321,587 Words on Public Speaking and Speechwriting
8th June 2013
You're wondering what I have been up to in May. I have been rushing around like a whirling dervish.
• a presentation on Difficult Conversations to the senior management of a distinguished school
• a talk at my old school on Lessons for Life
• fielding a group of Americans who passed by on a Downton Abbey tour
• giving a presentation on Speechwriting to the European Speechwriters Network
• joining a New Statesman panel discussion at the British Library on Propaganda
• travelling to Stockholm to give a masterclass on Presentation Skills to a leading European energy Corporation
• then to Warsaw to give Polish officials are masterclass on Negotiation Skills
• and on to Torun to address the latest YoungMarkets conference on the always engaging subject of Taxonomy
• back to Northampton yesterday to give a local business group a punchy presentation on The Business of Diplomacy
• and then on down to London for a fascinating meeting with Philip Blond, after a ‘challenge session’ with the FCO on some high-level EU questions
While all that has been going on I have helped with a couple of significant speeches and prepared myself for departing tomorrow on a cruise around the Baltic Sea for two weeks, during which I'll be giving four presentations on My Role in the Downfall of Communism and associated subjects.
On return from the cruise I dash to Amsterdam for some masterclass work with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, then back to Warsaw for further Negotiation Skills masterclasses. Then I stagger back to England and collapse.
I have three tasks while bobbing around the Baltic Sea in the next two weeks (other than delivering those four sparkling presentations).
I have been commissioned to write a major essay about the Serbia/Kosovo problem. Then I need to write for a US website a review of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher.
And, above all, I need to see if I can crank out my first book, a masterpiece on the general subject of Speechwriting and Speechmaking.
It turns out that here on this website I have produced a pretty large bloc of work already on the general subject of speechwriting/speechmaking. Mrs Crawf has been sweating blood helping me copy everything under the rubric of Speech and Other Writing into a single Word document that I can use as a quarry for parts of the book.
One result of this mind-boggling exercise has been a Word document of over 600 pages. I can run a word-count and tell you with unerring precision that since I started this blog in 2008, I have written 321,587 words about different aspects of speechwriting and analytical presentation skills. That is almost 5 books-worth in itself.
So, you have a choice.
If (as you do) you want and need my many and varied opinions on public speaking, speechwriting and general executive communication, you have two choices.
You can scour this blog and work your way through over 300,000 words. For free.
Or you can hope and pray that in the next few weeks I managed to lick all this material into shape and produce it as a cheap but excellent nicely paced book, full of vivid examples, that you are delighted to buy.
These examples are going to be good. Not least because thanks to the miracles of FOI I have asked the Foreign Office for telegrams I sent back to HQ following memorable speeches from different world leaders that I witnessed as a British diplomat, and the FCO obligingly have unearthed quite a few of these and sent them to me. Interesting to see how my reporting at the time does or does not coincide with how I remember those events now.
Why bother with another book on speechwriting? Aren't there plenty of them already?
Yes there are. Most of them, funnily enough, are written by speechwriters.
But not all speechwriters are particularly good themselves at public speaking. And most speechwriters have little experience in organising top-level speaking occasions.
I have done all these things and more. My conclusion is that it is a subtle and mysterious task to link together the speaker and the speaker's words to the audience and the venue and the context of the occasion itself. I have seen so many examples where one or other of these elements was out of sync, leading to unhappy if not ruinous results - even for senior people. The book should have plenty of examples of things going wrong, as well as things going right.
Internet access during this cruise is going to be insanely expensive, so what with that and then my subsequent manoeuvres I'll be off air here until early July.
Be good while I'm out.
Iran's Elections: Missing the Point
22nd May 2013
UPDATE This piece below ("Short, pithy, packed with more wisdom than you find in bloviations ten times the length") has been picked up by the Browser
Here is my latest piece over at Commentator, looking at the startlingly poor performance by a clueless State Department spokeswoman when asked to give a view on what ought to be a simple question: if Iran bars women for campaigning for President, are Iran's elections 'free and fair'?
As a former pro in this sort of thing, I am really surprised at how lame the prepared lines were for this question. It's almost as if some dopey desk-officer had strung together some word-processed platitudes without giving a scrap of thought to how anyone might use them in front of journalists and not sound absurd. Is this what the Amazing Shrinking US Leadership of Obama is now giving us?
Let's give them a shred of probably undeserved credit, and imagine that the State Department has pondered over how best to respond to the latest round of farcical 'elections' in Iran. They have concluded that one or other aggressively anti-Western tendency is going to win again, and decided that there is nothing to be gained as things now stand for ratcheting up public pressure on Iran. The economic sanctions regime on Iran is already severe and painful.
So, what to say instead?
How about something measured like this:
- in almost every respect that matters we Americans disagree with the undemocratic way Iran chooses candidates for its elections
- the fact that now women candidates are barred from running for the country's top office shows that the ruling Iran elite is showing no respect to half the country's population, and no respect to the many international undertakings and obligations that require equality of opportunity for women and men that Iran itself has accepted
- it is therefore hard to imagine any country accepting that these forthcoming elections in Iran have been free and fair - by proceeding in this manner the Iranian regime is further isolating itself
- the USA wants a normal relationship with Iran. Restoring that after everything that has happened will be a long hard job
- but if whoever comes to power after these elections, gravely flawed and undemocratic as they obviously will be, opens the way to a sincere and sensible programme of normalising relations, Washington will be ready to respond
That sort of language manages to combine a firm sense of disagreeing with Iran's so-called elections with a signal of engagement if Iran's next leader manages to achieve a change of course.
Simple, clear, principled and flexible. Always the best combination. It's called diplomacy.
The Ambassador Partnership
9th May 2013
This is to let everyone know that ADRg Ambassadors LLP is now renamed The Ambassador Partnership LLP with a completely new (and simpler) website.
Basically, after I left the FCO and qualified as a professional mediator, the idea emerged of setting up a new and unique distinguished panel of ambassador-mediators. This was done in 2010 as ADRg Ambassadors LLP.
From that standing start we have built up a business that has grown to the point where a new look and to some degree change of emphasis were required. The original name derived from the fact that we were linked with leading UK mediation providers ADR Group (where ADR stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution). We have found that an independent wider international problem-solving and consultancy model is where the demand is - the world of formal set-piece mediations is dominated by major practitioners, who rightly see us as serious competition.
Thus the new look, based on offering three main (and to some degree overlapping) products:
- problem-solving (including mediation as required)
- technique - top-end diplomatic skills such as Negotiation, Speechwriting and so on
One key point of diplomacy is to build friendly relationships without knowing exactly when they may be needed. So with international business - much better to work patiently on making high-level local contacts so as to be ready sensibly to address issues before they start to grow into problems and then expensive disputes. As problems mutate into disputes, the costs expand exponentially and all too often the original issue fades into insignificance compared to the costs burden of continuing the battle, or not. It is FAR cheaper (and a lot wiser) to call in an outside expert to help brainstorm the questions concerned and look creatively at how to manage them. This is where our mediation skills combined with diplomatic wisdom give us a unique advantage.
The new site gives examples of the sort of work we are now doing under each heading, and the expanded team of people available to do it. As well as the original core of former UK Ambassadors we have colleagues from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Ghana and Czech Republic, with others to follow. It is hard to describe in puny words just how effective this is as a global network - in principle and usually in practice we can find you incredibly quickly a well-connected former senior diplomatic expert (British or otherwise) for almost any problem you can think of.
Through these networks we know how find just the right diplomatic/political entryway into most governments round the planet, and help make sure that messages to the right part of that government are cast in a way that is appropriate but effective. This of course does not guarantee success, but it saves formidable amounts of messing around, and much increases the chances of a message being taken seriously.
On the Technique side, the list of our clients is long and getting longer. We bring high-level training and coaching experts armed with front-rank personal experience of some of the world's toughest negotiation environments, delivering workshops and teaching sessions that have enough 'theory' to make sense but plenty of roleplays and real life scenarios to make the sessions highly operational and interesting. An 'unstuffy' open-minded British style goes down well in many organisations where people are used to strict hierarchy and formality.
In short, if you have a business or other problem with an international dimension, or you see a large hole looming and need smart advice, or you want front-rank support for your team in developing world-class 'diplomatic' skills, you know what to do.
Call the experts in corporate diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Back on Earth
8th May 2013
So much going on these days it is scarcely worth bothing to opine on it all.
The Nigel Lawson call for the UK to think seriously about leaving the EU is a huge shift. The Unthinkable is being Thought.
The US and Russia are trying to get the warring factions in Syria to talk to each other. What could go wrong?
North Korea's threats to blow us all to smithereens have subsided for a while. Phew. I was getting worried.
Slowly but surely the Obama administration's terrifying performance in Benghazi is being exposed. Watch in amazement if not horror as Clintonian cynicism combined with Obamistic cynicism in front of the families of the victims to blame the murders of the US Ambassador and others on "an awful Internet video" when all concerned - above all Hillary Clinton herself - knew that this was just not true.
And then there's the Cleveland House of Horrors. Watch closely this beyond wonderful interview with the man who kicked down the door to help Amanda Berry and the other two women finally escape: Charles Ramsay.
This interview stands out for several reasons. First, the vivid language he uses to describe what happened and his relationship with the man keeping the women locked up. No speechwriter on Earth with the possible exception of Quentin Tarantino could have written those words down.
Then watch his gestures as he brings the story to life. At one point in the interview a nearby police or ambulance siren goes off. Is it my imagination, or does he give the slightest hint in his eyes of teasing panic that they might be coming to arrest him?
And finally, behold how the interviewer quickly ends the interview in panic as Mr Ramsay gives his forthright views on the amazing unlikelihood of a little white girl running to a black man for help:
'I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl runs into a black man's arms, I said, "Something is wrong here". Dead giveaway'
Only 'blacks' can do scathingly politically incorrect racial wit at this high level of art. Fame and fortune await him. Already happening in fact.
27th April 2013
Here I am again, this time quoted in the Daily Telegraph on the always interesting subject of Balkan apologies:
Charles Crawford, a former British ambassador to Belgrade, said the language used by Mr Nikolic represented a drastic change from his previous questioning of the scope of the atrocity.
Coming a week after Serbia sealed a deal with Kosovo to end a stand-off over who governs ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, the statement will boost Serbia's ties with the EU as it bids to join the bloc.
"He's gone a long way. Certainly for someone from his nationalist background to have struck this tone is impressive," Mr Crawford said.
Well, of course I said a number of other things too, but that was the one line they used.
This story is all about Serbia President Tomislav Nikolic telling a Balkan TV journalist that he "goes on his knees and asks for forgiveness for the crime that was Srebrenica", and then apologises "for all crimes done in the name of Serbia or the Serbian people by any individual from our nation". Pressed to agree that Srebrenica was really an act of genocide, Nikolic replied that everything that happened in the wars of the former Yugoslavia had the characteristics of genocide.
Here is the B92 story with the link to the video of the interview. In Serbian, for those who like their Balkan meat raw.
Nikolic's intention here was to put some clear water between this statement and his very different view expressed last year:
"Genocide did not take place in Srebrenica. This is about individual guilt of members of the Serb people. The Serbian parliament condemned this crime, but did not say it was genocide. No Serb recognizes that genocide took place in Srebrenica, and I am no different."
He wanted to strike a note of humility and constructive reconciliation with Bosnia, complementing the much praised deal between Serbia and Kosovo and the European Union a few days earlier. Most people would think that he did a good enough job here. Yet was he even now choosing his words rather too carefully?
The point is that most Bosniacs want the Serbian President to acknowledge not just that Srebrenica was a 'crime' or a 'war crime'. They want to hear him agreeing and accepting that it was specifically an act of genocide, and that Serbia as a state played a part in committing that act of genocide.
Nikolic of course does not want to use that formulation for various reasons, some political and some legal, so he carefully skirted round it using the language above. Plus he used a familiar tactic to 'relativise' the Srebrenica massacre by citing it in the context of the wider supposedly genocidal wars that marked Yugoslavia's disintegration.
All that aside, perhaps more immediately significant than this interview was the pragmatic and non-confrontational tone that emerged from a visit to Belgrade by two of the three-man BH Presidency, namely Bakir Izetbegovic (Bosniac, son of Alija Izetbegovic) and Nebojsa Radmanovic (Serb). Nikolic this time sent a not-too-subtle signal to the Bosnian Serbs to work with Sarajevo: "for me, Serbs from Republika Srpska are Bosnians, even if some of them don't like to be called that".
Let's have a little sympathy for President Nikolic in all this. He's just doing what any Western chattering pundit does. If you're embarrassed or dismayed about what someone has done that your political rivals are exploiting, you quickly rush to argue that that person was a 'lone wolf' or some other form of nutty individual - nothing to see here folks about any wider issues, so move along.
So a murdering gunman unambiguously proves the case for banning most if not all guns, whereas a murdering abortionist tells us nothing whatsover about scaling back abortion. Organisations like the police are denounced as 'institutionally racist' because of what a few bad apples do, but radical Islamist organisations are essentially benign even if rather too many of their members gorge themselves on terrorist propaganda.
If we all agree when it suits us to do so that most bad stuff just comes down to the horrible behaviour of a few deluded or even wicked individuals, why should anyone else apologise?
Serbia v Kosovo v EU
23rd April 2013
Here's my Commentator piece on that important Serbia/Kosovo/EU deal.
Kosovo did better on symbolism than substance. It won agreement that Serbian officials in the municipalities concerned would henceforth be paid by Pristina, not Belgrade, and come under Pristina’s overall legal and political authority. And by the very fact of Belgrade and Pristina signing an ‘international’ agreement, the Kosovo Albanians can now assert that de facto Belgrade has recognised Kosovo.
But to get this, Pristina conceded substantive autonomy to the ethnic Serbian communities in most major policy areas (health, education and especially police – in the Balkans control over the police is all). And it gave Serbia the chance to press on with its EU membership without recognising Kosovo.
Serbia in turn did better on substance than symbolism. Northern Kosovo and other Serbs in Kosovo have been promised far-reaching devolved powers that need never be ceded and allow them to work very closely with Serbia. Nothing real has been conceded on Serbia’s bottom-line issue of principle, namely Kosovo’s independence. And Serbia can get on with its EU integration processes without Kosovo-inspired blackmail.
Yes, the Albanians’ argument that Serbia has de facto recognised Kosovo is vexing. But Belgrade still has the diplomatic firepower to hold the line in the key capitals that matter (Moscow and Beijing) to stop Kosovo joining the United Nations except on Belgrade’s terms.
Brussels ended up with some substance (the prospect of easing wasteful tensions in that part of the Balkans, and getting the impossible Balkanites bogged down in EU accession bureaucracy) and some symbolism (a much needed diplomatic triumph amidst all that Eurozone misery and a show of leadership for the EU method).
Of course, this is just one way of looking at it. Back in real life plenty of people in the Northern Kosovo Serb community are feeling well and truly sold out, suggesting that Serbia lost heavily on both Symbolism and Substance. But NB it may be the case that Serbia qua the current Serbia leadership did a relatively good job in the negotiation but Serbs in general and Kosovo Serbs in particular did much less well.
So, goes the argument, Serbia surely has effectively renounced its claim to control that last part of Kosovo it (sort of) controlled. That must mean that Serbia has given up on Kosovo finally? And does that not mean that Kosovo 'therefore' is now accepted by Belgrade as independent?
Maybe. But in international law and politics a lot turns on what people say, as well as what they do.
Belgrade will find plenty of sympathetic ears out there in the world community of nations when it complains that it had 'no choice' but to go along with this bullying EU-led push, and that whatever happens it will not recognise Kosovo's 'illegal' secession. Note President Nikolic's carefully chosen words describing the deal: “the only possible way to guarantee to Serbia that Kosovo will never be a state accepted in the United Nations”.
This is Serbia's bottom line, and as diplomatic bottom lines go it is quite a good one. Even if Kosovo is a state 'accepted' by many countries, Kosovo will (he asserts) never be recognised as a full member of the international community without Belgrade's consent. Unless Russia and China agree, Kosovo can not enter the United Nations as a normal country just as all the former Yugo-republics have done.
This in turn means that Kosovo is highly unlikely ever to get accepted in world sporting bodies and most international organisations. It will have a sui generis twilight-zone status, recognised by roughly half the countries in the world but not the other half, including some of the biggest heavy-hitters in the 'non-Western' camp. Palestine, now recognised as a state by over 130 countries, is in a similar ambiguous position but with most of the states that have recognised Kosovo on the other side of that argument.
Meanwhile Kosovo is hoping that Serbia's concessions this time round will help persuade the likes of China/Russia/India/Brazil that Serbia is giving up the fight - why should they be holding out against recognising Kosovo, when Serbia's core position is eroding and (arguably) negotiable?
My guess is that Kosovo will not get much further down the international recognition road as a result of this agreement. Why? Because those large countries holding out against recognising Kosovo can't care less about the Kosovo/Serbia problem itself. They are making their stand against the idea that international borders can be changed by Western powerplay (where does that end?), and because it is never a bad idea to oppose on principle what 'the West' wants. Apart from anything else, the more you oppose it the more likely you are to get something in return for eventually changing position!
Anyway, soon the fun over local symbolism begins. It is one thing agreeing that Pristina henceforth will have ultimate responsibility for what happens in northern Kosovo and a growing grip on people there by paying salaries to public sector employees. It is quite another to expect that those Serb employees put up a picture of the Kosovo president in their offices or wear Kosovo insignia or otherwise doff their caps to symbols of Kosovo authority and legitimacy.
All that will drag wearily on. And on.
The point is that unless and until there is a deal involving Belgrade on Kosovo's independence the whole idea of Serbia and Kosovo joining the EU edges towards either complete stalemate or a new outcome of unfathomable diplomatic ingenuity. Back to Commentator:
Well into the future the European Union will have to decide whether to admit Serbia without recognising Kosovo and/or to admit Kosovo that is not a state recognised by the international community as a whole: A Euro-style Mexican stand-off.
This week Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina joined forces to kick decision-day well down the road. They all know that that fateful moment will come. But they’ll double-cross that bridge when they finally reach it. Oh, and who knows what the European Union itself will look like then?
That last one is a good question.
Corruption at the UN?
9th April 2013
Many years ago when I was at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy I had an American friend call Jim Wasserstrom, a lively quirky character.
And he is continuing to be lively and quirky, to the point taking on the United Nations and its policies on people who reveal corruption in its own ranks:
James Wasserstrom (pictured), was posted to Kosovo to fight corruption. In 2007 he started raising concerns about what he saw as misconduct involving links between UN officials and a local utility company. His worries were ignored. After he complained to the UN's oversight office, he says, his boss cut his staff, in effect abolishing his job, and had him investigated for misconduct. That culminated in his detention, the search of his house and car, and other indignities.
He appealed to the UN's Ethics Office. After a year-long investigation it ruled that Mr Wasserstrom's maltreatment was perhaps excessive, but did not count as retaliation against a whistleblower.
On June 21st, after a long and costly legal battle that unearthed documents backing Mr Wasserstrom's case, the UN's new Dispute Tribunal overturned that. Without ruling on the alleged corruption, Judge Goolam Meeran, in a blistering judgment, said “any reasonable reviewer” would have spotted the clear conflicts in the UN's evidence and demanded, at the least, more investigation of the complainant's treatment. Now an anti-corruption officer at America's embassy in Kabul, he stands to gain $1m in damages, plus costs. The UN must now negotiate on that, and other remedies
The UN has indeed negotiated on that but in a more than grudging way, to the point where Jim is applying punchy public pressure on the US Administration to Do Something:
A United Nations whistle-blower who prevailed in a landmark case that exposed evidence of retribution against internal criticism, but who was awarded only a tiny fraction of his claimed financial losses, sought help from Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, asking him to withhold 15 percent of the American government’s United Nations budget allocation.
The whistle-blower, James Wasserstrom, an American whose protracted legal battle with the United Nations ended a nearly 30-year career there, cited an American law that requires such withholding if the secretary of state determines that the United Nations is failing to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation
... Even though he won his case, Mr. Wasserstrom said a United Nations oversight panel judge’s decision last month to award him only $65,000 of his claimed $3.2 million in total damages had sent a message that “clearly tells U.N. staff that even when a whistle-blower wins, he loses.”
The coercive pressure of the withholding threat, Mr. Wasserstrom said in a letter to Mr. Kerry, could force changes in what Mr. Wasserstrom described as an organizational culture in which “U.N. personnel who are aware of misconduct, corruption and fraud are likely to remain silent.”
Surely not. At the United Nations? Tsk, is nothing sacred?
Hang in there, Jim.
If you want More, follow @GovAcctProj (the excellent Government Accountability Project) on Twitter - links to Jim's press statements and letter to John Kerry.
Who leads UNESCO?
5th April 2013
I find myself taking a fleeting interest in the goings-on at UNESCO as the time comes round to choose a new Director-General. Never a dull moment there - it is an especially 'politicised' UN body.
Try this punchy piece about the way the Obama Administration may be manoeuvring to get US taxpayers' money into UNESCO despite a US law stopping funding of any international body that admits Palestine as a full member without Palestine directly negotiating with Israel.
And here is an excellent WikiLeaks US 2009 cable (yet another example of fine US diplomatic professionalism) describing the machinations surrounding the election of the current UNESCO Director-General. Envelopes with cash and the allegations of intimidation:
Egypt may have overplayed its hand as allegations of bribes offered to various delegations surfaced in the days before the elections. One member of the U.S. delegation witnessed an unfamiliar man carrying a large amount of cash in an envelope at UNESCO headquarters. Several Member States complained to the Director-General and to the Executive Board Chairman about an atmosphere of intimidation at UNESCO and not feeling comfortable talking to their colleagues without outside lobbyists immediately questioning them in the corridors at UNESCO. Elizabeth Longworth (protect), Matsuura's Chief of Staff, confirmed to the U.S. Representative that on September 21, the D-G banned an individual from further entry to UNESCO because of numerous allegations of unethical conduct by the individual related to the election.
The victory for Bulgaria's Irina Bokovo (needless to say someone from an impeccable communist family) seems to have owed a lot to China siding with the USA to block India and thwart a strong Egyptian candidate:
The Chinese ambassador was jubilant after the result and said to the U.S. Representative that "this victory represented a successful partnership between the United States and China in support of good governance in the international system. In the first rounds we voted in support of geo-political obligations. In the final round, we voted in support of the integrity of this Organization."
Note too the clumsy untransparent Cold War-style procedures to elect the new new DG:
In the 2009 election, candidates were allowed 20 minutes to address the Executive Board and 30 minutes to answer questions, with no answer lasting more than 5 minutes. Moreover, the meeting in which this occurred was closed. There was no opportunity for members of national cooperating bodies to view the presentations. While candidates did publish vision statements on the Internet and while many of them visited capitals of member states or participated in UNESCO activities, they remained largely unknown to the members of the national commissions of UNESCO's member states ... I believe it is time for UNESCO to open its selection process in order to assure that the most qualified candidate is elected Director General. Importantly, the National Commissions should be empowered to carry out their duties of advising their representatives at UNESCO on the qualifications of the candidates.
Lack of proper modern transparency in choosing top international officials is a major cause of corruption and mismanagement across the international community. But alas few governments want to do anything about it - better to keep up their sleeves the hope of patronage and/or behind-the-scenes manipulation
All the usual dirty international fun.
N Korea and Washington: Jaw-Jaw?
3rd April 2013
The FT has an interesting but perhaps rather mischievous piece (££) by Kishore Mahbubani (distinguished dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore) that argues for President Obama learning from centuries of wise diplomatic practice by 'picking up the phone' to talk to the North Korean leader:
... let’s go back to basics. Diplomacy was invented thousands of years ago to enable us to talk to our enemies. It prevented envoys from having their heads chopped off at rival courts. Diplomacy was never primarily about communicating with friends...
Almost any other pair of rival states would have the phone call. This reflects age-old diplomatic wisdom. As François de Callières, the special envoy of Louis XIV of France, wrote in 1716: “Every Christian prince must take as his chief maxim not to employ arms to support or vindicate his rights until he has employed and exhausted the way of reason and persuasion.”
Mr Obama should heed the advice of the sun king’s aide. (And while he is at it, he should call Tehran, too.) Every wise leader throughout history has found a way to talk to their enemies. North Korea is a scary country and it is hard to know how seriously to take its threats. But it is even harder if you do not talk to it. The time has come for the US to follow the wisdom of the ages – and to be unpredictable.
My comment is reproduced here:
"There have been many indirect encounters between US and North Korean diplomats but this is not enough ... why did Mr Kim want to talk to Mr Obama? Because he is more worried about the threat from China than from the US"
Yes, countries that profoundly disagree usually need to talk to each other. There is not much to be said for the sort of stagnant outcome we see in the USA/Cuba relationship.
But there are many ways of doing that short of two leaders having a stilted telephone exchange, as appears to be suggested as the way forward here. If the Pyongyang regime really does fear China more than the it fears the USA, there is nothing whatsoever stopping a rich top-level secret dialogue developing between themselves and Washington and any other capital on earth on how best to manage a move to a more stable situation. Nor is there any reason to think that Washington would reject it a priori. For all we know it may in fact be happening in some way.
UPDATE: as one would expect, the Americans are indeed doing their best to talk quietly to Pyongyang
Talking is not enough, and may indeed be a device to create new objectionable realities. There needs to be some sort of plausible common ground in prospect, and that in turn requires at least minimal operational trust.
The core problem here is that North Korea keeps playing a banal game of capricious blackmail that makes it impossible for any country (including Russia and China themselves) to develop any sort of trust, not least because Pyongyang makes the North Korean (and to an extent South Korean) peoples hostages of its own ruthless eccentricity.
Thus when Kim Jong-eun says 'simply' (sic) "Please ask Mr Obama to call me", this is surely a trivial propaganda stunt. He himself can initiate a process leading to dialogue if that is what he really wants (and really needs).
The article fairly points to a deep philosophical problem in diplomacy, and in life: when do you let someone with filthy boots enter your house?
There is no right answer in principle. Different conditions can be set, according to the situation.
The other big point of course is that Washington and Pyongyang are in a strange cycle of wanting to avoid losing 'face'. The very fact that Pyongyang insists on Obama picking up the telephone is all about the symbolism of "I create the problem - let anyone who wants to solve it do so through me and only on my terms".
We had enough of that rubbish with Milosevic. It may be wise, all things considered, to let Pyongyang have a fleeting puny propaganda victory by indeed initiating that phone-call. But what if the phone-call gets nowhere and so leaves Obama looking humiliated (as of course may be part of the Pyongyang point)?
Once such a commital move is made, it can not be taken back (as Nimzowitsch profoundly pointed out). We'd all be worse off.
Some very fine points of diplomatic technique here. Thoughts welcome.
More Musty Needy Speeches
29th March 2013
My latest piece at Punditwire, where I note with horror that the Milibandistic dry rot of filling speeches with meaningless - but also intellectually shifty - musty/needs exhortations has spread all the way across the Atlantic to President Obama's speechwriters:
... his [Obama's] recent well received speech in Israel, where the m-word is used a disturbing 21 times:
• Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin
• Iran must know this time is not unlimited
• Iran must not get a nuclear weapon
• America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran
• and that’s why security must be at the center of any agreement
• the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized
• Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed
• Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state
• Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn
• you must create the change that you want to see
Why does this style of rhetoric start to sound hollow, if not annoying?
Partly because the machine-gun spray of all these supposed requirements devalues each of them. But also because it asserts a false intellectual leadership, hinting at bold visionary purpose while side-stepping any personal or political responsibility for making anything on the list happen back in real life?
So, for example, what will be the President’s response if (as seems more than likely) Arab states ignore the President’s call for reform and do not, “adapt to a world that has changed?” Or if Israel doesn’t, “recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive?”
That said, while we love to moan about our leaders’ supposed evasiveness and/or dishonesty as exemplified by slippery language like this, how will we respond if they start being honest – and admit that most outcomes they think good for us are completely outside their control?
Good last question. To which answers come there none.
IR Theory: Obama in Israel
25th March 2013
Further thoughts on the speech by President Obama in Israel (scroll down to see the earlier post from my PunditWire piece below). This time prompted by analysis over at Foreign Policy.
First, Hussein Ibish who thought that he did a terrific job:
The psychological, communication and political skill that was marshaled to give the speech its maximum impact with public opinion was quite extraordinary, and stands in contrast to some miscalculations Obama made about Israeli and Palestinian perceptions during his first term.
By systematically downplaying expectations for his trip, Obama made the power of his speech and the boldness of some of the language and positions he staked out -- particularly regarding the realities Palestinians face under Israeli occupation -- surprising and therefore all the more striking...
... The effectiveness of Obama's careful political and psychological preparation for these unprecedented statements with his Israeli audience was demonstrated by the sustained, and otherwise unimaginable, applause he received for almost all these remarks. He clearly went a long way in assuaging Israeli skepticism.
Palestinians will be harder to win over, as they require more than words given the onerous conditions of the occupation and their repeated disappointment with successive American governments, and in particular with Obama's first term...
... Diplomacy without sufficient outreach may have proven to be a failure in Obama's first term. But this kind of bravura performance of public diplomacy will have to be backed up with significant real diplomacy or it may be remembered as yet another inspiring Obama Middle East speech that ultimately produces more disappointment than tangible achievement.
Still, if Obama was primarily trying to change the tone and the atmosphere in the region, and the way he is perceived by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it's hard to imagine how he could have been more effective than he has been over the past couple of days.
Hmm. If I were a Palestinian I'd be unimpressed with the marginal walk-on role the Palestinian leadership was given and the obvious glowing warmth of Obama's tone when with the Israeli side.
Then there's Stephen M Walt, a lot more sceptical:
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid.
And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility.
What will he or she say then?
That seems about right.
However, my eye caught what Stephen Walt had to say about the role of language in international relations theory. As someone who flees screaming from all such 'theory' I nonetheless found it cleverly put. Thus (my emphasis):
There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states.
In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible...
But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly.
From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
Walt is a self-proclaimed realist and so saw the President's words in Israel very much from that point of view. Hence his pessimism:
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences.
Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Read both pieces. Walt's drills deeper and is more convincing, but both are eloquent and interesting.
In my view the distinction between the IR Social Constructivists and Realists is more about the need of US professors to write convoluted clever stuff than it is about anything that matters. Of course 'power' matters. But sometimes power comes not from weight of firepower but from creating a certain new tone and from being convincing: helping change attitudes today, and so creating a better chance of changing policies tomorrow
So? It just depends. There is a lot of reality out there, so a speech on its own - even from a US President in Israel - rarely makes any perceptible difference to anything. Obama's much praised but intellectually nugatory Cairo speech is a good example of a much vaunted speech that if anything weakened the US position in the region, because it rambled around and appeared to promise more than Obama could or would ever deliver.
Here my sense (I speak as someone who knows nothing at all about the Israel/Palestine and wider 'Arab World' nexus of problems) is that President Obama leant very heavily towards the Israelis, partly in his words (what he said and what he did not say) and partly in the way the whole visit was organised and packaged.
Why did he do that? Stephen Walt:
By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Which brings me back to my earlier conclusion:
... Or was this visit 'really' about something else entirely, namely sweeping aside any misunderstandings with Israel (and helping Israel get back on track with Turkey) so as to be able to work with them in managing the more immediate horrendous and potentially inter-related problems of Syria and Iran? Not to forget the gruesome economic situation in Egypt.
Politics is/are all about priorities and timing. If you are a US President keen to work up a respectable second-term foreign policy legacy you might conclude that as things stand the Palestinian cause will just have to wait for a while, as other much bigger Arab/Muslim dramas unfold. And that in this failing Middle East region Israel, for all its faults, represents a stable partner you can more or less rely on.
Is such a conclusion an iteration of Realism, or Social Constructivism? I report. You decide.
Obama's Warm Words in Israel
24th March 2013
Swing by National Review Online to catch up on conservative views on President Obama's visit to Israel and what do you find? Not much. In fact almost nothing. Which goes to show just how strikingly well Obama did in behaving warmly towards Israel.
Yes, the 'optics' of Obama appearing under a huge Arafat picture were rather strange. But what about what he actually said?
I have been looking at three major Obama public pronouncements during his visit. You can find them here at the White House site, that dutifully records almost every public word the President offers.
My analysis is at PunditWire:
During the first Obama Administration we find the Internet clogged with Obama’s many sharp disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and wider Israeli policies. The White House cheerfully let the world know that it was feuding with the Israeli leadership on issues great and small.
Now in 2013 behold the language and message of the President’s public words in Israel:
“I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word, every gesture is carefully scrutinized. (Laughter.) But I want to clear something up just so you know — any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet. (Applause.) That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.” (Laughter.)
The President even deploys the widely reviled Z-word in a positive sense:
“While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland… Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea — the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” (Applause.)
... The tone at the President’s joint press conference with the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas was completely different. Partly because what works in a major set-piece speech or at a state banquet does not work at a shared media event. But mainly because it was far harder to show underlying warmth in the political or personal relationships. For example:
“So one of my main messages today — the same message I’m conveying in Israel — is that we cannot give up. We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is.
As I said with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, we will continue to look for steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build the trust and the confidence upon which lasting peace will depend. And I very much appreciate hearing President Abbas’s ideas on what those steps could be.”
This is the solid, dull, carefully scripted language of international relations. Not words and wit shared between hard-headed friends who know that for all their ups and downs they are talking to each other on the same emotional wavelength.
The result? President Obama has certainly knocked on the head (for a while) the argument from his domestic opponents that he is 'anti-Israel'. Perhaps thereby he creates some credit in the political bank to be credible in delivering tough messages to the Israelis as and when a negotiating crunch comes. But was it wise even in those terms to be seen by all sides to give the Palestinian cause almost a desultory amount of time and attention?
Or was this visit 'really' about something else entirely, namely sweeping aside any misunderstandings with Israel (and helping Israel get back on track with Turkey) so as to be able to work with them in managing the more immediate horrendous and potentially inter-related problems of Syria and Iran? Not to forget the gruesome economic situation in Egypt.
Politics is/are all about priorities and timing. If you are a US President keen to work up a respectable second-term foreign policy legacy you might conclude that as things stand the Palestinian cause will just have to wait for a while, as other much bigger Arab/Muslim dramas unfold. And that in this failing Middle East region Israel for all its faults represents a stable partner you can more or less rely on.
Remembering Zoran Djindic: 10 Years Later
13th March 2013
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Here is the piece I wrote on the 8th anniversary. It mentions the proliferation of insane Serbian conspiracy theories somehow hinting that I was linked to the assassination and/or lobbied for the then Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic to replace him:
These loony theories take on a life of their own eventually, as was shown by a feisty TV reporter on the supposedly sensible B92 station who asked to interview me when I was in Belgrade las t week on what happened around the time of the killing. Her questions showed the strange lines of thinking which now prevail:
Q: Did the British government warn Djindjic that he might be at risk? (Idiotic insinuation #1: that we knew about these dangers and did or did not do everything possible to help avert them)
A: I talked to Djindjic myself a couple of days before he died. I had no need to tip him off as he himself was very well aware of the risk he was running, but breezily dismissed his would-be killers as 'cowards' who would never dare take the fatal step
Q: Did the British government lobby to end the state of emergency after his death just when the investigation was getting close to eg Kostunica? (Idiotic insinuation #2: that eg HMG were 'behind' the full truth coming out)
A: HMG and other European governments fully supported the imposition of the state of emergency, but after a few weeks it started to look like weakness, not strength, a point made by many governments in a friendly way. No more than that
Q: Why had I been so close to so many politicians at the time? (Idiotic insinuation #3: that the US and UK Ambassadors were playing a full and devious part in key political decisions)
A: Because that was my job, duh. There was a huge effort on in 2001/02 to help the Djindjic government drive forward its reform programmes, with senior delegations from Western capitals arriving all the time. Of course I had to keep close to Djindjic and others to help get things done.
And so on.
Plus it has extended extracts from one of my finest FCO telegrams, sent the day after the assassination attempting to summarise Djindjic's role and significance in the Serbian story:
So a brilliant career - but an ambiguous legacy. The key thing for us is that unlike most post-Yugoslavia leaders Djindjic really understood modern Europe. He felt at home with European friends, talking fluent English and German. If he was corrupt, he wanted Serbia to move to normal European levels of corruption. He realised that to lead the bewildered and demoralised Serbia population to Europe required a vast upheaval, however unpopular that might be. His government bravely drove forward reform laws at unprecedented speed, albeit at the cost of declining ratings.
I came to know Zoran Djindjic fairly well, and saw for myself his wit, energy and insight. I will miss him. Serbia loses an all too rare local European hero. We lose an all too rare true Balkan friend.
I have been running through sundry Google searches this afternoon seeing what new nonsense and lies are being written about me.
Here is a classic passage from a piece last year at the Pescanik website, a strongly liberal and ostensibly sensible Serbian website that this time has made a complete fool of itself (my translation):
The day after the assassination British Ambassador Charles Crawford appeared at the HQ of the Democratic Party (DS) and recommended Covic as Prime Minister. This weirdo with diplomatic immunity brought kangaroos from a Belgrade zoo to a reception, he gave political asylum at his Belgrade residence to fiery English football fans whom the police had shut up in a hotel, and he handed his letters of accreditation to Kostunica instead of Milosevic
Haha. So many banal errors in so few words.
Just for the record (again), I met a senior DS official Aleksandra Joksimovic on the day after the killing of Zoran Djindjic to try to find out what the DS leadership was going to do about appointing a new Prime Minister - not surprisingly London was keen to know what was likely to happen next. I forget what exactly I said, but the essence of it was that Deputy PM Nebojsa Covic was presumably a strong candidate: he had done a superb job in working tirelessly to stabilise the restless Albanian community in southern Serbia and to promote intelligent Serbian policies on the Kosovo problem. If he got the position, London would support him as it would support any new PM in these terrible circumstances
Joksimovic (not surprisingly nervous and stressed out by the events of the previous day) angrily took this as me pushing Covic's case at the expense of other DS candidates (Covic was not a DS party member). I told her that this was definitely not my intention, but I liked Covic and thought that he would do a good job. Anyway, it was up to DS to decide so let them get on with it.
When a few days later the DS announced that the new Prime Minister would be Zoran Zivkovic, locally famed as the black leather-jacketed mayor of Nis, I reported to London that this was a solid choice and that he had made a powerful first impression when addressing the diplomatic corps.
This modest episode has metastised in the Democratic Party's neurotic imagination into something far more sinister and far-reaching, namely a key moment in a fiendish UK/US plot to overthrow and even kill the key UK/US political ally in the region.
Why would we do this ostensibly stupid thing? No-one says. But the very fact that it is blatantly ridiculous makes the depth of the conspiracy all the deeper!
And lo, as the years pass the role of Weirdo Crawford in the murky circumstances of the killing of Zoran Djindjic tends to become an article of Fact.
Two actual facts for Serbia to consider. On my last day as Ambassador in Belgrade I paid a private visit to Djindjic's grave and laid flowers in his honour. And I gave our family trampoline to his wife for their children to enjoy.
Zoran Djindjic was a politician who resembled an arcade video-player - he swerved through political asteroids and explosions, however fast and furious they came in his direction. I remember suggesting to him that his rival Kostunica had just made a good statement about something or other. "Yes, but it was about ten days too late!" came back the instant astute reply. I realised that what he had said made perfect sense - Djindjic had a startling insight into political timing.
I also recall sitting in when Djindjic at No 10 was talking with PM Tony Blair about Kosovo or war criminals or somesuch. Tony Blair said something to the effect that the most important thing in politics was holding course when things got tough. Djindjic shot back that the most important thing in politics was getting votes. Haha.
Basically, Djindjic was far too smart and far-sighted to be a successful post-Yugoslav politician. But because he was so smart and far-sighted he was a threat to all sorts of vile political/criminal interests, and so they murdered him. What a loss for Europe and his own ungrateful country.
And if (as you do) you want More on the interminable drivel that comes with being a leading foreign diplomat in the former Yugoslav space, try this exchange.
I should be ashamed of myself! Both in general and particular!
And I am.
UPDATE The good folk at Pescanik have been in touch and agreed that the article they carried was 'unstable' insofar as it referred to me. It was part of a series carrying different points of view on the Djindjic assassination, including from non-Pescanik writers. They are truly penitent:
We really hate to imagine you, somewhere at that green and rainy island of yours, upset again with some crazy Serbs
Hvala - nema problema - sve u redu! Takve stvari se desavaju.
EU Budget - Gurgling Down?
8th February 2013
Here's my Telegraph Blogs piece this morning on the news coming from Brussels that mirabile dictu the EU Budget may in fact not grow over the coming seven year financial cycle:
The French have made the usual belligerent noises, feigning to champion increased spending that they too can’t afford. As a net contributor (but unlike the UK with a huge stake in the existing bad pattern of spending skewed towards the CAP) France hoots for more Europe, then gracelessly falls in line behind the tough position determined by the other two largest net contributors, UK and Germany.
But wait. What about the European Parliament? Can’t they refuse to endorse the deal and impose annual budgets at higher costs to UK?
London’s answer to that will be “bring it on!”. If the EU Budget in all its labyrinthine complexity is not agreed at the start of the seven-year spending cycle, it gets far harder for the major net beneficiaries of structural spending (eg Poland and Romania) to plan sensibly. That in turn sharply increases the likelihood that by 2020 they will not have spent their allocations, so the actual spend by the UK and other net contributors is sharply down.
In other words, if the European Parliament tries this on in a clumsy power-grab it will incur the wrath of almost everyone, including MEPs on all sides who, taking their lead from their respective capitals, prefer the certainty of a comprehensive Budget deal now to the horrible uncertainty of annual budgets.
In any negotiation of this sort, those who pay in more than they get out decide the final outcome. This time round David Cameron – aided by the shamelessly opportunistic Labour Party in Westminster – has stuck to a firm position of principle that also makes sound economic sense. He is winning a major victory.
In a battle between Givers and Getters, Getters win. It just comes down to how little they want to Give, and how long the Getters want to keep the issues open, trading the hope of further small gains against the certainty in planning that comes from getting the whole boring business over and done with.
The depressing thing is that the EU now staggers on with no move seriously to downsize the role of the CAP in overall shared spending. Plus all sorts of budgetary bungs will have been handed out to get the final package close to approval, so the process is even more squalid and inefficient than usual. None of which helps maintain Europe's long-term position as a world economic force.
Maybe that's exactly how decline has to happen. It's just easier to stick with the sinking ship you know, and gently gurgle downwards with it.
To Intervene or Not?
29th January 2013
Over at Backbencher Lee Jenkins takes a look at some issues surrounding 'international intervention' from a libertarian-inclining standpoint:
Yet international relations is a sphere refreshingly free of ideology. States are motivated less by values and ideals, and more by a narrow set of objectives and interests...
Once you acknowledge what motivates a country’s actions, international relations become comparatively predictable. It is a zero sum game of medium to long term power and influence, quite different from domestic politics which seeks to alter societies. If you want a brief run down of what I think Britain’s national interests are, you can find them here.
Putting ideology, any ideology, at the heart of your foreign policy is to place yourself in a policy straight jacket. To use another analogy, it is the equivalent of going to a night club and nailing yourself to the middle of the dance floor; you are unable to walk away from confrontations you don’t want, yet you are prevented from pursuing opportunities that may present themselves.
The mistake many libertarians make is to assume that if you’re not a non-interventionist, then you must be a war-hungry Neo-Con, seeking to reorder the world by force. This is a deliberately simplistic false dichotomy. You can pursue and defend your national interest without bombing your way to a new empire.
As someone who has not entered a night club in some 40 years, I'll gratefully take his word for what happens if you get becalmed on the dance floor.
The problem with any political philosophy (including Libertarianism) is how to work out what it is and isn't in principle, and then see how that definition applies to real life.
As I understand it, hard-core libertarians want a world with far less government and perhaps even none at all. They believe that in such circumstances personal autonomy will soar to the point where people trade freely and social rules for reasonable shared living will naturally emerge. See Galt's Gulch passim.
That supposedly halcyon state of affairs looks to be some way off, and in any case attracts all sorts of obvious objections as to how far it could possibly work in real life and how far such a state of affairs would be morally desirable anyway.
So a new question emerges: given where we are now (namely a situation where we seem to get more and more worse and worse government every day), how should libertarian-minded people approach specific policy areas in the hope of nudging things in a direction they favour? And, specifically, what about foreign affairs?
Foreign policy is a tricky one for all political persuasions, as it raises a simple profound question: who is my neighbour, and what obligations if any do I have towards her/him? Even for domestic policy issues this is almost impossible to answer:
The point is that once we have a decision to make about our own money, we are capable of fine-tuning it to suit different cases.
We might decide to help those who are likely to really benefit from our help. Or we might say that those who inflict harm upon themselves need to take responsibility for their own bad behaviour, and not draw down on the good behaviour of others. Or we might give help but with robust conditions.
If these decisions are aggregated up, a general view will emerge as to how society looks at responsibility, and at cause and effect.
But look what happens when the state nationalises all those decisions.
Fecklessness, selfishness, stupid risk-taking and incompetence are then subsidised indefinitely. This may create strategically ruinous long-term disincentives, which start to skew huge resources in weird, accumulating, even system-threatening directions. (See eg the 'European Social Model'.)
How to measure the costs and benefits of that, not only in financial terms but also in what it does to relations between people, and the deepest capacity of us all to behave responsibly and generously towards each other?
The problem can be put another way, thanks to new technology:
It is one thing for the UN Security Council solemnly to debate the abstract principles of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Quite another to listen to the screams and watch live video beamed to those diplomats’ iPhones in New York from a village somewhere in Africa or the Balkans, as genocidal killers work their way along the rows of houses.
In today’s networked e-diplomacy world, who exactly isn’t my neighbour?
So I tend to look at the issue of intervention from that point of view, rather than trying to work out how states 'pursue their interests'. And as an ex-practitioner I put emphasis not on the clever arguments for or against 'intervening' but rather on how it is done in practice:
Recently a British newspaper reported the views of young British Muslims, all in good jobs, whose hero is Osama Bin Laden: “I would like to see the Mujahideen coming into London and killing thousands, whether with nuclear weapons or germ warfare. It will be a day of joy for me.
If all of us in this hall were blown up tonight by Al Quaida these neighbours of ours would be happy, even dancing. Is this politics, religion, or mental illness?
So some neighbours at home are not very lovable. But who are our foreign neighbours? Bad Governments? Or the millions of victims of a cruel regime? At what level of misery do we decide that we must intervene to protect our foreign neighbours? And if we do decide to intervene, are we any good at it?
Diplomats focus on three questions:
What is Legal? What is Achievable? What is Wise? They do not focus enough on a fourth: What is Done Well?
Even if our policies are Legal and Achievable, they may not be Wise. And even if our policies are Legal and Achievable and Wise – what if they are just not Done Well? The public can live with disagreements on policy. That’s democracy. What the public really likes is success. A tough job done well. And what it really dislikes is incompetence. Things not Done Well.
After years in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina and post-conflict Serbia and Montenegro, I have bad news. Democracies and international organisations, European and American, EU and UN alike, are not good at interventions. Nor are they good at learning lessons from their failures and successes. There are dozens of things I could say on why this is the case. But let me mention just two.
First, a core problem after you intervene successfully to topple dictators is what you do with all the nasty people who did well from the previous regime. If you marginalize them they sabotage reform. If you incorporate them they get rich at our expense and frustrate change; you seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, which dismays moderates.
There is no principled answer to this. Each case is different. But it needs to be thought through and prepared and explained in advance. The neighbours you are liberating know that their oppressors are dangerous people. They want to know if you really mean it, or whether those oppressors will be coming back in smarter suits we have paid for.
Second, we bang on about a market economy but our interventions are strikingly ‘socialist’. They are driven by governments and bureaucrats, paternalistic, top-down, all about rules, about “we know best”. I have attended many conferences and senior seminars about bringing peace to the Balkans. I almost never see a single business person there. People at these events say: “Oh, it would be nice to hear what a businessman thinks” as if it was some kind of exotic optional extra.
The Backbencher piece not unreasonably looks at trade - if the UK government does not help UK business sell stuff overseas, those UK businesses may simply lose out. Then what?
But that is not the hardest intervention conundrum. The hardest choices come when we have to decide whom we want to stop being killed by foreigners, and whom we won't protect in any way likely to make a difference. Some neighbours are more neighbourly than others.
Here the sheer awfulness of oppressive regimes as well as their propinquity (or not) work in their favour. No one dares intervene in North Korea or Iran or even Zimbabwe despite the manifest cruelty and stupidity of the ruling elite there. They are so crazy that you don't know what they'll do. Look at Afghanistan!
Syria is different, as the regime there may be wobbling thanks to pressures from within, so we can throw some fuel on the fire in the form of active support for rebels or insurgents or 'the opposition' or whatever they are called today, and hope that the ensuing blaze does not spread too far in our direction.
Mali is an impoverished dustbowl, but we don't want it overrun by Islamist lunatics, plus it is fairly easy terrain to attack using hi-tech weapons. Plus the French seem keen. But it's one thing blasting these vile militias. It's another thing to stop them re-forming like some mutating virus and sneaking back again. It's bad enough working out where it all starts. Where does it end?
Libya was a small place just over the road, so it clearly qualified as a Neighbour. But hmmm - how is that one playing out? Better the devil you know?
Bosnia is even smaller and is in the European family. Kosovo is even smaller than Bosnia. In each case the results of the interventions have been, ahem, mixed. It turns out that for good libertarian-type reasons people in such places have a mind of their own and may not cooperate with benign outsiders and all their 'development initiatives' and other clever ideas.
We can't work out who our neighbours are at any level of society, national or global. Nor can we pin down what obligations we have towards them, or they have to us.
So it's all a great big messy muddle.
Spending Public Money
28th January 2013
Rummaging around in some of my former work, I had another look at this piece I wrote back in November about the decline and fall of Denis MacShane:
Warsaw was at least more or less normal. When I had arrived as ambassador in Bosnia in 1996 not long after the war ended, the embassy’s finances were in a state of radical improvisation. Everything ran on cash. The embassy had no safe, yet hundreds of thousands of cash Deutschmarks were being spent every week to drive forward British-funded aid projects. Weary project consultants would appear at the embassy to grab another huge pile of money then drive back out into Bosnia’s shattered towns and villages to try to get water and electricity supplies going.
One day my junior embassy colleague and I sat there well past midnight trying to balance the monthly account. We had to count over DM 70,000 by hand(!) as we had no machine to quickly flip through the notes. In the end we ended up with the account adrift by an undefinable DM 70 or so.
The next day I sent a telegram to London saying that in the chaotic conditions in which the Sarajevo embassy was working I did not feel able to certify that the account was in “good order”. We soon got a new safe and a banknote counter machine. I subsequently discovered that my very frankness had led some people in London to think that the police should be called in to see what we were up to.
In other words, after over nearly 30 years in the British public service I can say with complete and unqualified sincerity that I did everything reasonably possible (and sometimes far more than that) to make sure that taxpayers’ money was being spent properly and honestly.
The FCO has a strong if not neurotic internal culture pushing in that direction. In any case, out there in the diplomatic salt mines we all knew that if we were found abusing public funds or even playing fast and loose with the rules, few if any people back in London would have any sympathy. In particular, many MPs would leap to their feet and denounce Foreign Office malfeasance. The usual newspapers would howl against “pampered diplomats”...
I discovered there a comment from Prospero that I had not previously seen:
I applaud Mr Crawford’s diligence as sub-accounting officer on his various postings. What he fails to mention is that, as an Ambassador, he would, until 2004, have had access to “frais”, a wholly unaccountable expense account paid directly into their bank accounts which in some Embassies amounted to tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, often Ambassadors refused to declare even the amount of frais to other members of their staff, making any serious accounting impossible.
I wonder whether in the interests of transparency Mr Crawford will be asking the FCO to provide further details.
Prospero is in fact wrong, or at least not fully right.
There was this strange phenomenon called Frais that was paid to Ambassadors directly into their bank accounts to enable them to entertain as they saw fit. But latterly it was accountable, not to the Embassy but to London.
Ambassadors had to complete detailed records of their Frais spending during the year and enter them into a special computer accounting package for scrutiny back in HQ. In our own case, Mrs Crawf slaved away to make sure that we had meticulous records of all our entertaining spending, including bulging files of receipts in case anyone did do a full check.
That said, it was never quite clear to me how far anyone seriously checked them when the returns were sent in. However, I know that in the early 2000s one Ambassador had organised an especially fancy end-of-year event seemingly to spend his remaining Frais allowance for that year. HQ disagreed that it was a proper use of public funds and insisted that he pay some of it from his own pocket. So some serious checks and balances were working. It is quite easy in a small organisation like the FCO for word on that sort of reprimand to get around.
More about this Frais business here:
Under pressure from internal unease, some questions in Parliament(!) and the Inland Revenue, the FCO over the years moved to making almost everything accountable and claimable as 'actuals'. No more little profits here and there. But it took a very long time - almost thirty years.
Ambassadors' Frais was an especially tough one to crack, as even to question it was presented as an aspersion on their Excellencies' lofty honour.
First it became fully accountable: you had to spend the money you were given on reasonable entertaining, and, if it was not spent, send the remainder back. In Belgrade and Warsaw Mrs C laboriously entered all our official spending into a clunky computer programme and sent the data to London. But not once in seven years did anyone ever check the entries against our actual spend.
Only in 2007/08 did Frais stop being paid directly into Ambassadors' private bank accounts and become part of a transparent Embassy budget open to easy, reasonable internal and external scrutiny.
So this is how things work in any organisation, with state/government bodies especially prone to be less concerned about the financial bottom line and instead working to laborious 'evolution' and precedent. Transparency is seen as an annoying intrusion, not an opportunity
MPs perch themselves right at the very top of the public policy chain. They have the ultimate power to set the rules and proudly to call to account those anywhere in the system who abuse them. Plus they have all sorts of privileges from being members of that plumply funded parliamentary club with its cheap bars and affable, elegant restaurants.
In these circumstances, those of us who have spent decades living scrupulously by the rules and working late into the night to account for every penny find ourselves with no sympathy to spare for people in high office who sent us orders and demanded scrupulous adherence to the rules, yet time and again personally signed off their own expenses claims that they knew were cutting corners if not explicitly dishonest.
With great power comes great responsibility. And with great abuses of responsibility comes great – and richly deserved – humiliation.
But as a Speech?
23rd January 2013
My piece for The Commentator on the PM's UK/EU speech as a speech:
... Those sentences, like the opening blather about the origins of the European Union, are intended to send a strong signal to other European capitals:
You won't get a better UK Conservative leader than me who has a good chance of knocking over British Euroscepticism for a good while to come, so if I were you I'd start looking hard for some serious moves in my direction.
Listening to the speech on the radio, I could easily tell that the Prime Minister was reading it out. His speechwriters do him few favours, serving up too much predictable phrasing and rhythm amidst trite speech-by-numbers rhetoric and listy structure. These effects can combine to make him sound curiously artificial and intellectually thin.
Plus, by using teleprompter technology, the Prime Minister denies himself any opportunity to be spontaneous, thereby stripping out most of the possibilities for making a speech come across as an intelligent conversation with the audience rather than an over-scripted lecture.
Still, that's modern politics, where issues of language get put through the strainer of anonymous focus groups. They lose spontaneity and sparkle, and so lack emotional content.
Bottom line? Scope for improvement on style, but the strong substance went well beyond what we all expected a few weeks or even days ago.
Rarely has a Prime Minister's speech achieved so much immediate impact and analysis.He's done something right.
Once the dust settles, the UK will need to start outlining in general but non-trivial terms the sort of things it needs to put a recommendation for Yes/In to UK voters in a few years' time. Items on the list might include:
- rebooting the European Parliament to include MPs from national Parliaments
- a number of key competences returned to consensus, not qualified majority voting
- some firm treaty language to reinforce 'subsidiarity' and to make these changes ECJ-proof and competence-creep-proof
- abandoning some annoying Directives or giving the UK/others a formal opt-out
- reforms to improve budgetary discipline/transparency and oppress corruption in huge EU programmes
- reforms to extend the Single Market
- treaty changes that guarantee that certain key national interests for states outside the Eurozone can not be overridden without their express consent
- more good stuff like that
Most of these changes should be acceptable to most member states as a price well worth paying to get UK popular endorsement of its EU membership for the next three decades or so. Naturally they'll start out (as is already happening) by moaning about à la carte cherry-picking or whatever. Plus they'll fret about going through the whole misery of renegotiating a new treaty.
Yet none of these things is really so bad. There is a lot to be said for having a new treaty anyway, to define a stable relationship for EZ and non-EZ states. And if London knows that it will get a solid (enough) outcome from the whole process, the UK does not need to mount a rearguard action to throttle lots of it. Good grief, we might even be positive and constructive.
All of which said, even if D Cameron wins such a package, how do we all vote in any referendum? Does the fact that he likes it serve to reassure the rest of us that it is acceptable? Will the clamorous Eurosceptics persuade us that the concessions he has won are more or less rubbish?
Enough to keep me in happy punditry for a while. Which, after all, is the main thing.
EU - Who Wins, Who Loses?
17th January 2013
Here is an elegant bit of work by Jonathan Golub (golub means pigeon in Serbian, by the way) attempting to measure which EU member states are better at getting their way within the system.
I could add all sorts of glosses, but read the whole thing and see for yourself how he reaches his conclusions (one of which is that the UK is in fact pretty effective as compared to some other EU Bigs):
My statistical analysis shows that many of the smaller states including Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland and Austria tended to enjoy significantly more bargaining success than either France or Germany or Italy. Even in the fields where one might have expected them to excel — France in agricultural policy, Germany in internal market policies — neither beat the smaller states. Of the large states, only the UK’s bargaining success matched these much smaller overachievers.
Why small states achieve such relative success is not entirely clear. It helps that they concentrate their efforts on a limited number of proposals and avoid taking extreme positions that leave them marginalised. But even after we control for these factors, French and German performance lags considerably.
He is looking at data from 1995-2002, but I'd expect the trends to be maintained going forward towards the present.
My own reasons for the relative success of the smaller EU states? Thus:
- they find it easier to muster a national elite consensus to pursue (or try to block) a given EU outcome - larger states have just that many more people in their system and outside it bickering over what to do and what priority to give it
- the decks are deliberately stacked against the larger states via vote-weighting. The whole point of the EU system is for the Bigs to do relatively less well. As the Bigs lumber around trying to get through bigger things they want, they scatter concessions to the Smalls to buy support - it's easy for the Smalls to play this game well, once they get the hang of it
- Smalls also do pretty well in getting 'their' people into EU jobs - it's almost a national priority, as big bucks flow to them if they do it well
In the UK's case, we have one huge advantage compared to other Bigs (and maybe most Smalls too): Whitehall encourages information-flow and discourages information-hoarding. E-swarms of officials across the UK bureaucracy including our Embassies round the world can be mobilised almost literally in minutes to come up with views and ideas, giving us a huge advantage in generating ingenious proposals or finding good reasons to delay things. In many other continental systems, the tradition of keeping things secret from one's own colleagues is alive and well, and/or procedures are simply too top-heavily hierarchical/clumsy to let dynamic work proceed.
In other words, a lot of explicit and implicit skills are needed to manoeuvre around the EU labyrinths - as ever it's partly about one's absolute weight, but much more about how cunningly one deploys whatever weight one has. Technique, in short.
Food for thought as we mull over the UK's future in this magnificent construction?
How to Approach a Foreign Government?
1st December 2012
Here's one to ponder. Purely hypothetical of course.
Say you are an ex-diplomat turmned consultant of no little erstwhile seniority, and you are asked to help with a significant business problem involving a foreign government and a private corporation. You are happy in principle to help the corporation move the issue forward, which means facilitating a high-level meeting with the government of that country. How best to do it?
First (and probably foremost), you need to find out what exactly you are being asked to do, and why. Maybe you are being set up by one part of the corporation to fail, as part of an internal power-play between its executives. You don't want to use up your own precious credibility points by blundering in on behalf of someone else's doomed machinations.
When you are satisfied that the mission makes sense, you then need to agree with the corporation a plan for communicating with the government concerned. They'll tend to want you to approach the Top Person (PM or President) and not namby-pamby around with lesser people, as they'll assume - not necessarily wrongly - that that person calls the key shots. Plus they'll say that the whole point of engaging you for a sizeable fee is to get access to higher points in the system than they themselves can reach.
So, question: do you go straight for the top or not?
The advantage of going straight to the Top Person is that you stop messing about and in effect raise the stakes.
The problem with approaching the Top Person's office directly is that all sorts of other people in the local policy food-chain (such as the Minister with the policy portfolio concerned) may get annoyed at being over-jumped (as it implies that they are not seen by you and the corporation as worthy interlocutors).
In any case, all the Top Person can do to meet your request is to ask the system for some sort of briefing on the whole business, and indeed on you. No-one (least of all a Top Person) wants to be bounced by a clever glib foreigner. So annoyed people further down the line may make that briefing disobliging or craftily seek to slow down any good (for you) outcome to assert their control.
Even if you nonetheless decide to make the Top Person the direct target of your mission, you again have choices. Open an informal line of communication to the office concerned using a local well-placed friend? Or instead write a letter to the chef de cabinet explaining what you want and proposing a meeting? Make the approach via the country's Ambasador in London, or our Embassy in the country concerned? Some or all of the above?
No easy answers. Whatever approach you choose has genuine pros and cons, and may be interpreted in some sort of ridiculous conspiratorial way by different parts of the bureaucracy in the country you are approaching.
My own instinct is to do things in the most straightforward 'professional' way possible but also use some subtlety to prepare the ground.
For example, you might use your local contacts to find the right number so that you can telephone the Top Person's office and politely let them know that a request for a meeting will be coming.
That done, you then can ask the Ambassador in London whether s/he is ready to help facilitate meetings by you with the key people concerned, proposing that maybe a good way to proceed could be for you to meet the Minister concerned first and then in the light of that discussion have a shorter informal word with the Top Person thereafter. You also might mention that you understand that the Top Person's office know that a request for a meeting will be arriving soon, and stress that given the significance and sensitivity of the issue that conversation could be productive for all concerned. And you might hand over a Note of some sort requesting the key meetings and explaining in simple confidential terms what you wish to cover, and why you think the other side might find it helpful to meet you.
That way of doing the business is transparent and, crucially, studiously respectful to their system. The Ambassador will immediately grasp what you are saying, namely that you are of a status that can confidently get access to the Top Person's office - and probably have already done so. That will make the Ambassador err on the side of sending the request plus Note back to his capital both to the key Minister and the Top Person's office, perhaps with a non-commital steer in favour of your plan.
Does all that guarantee success? No. The timing of your initiative may suit the corporation but not the government. Other things can go wrong - the key people are away on the dates that suit you. And plenty of other problems.
Nevertheless, diplomacy is all about giving yourself good chances, and making sure that even if things don't work out this time you have maintained credibility for the next approach, whenever that is.
In short, it's all about Technique, not improvizacija. Something lots of people forget, if they ever understood it in the first place.
When is a Budget Cut Not?
23rd November 2012
My latest piece over at Telegraph Blogs looks at how far if at all we can fathom out whether any given EU Budget outcome represents a 'cut', and if so a cut of precisely what:
The key thing to look for this time is (a) the baseline used for any percentage increase (or not) in the budget framework ceiling, and (b) the likelihood of the EU spending anything close to that ceiling. Is the EU using the previous 2007-2013 budget ceiling as the baseline for this framework period’s budget calculations? Or the likely 2007-2013 actual spend as the baseline? Or something else. These numbers can be very different, so working out what they are likely to mean in both presentational terms now and then in substantive terms up until 2020 is genuinely tricky.
One other gloss. It’s possible for the EU Budget to be frozen and the likely overall UK net contribution to stay the same, but the UK rebate is cut as part of the deal. We lose some money there, but get it back elsewhere. How damaging that is to the rebate thereafter depends on precisely what has been agreed as the basis for cutting it now.
All of which said, if David Cameron can pull off something like the 2007-2013 budget ceiling rolled over to serve for 2014-2020 without the silly increase proposed by the commission and European Parliament, he will have done well by any standard of measuring these things. It will be the first time ever that the EU budget’s real growth has slowed right down to almost nothing.
And with that new discipline in place, over the period as a whole up to 2020 the actual spend may turn out to be lower than took place in 2007-2013 – a remarkable change of course.
A funny story, as told to me by a senior French diplomat who was part of the French team at the time. Back in the early 1990s the budget was again up for discussion. As the discussions dragged on, the French delegation were in awe of the perfidious Brits who turned up with, gasp, small computers to run the permutations. The French had only a pocket calculator that ran out of battery – and it was no one’s responsibility to run out to buy new batteries.
Never underestimate the role of operational technique in these matters.
Engage Charles Crawford as