My second piece on diplomatic negotiating is now out, over at AP Insights. The first one was here. Thus:

Russia and Poland for centuries have been negotiating through war and peace over their borders and cultures. Wary rivalry between England and France has been carrying on since the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Serbs v Croats. Korea v Japan v China. Sunni v Shia. Catholic v Protestant v Orthodox. Islam v Christianity.

All these rivalries and many more never really end on a timescale that matters to any of us. How can they? Now and again ‘historic compromises’ are reached. Then time passes. Leaders change. Deeper tensions re-emerge.

Look at YouTube videos of the map of Europe changing down the centuries, with states and fiefdoms and regions growing and wriggling and dissolving like amoebas under a microscope. Periods of integration lead to periods of disintegration and back to integration again. Sometimes the underlying realities are extraordinary. Bosnia is on Europe’s maps in the 1300s. Then Bosnia vanishes, only to reappear as an independent state again after Yugoslavia collapses 600 years later.

This Bosnia case is (it seems to me) profound. It’s hard to see much in common in cultural terms between the people in Bosnia today and those who were there some seven centuries ago well before the Ottomans grabbed that area.

I wonder what DNA searches make of that part of the world. How far are ‘Bosnians’ (here defined as the people living today in Bosnia and Herzegovina) ‘really’ a distinct category of Balkan community, or do they in genetic terms have a lot more in common with their Serbian or Croatian neighbours?

In any case, how to explain the re-appearance of Bosnia on Europe’s map other than as an expression of a sort of geographical determinism that somehow works on the way people think there to create a ‘Bosnian impulse’, that despite the way history has sloshed to and fro over the Bosnian mountains somehow never disappears?


One way of looking at this bewildering history is to see the European Union as a magnificent historical compromise that ends conflict across most of the continent, once and for all. Except it doesn’t.

It’s safe to say that the European Union itself will not exist in 50 million years’ time. Nor 5 million, or even 500. Will it last for a further 50 years? Maybe. 5 years? Probably. [Hmm – that sounds familiar – Ed]

Nevertheless, sooner or later the European Union will give way to something else. (See Brexit.) Some pundits fret that we look to be heading back to dangerous nineteenth century ‘balance of power’ politics as technology and disillusionment combine to erode popular faith in democracy.

Why stop there? Might we not be heading towards something much more like a sixteenth or fifteenth century model: strong city states and weaker national leaders relying on local barons, with some areas only loosely under any central control?

That definitely seems to be an option. The problem is not even that. It’s controlling the abruptness of it happening to avoid utter collapse?

How even to analyse the grim Syria situation now?

There are so many different layers of negotiating proceeding simultaneously. Syrians v Syrians. Arabs v Kurds v Turks v Russia v the West. Israel v Iran.

Perhaps above all, Peace v Justice.

How can Syria be rebuilt without Peace, including Assad as the most powerful factor? How can there be Peace if there’s no Justice and Assad stays in power? As these and other factors swirl around, it’s easy to spot examples of Security, Resources, Control, Reputation, Time and Risk all working both for and against any settlement.

V Putin and B Assad seem to want to cut through these interesting theoretical concerns by smashing all resistance to Assadism in a way sufficiently brutal to deter any other resistance for a few decades. Who knows, that might work? What’s to stop it?


It’s impossible to understand diplomacy and the media images of high-level haggling on security or climate change or trade or Brexit that flicker on our TV screens without grasping that the negotiations immediately concerned are part of deeper tensions and rivalries that echo far down the decades.

These negotiations arguably can’t end, either in theory or in real life.

They involve existential issues of security and identity that last for centuries until they too inexorably crumble away, as everything does.

As one top EU ambassador once put it to me, EU negotiating is like endless (and maybe even pointless) tag wrestling:

“We trip up the Germans and Belgians, who then trip up the Poles, who tag the Spanish and Finns to trip us up, and round and round it goes.”

Ah. I just knew that the appalling Brexit negotiations made some sense…