of constitutional relations between the constituent parts of the British Isles – a knowledge not, alas, shared by the present blogger. I shall try to remedy at least a part of my regrettable ignorance of that history by ordering and reading “Acts of Union and Disunion“, and by recording and listening to Professor Colley’s Radio 4 talks, starting this afternoon. I urge readers of this blog post to do the same.
An article in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh on Christmas eve, 2013, identified three main challenges to David Cameron during 2014: the European parliament elections, in which the right-wing, anti-EU party UKIP is widely expected (not necessarily rightly) to come top, ahead of Labour and the Tories; the coming round of bankers’ bonuses, popularly regarded as unacceptable, and for which the government is likely to be blamed; and the widespread (but wholly unfounded) fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants ‘flooding’ into the country, ‘stealing jobs from British workers and driving down their wages’, now that the ban on their unrestricted right to come here has been lifted, something that will also be blamed on the government in the unlikely event that it happens.
This forecast seemed to me to omit a fourth looming challenge, potentially even more damaging — to Britain as well as to Mr Cameron — than the three listed by Mr Ganesh. The FT published the following letter from me on 2 January 2014:
Financial Times, letters, January 2, 2014
An even bigger menace for Cameron in 2014
From Sir Brian Barder.
Sir, Janan Ganesh, in an otherwise characteristically perceptive article (“Labour’s agonies will prove hazardous for Cameron”, December 24) identifies May’s European parliament elections as “the most menacing event the government faces next year”, but he overlooks an equally hazardous prospect: the referendum on Scottish independence in September. Although current polling suggests a probable vote against independence, the negligent failure of the UK government to offer the Scots a constructive alternative to independence other than the status quo, with which very many Scots are clearly dissatisfied, risks a steady shift of opinion in Scotland in the next nine months that could easily result in a vote spelling the early disintegration of the UK.
There is no respectable reason not to offer what a majority of Scots obviously want, namely full internal self-government within an already semi-federal UK (admittedly implying eventual changes, long overdue, for non-self-governing England). The Liberal Democrats have hinted at support for such a policy but both Labour and the Conservatives seem too timid to risk even gingerly touching the nettle, still less grasping it. If the UK falls apart on David Cameron’s watch, he will surely pay a higher electoral price in 2015 for his delinquency than Ed Miliband, and that must represent a menace to the Tories at least as great as the European parliament elections, bankers’ bonuses or unfounded fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.
Brian Barder, HM Diplomatic Service (Rtd), London SW18, UK
The referendum to decide for or against Scottish independence is to take place on Thursday, 18 September, in less than nine months’ time. If the Scots vote to break up the UK and go their own way, the lion’s share of the blame should fall on the government at Westminster, headed by Mr Cameron, for his failure to provide Scotland with an alternative to both independence and the status quo, neither of which is wanted by most Scots (as argued in my FT letter), simply because the government of the day, which alone can act as well as talk, bears the primary responsibility for that failure to act in time to avert the disintegration of our country.
But an almost equal burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Ed Miliband and the Labour party as the only party of the two with a significant presence in all three of Scotland, England and Wales. If the three main unionist parties can’t agree on a promise of full internal self-government for Scotland in the event that the Scots reject the independence option, there’s no reason why Mr Miliband should not commit himself and his party to that promise, to be honoured if and when there’s another Labour, or Labour-led, government. Such a policy might well meet stiff opposition from the Scottish Labour party, with its visceral hatred of the SNP in general and The Two Fishes, Salmond and Sturgeon, in particular. But the stakes are too high to allow Scottish Labour to stand in the way of what may well be a necessary condition for the survival of the UK as a single sovereign country – especially when an offer of full internal self-government within an eventually fully federal UK is strongly desirable in its own right, and not just as a short-term gimmick to head off the independistas.
The temptation for Mr Miliband and his colleagues to do nothing, and hope for the best on 18 September, is clearly very strong. But on the lowest level of electoral prospects alone, the consequences for the UK Labour party if Scotland secedes will be very serious. It’s not true, as often asserted, that without its safe Scottish seats Labour would never again be able to form a government in the rest of the UK: Labour would be better placed than the Tories to take a lead in forging a new constitutional future for England in a new union with Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would require a huge effort to transform itself into a primarily English party.
Meanwhile doing nothing, which seems to be the posture of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, is just as much a policy option, with predictable potential consequences, as adopting the one brave and radical policy which stands a fighting chance of satisfying the legitimate ambitions of a majority of Scottish people, and which might thereby save the United Kingdom for our children and our children’s children. Over to you, Mr Miliband. Mr Cameron lacks the authority, imagination and courage to do what needs to be done. That leaves you.