In his 1917 guide to diplomatic practice, Ernest Satow described a court ball held in London in 1768 at which a dispute over seating placements in the diplomatic box resulted in a duel between the Russian and French ambassadors. (The Russian ambassador came off worse, but survived.) The life of a diplomat is no longer assumed to feature the smell of flintlock at dawn, but it is still associated with a certain glamour. The high-living image may hold true for some American ambassadors, many of whom are big donors and political appointees, but it’s not a realistic picture for most diplomats. In fact, diplomats are often quite isolated from the societies to which they are posted. Their central task is not statecraft but the promotion of their country’s ‘interests’ – reducible to the arms industry and a few other national giants. What would Unilever do? Did his excellency bring the brochure? The diplomat: an honest person sent to hawk stuff abroad for the good of his country.
Diplomats who remain at home, working in foreign ministries, operate differently. Back at base there’s a lot of desk work, even if the buildings are nice. In Britain the diplomatic service was once a professional caste of imperial administrators, and had to be reinvented for a nation without an empire. Most of what was lost won’t be missed – the ubiquitous racism, for instance – but there are exceptions. Permanent undersecretaries at the Foreign Office once received a biannual haunch of venison so long as they paid the delivery charges. Alas, no more. The advice at the Foreign Office used to be that one should never knock on doors before entering. This was justified on the basis of collegial trust, but it was a good way of finding things out that you weren’t supposed to know. Over time most governments have tended to put less power in the hands of in-country officers and more in central institutions based in their own capital cities. Some posted diplomats still have significant influence on the bilateral relationship, but these are a rarity. The job of a diplomat has undergone a transformation from the mid-century images that tend to populate our imaginations.
As a genre, diplomatic writing has always had a lot going for it. The valedictory dispatch written by departing British ambassadors is no more, which is a pity: the end of official duties was often accompanied by some brisk truth-telling. Diplomatic cables are often written with good style, or at least a light touch. The British diplomatic records – pink telegrams from the Foreign Office to its outposts, white ones sent to London from missions abroad – are full of entertaining examples. John Russell’s 1967 dispatch from Brazil begins: ‘Like the surface of the moon Rio is short of water, covered in dust and pocked with deep holes.’ American diplomats wrote of hotels in Xilin which provided contraception as standard and noted ‘no mention of extra charges for use’. The Foreign Office guidance on writing good cables (officially Diptels), made public in 2016, stressed that brevity is the thing. A former US ambassador to Kazakhstan, Richard Hoagland, advised writers to ensure that their cables were never ‘flabby’ or ‘cute’. ‘Be strategically nasty,’ Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, recommended.
The publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of 250,000 US diplomatic cables (only 6 per cent of them classified as ‘secret’) was treated by the national security establishment and its helpmates as treachery pure and simple. But many diplomats thought the cables made their work look rather exciting. One junior attaché was disgruntled by ‘no-neck, black-leather-clad bodyguards’ in Sofia tearing up the streets in black 4x4s. A US embassy report on a Ukrainian presidential election noted that in preparation for the vote, ‘the idea of disappearing ink occurred to both camps.’ There were cables on hunting, on whales and on exotic animals. An American diplomat in Burma was disappointed after spotting an endangered Siberian crane dancing on the banks of the Irrawaddy River because the performance ended with the bird being shot by soldiers. Then there was the impeccable subheading to a cable from Dagestan: ‘Postscript: The Practical Uses of a Caucasus Wedding’. Not all were so light-hearted: other cables showed that many American diplomats didn’t want to be posted to Iraq because it was a ‘potential death sentence’. Only three senior US diplomats resigned over the invasion.
The genre of the diplomatic memoir remains in good health, and aloof repartee is not its only mode. Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love (2022), by Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state and head of the CIA, offered little sophistication but much candour. In part this was because he wasn’t a career diplomat but a Kansas aerospace and oil man, and an associate of the billionaire Koch brothers. Pompeo was open about the US’s determination to secure regime change in Syria. He liked Mohammed bin Salman and hoped he would remain in charge in Saudi Arabia, ‘inshallah, for decades to come’. What the US was doing in Venezuela in late 2018 and early 2019 was argued over at the time, but Pompeo’s recollections were clear enough: the Venezuelan government’s decision to pursue its own foreign and energy policies was ‘a 21st-century violation of the Monroe Doctrine’. The CIA had vetted Juan Guaidó and ‘decided we could run with him’ to force President Maduro aside. ‘If Maduro wanted to live in a Swiss château for the rest of his life,’ Pompeo wrote, ‘we were willing to let him.’ A lot of CIA directors have written memoirs: Richard Helms, William Colby, Robert Gates, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, Michael Morell, John Brennan. We already have the memoir of the current CIA director, Bill Burns, but not that of his predecessor, Gina Haspel. Perhaps it would be too torture-heavy to be published.
Catherine Ashton’s memoir offers neither brutal candour nor aristocratic irony. Instead, she aspires to sincerity. Ashton, like Pompeo, wasn’t a professional diplomat: hers was a typical New Labour career. After a youthful dalliance with the CND, she was swept into Westminster politics in the Blair years and, thanks to her work on Sure Start, came out of them better than most. In 2008 she was sent to Brussels to replace Peter Mandelson as European commissioner for trade, after a last-minute decision by Gordon Brown to recall Mandelson to London as a government minister. The post would have been left vacant, but José Manuel Barroso told Brown that Britain could keep the office if he gave it to a woman. Ashton happened to be available. In Brussels she drank some champagne, and a couple of pisco sours, and solved problems with the US about beef and bananas. She also met Putin, from whom she said power ‘oozes’.
Ashton’s appointment in 2009 as high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy was just as unlikely. The position had been created as part of the Treaty of Lisbon and Ashton was the first to hold it. But what the job was supposed to entail was unclear. The original title was to have been minister for foreign affairs, but to stave off Eurosceptic allegations about the superstate more ambiguity was needed. In European capitals the appointment of someone with no real diplomatic background was taken to be a message of intentional impotence: in Germany there was talk of Selbstverzwergung. Ashton’s summation of her time was that she was ‘an ordinary person given an extraordinary role to play’. Perhaps her ordinariness was the point.
How to be foreign minister for a union of states when half of them think the position is essentially illegitimate? It wasn’t easy going. Ashton brought her own staff from the trade commission, which was probably unwise. She was criticised, rather unfairly, for not going to Haiti the moment the 2010 earthquake struck. The main constant of her time as high representative for foreign affairs was the series of repressive Israeli military operations against Palestinians: Cast Lead in 2008-9, before her arrival, was followed by Pillar of Defence in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014. She visited Gaza in 2010 and afterwards spoke of Israel’s ‘legitimate security concerns’. She didn’t have the worst record of EU politicians on the occupation, but her response to Pillar of Defence was still to blame ‘rocket attacks by Hamas and other factions in Gaza’ for a military operation that left 174 Palestinians dead with only six Israeli casualties.
Ashton isn’t shy about mentioning the inconveniences of the job: how little she slept, how difficult and complex everything is, and her gripes with the press, which didn’t always recognise the wisdom of official decisions. She makes much of her commitment to internationalism, which she traces back to the address she wrote on her pencil case at school: ‘England, UK, Europe, The World, The Universe’. The book is also sprinkled with advice passed on by Hillary Clinton. One of Ashton’s main projects was to establish the European External Action Service, an autonomous professional body of European diplomats, which now has 140 delegations around the world that function as quasi-embassies – though I can’t say I’ve ever really felt their presence anywhere. The obvious problem was that European states have distinct foreign policies. Ashton isn’t grandstanding about the EU in general, but she is about the EEAS, to which she says Europeans owe a ‘huge debt’. Ashton didn’t have a deep knowledge of foreign policy – Somalia, we are told, ‘sits at the midway point between Europe and Asia’ – and yet she did have some success as high representative. She claims this was down to an ability to think beyond the immediate crisis (‘and then what?’), but her own recollections show what she was really good at was the iron-arsed side of international relations. Long dinners. Combing through draft agreements looking for snags. Always being ready for another hour at the conference table.
She headed the European foreign policy bureaucracy during the Arab Spring and visited Tahrir Square in 2011, at a time when Europe wanted to present itself as the model of an enlightened future towards which the Arab republics might strive. The emptiness of this idea is evident in her account of the Egyptian uprising, which somehow manages to avoid mentioning the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Ashton recounts meetings in 2012 with Egypt’s then president, Mohamed Morsi, and expresses frustration that he didn’t take her advice to placate his political opponents by giving them minor offices of state. The Egyptian army remains largely absent from her account until the spring of 2013, by which point General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had already told John Kerry that he was planning to overthrow Morsi. According to Ashton’s account, the problem was that Morsi was ‘frozen, unable or unwilling to act’. By May the US State Department was already working to get him to stand down. Kerry, Ashton tells us, was ‘a true democrat’ who ‘abhorred violence’, but he supported the coup. Ashton says she worked to persuade EU governments that the coup was part of the process of democratic transition. It’s hard to believe she can have misunderstood what was happening in Cairo at that time as badly as she seems to have. But her account is so oblivious that it’s just about possible.
Ashton went back to Egypt at the request of the US to help signal that the West stood united in favour of the military takeover. She was one of only a tiny number of people to visit Morsi while he was detained in a secret prison on Abu Qir naval base. Her account of the meeting is stunning. Having been flown by military helicopter, at night, to a submarine hangar at a secret location to visit an elected president deposed in a coup, she told Morsi that there was no chance of his coming back. She also seems to have tried, in the presence of an Egyptian military officer, to convince him that this was right and proper. The meeting left her, as the Guardian put it, ‘feeling more hopeful than not about the future for Egypt as a stable democracy’. Two weeks later, more than a thousand people were killed in the streets of Cairo. Ashton’s statement in response to this called on ‘Egyptian citizens to avoid further provocations’. She describes Sisi as a ‘philosopher general’, and even after the Rabaa massacre exchanged tender messages with him while tens of thousands of people were being arrested, many of them subsequently tortured in underground prisons or handed death sentences after mass trials. I was cynical about the EU’s position on the coup at the time, but I hadn’t understood just how bad it was until reading it in Ashton’s words.
The uprising in Libya in 2011 quickly became another theatre for European posturing, but this time the EU stayed in the wings. The standard story puts Britain and France at the forefront of military intervention against Gaddafi, with the US a reluctant participant. But US airstrikes were critical. Ashton recalls that ‘a howling media demanded slogans that sounded decisive and strong.’ Soon French, British and American planes were knocking out the puny Libyan air defences and making precision strikes against loyalist forces, not to mention illegally circumventing the UN arms embargo. The UN resolution on the conflict was twisted to allow the pursuit of open regime change under the pretence – the ‘fiction’, Robert Gates called it – that Nato was only disabling Gaddafi’s military command centres. ‘There was no discussion of what might happen if Gaddafi simply moved back,’ Ashton writes, or ‘how long air strikes would continue’. US Predator drones and French fighter planes attacked Gaddafi’s convoy as it fled Sirte and French intelligence sent his c0-ordinates to the rebel militias who pulled him from a pipe in the desert and executed him. Ashton travelled to Benghazi to meet the National Transitional Council, a shaky alliance cobbled together from regime defectors and ageing exiles, about which she is far too kind: very few of its members would play a significant role in what was to come. ‘Despite everything we had learned from the errors made in Iraq, there seemed to be an unquestioning assumption that the liberation of Libya would lead to a different outcome.’ It might be more accurate to say that nothing had been learned.
Ashton was rightly praised for her contributions to the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in 2013. Here there was a useful role to be played by European diplomats: they could be the reasonable face of the Western alliance and give proceedings a semblance of multilateral civility. Ashton established good relationships with both Saeed Jalili (secretary of Iran’s National Security Council) and Javad Zarif (the foreign minister), and helped to convene meetings between Zarif and John Kerry in Geneva. She could handle dessert with Zarif and champagne with Sergei Lavrov to smooth proceedings. But the deal was ultimately a matter for the US and Iran, as Ashton knew all too well. The talks she conducted were ultimately what she calls ‘front of house’. The real show was the secret negotiations between American and Iranian officials. These took the form of a back channel, which saw Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan fly to Oman in unmarked planes to meet Iranian leaders. It was there that a deal was hammered out to trade relief from torturous American sanctions for promises that Iran would restrict its nuclear enrichment programme. The back channel was kept secret even from Ashton and the other P5+1 members, but when it was finally revealed, she took it well, recognising that the deal was too important for qualms about protocol or status.
In November 2013, Ashton was at the Vilnius summit, where Ukraine was supposed to sign an association agreement with the EU – until the then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych baulked at the eleventh hour. The agreement had been in the works for years and Yanukovych’s refusal would be significant in sparking the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv. He showed up in Vilnius anyway, with Ashton and others watching him like hawks, which made for an awkward scene. Ashton says that Yanukovych had two options: a closer relationship with the EU, or a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He wanted to fudge the issue when no fudge was possible. He wanted financial support in the form of grants and IMF loans that would offset the loss of exports to Russia, but this wasn’t on the cards. Ashton made several visits to Kyiv during the demonstrations, but she had also cultivated a relationship with Yanukovych. She notes that when Victoria Nuland of the US State Department went to Kyiv she chose to go straight to the square. Ashton ‘decided to go and see the president first’.
By the time Ashton arrived on the scene in Ukraine she had considerable professional experience, and she displayed a better understanding of the dynamic than many other European and American leaders. But her account doesn’t really reckon with the history of European relations with Ukraine. She seems to think the EU never had designs of its own, beyond desiring goodness for all mankind. This was also the mythology of the moment in the parts of Ukrainian society the Maidan movement brought to the fore. Within a couple of months Yanukovych was gone, to the benefit of politicians Europe found more amenable: Petro Poroshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Yulia Tymoshenko. Ashton found this very exciting. ‘Revolution, freedom, chaos,’ she writes. ‘I could almost taste it.’ But the consequences of the EU’s overtures to Ukraine, and Russia’s response to them, have since become clear. And whatever else the war in Ukraine is, it is a terrible failure of European diplomacy.
After Russia had moved on Crimea, Ashton travelled to Madrid to meet Sergei Lavrov and was surprised by how different his perception of events was. ‘Lavrov saw a mirror image of what I saw,’ she writes. His was ‘a completely distorted view from my perspective’. To her credit she saw that irreconcilable perspectives were the central issue, and that there had been no progress whatever in persuading Russia to change its thinking. In spite of their rhetoric, experienced diplomats have often recognised that Russia’s point of view matters. Bill Burns, now director of the CIA, wrote in a diplomatic cable as early as 1995 that there was a need for a security order in Europe ‘sufficiently in Russia’s interests so that a revived Russia will have no compelling reason to revise it’. Instead, as he later wrote in his memoir, Nato enlargement in Eastern Europe had left ‘a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades’. Talk of membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia were ‘potential train wrecks’ that had done ‘indelible damage, and fed the appetite of a future Russian leadership for getting even’. By the time Ashton attended the Minsk Protocol talks in 2014, that appetite was already being expressed in Russian forces crossing into Ukraine. Whatever was achieved in the discussions at Minsk, they made clear Putin’s ‘anger and determination to prevent Ukraine from moving to a fully independent future’.
When the system of resident ambassadors first emerged in the 15th century, diplomatic communication depended on ship and horse traffic, and ambassadors wielded considerable individual power. The faster communication has become, the less individual latitude the resident diplomat has been given. Most diplomats today are expected to be, at most, plugged-in apparatchiks of a central foreign policy commission. Anxiety about this was on display in the Trump era, when the State Department was subjected to Steve Bannon’s ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’. But in truth the State Department had already made a start on deconstructing itself. The global war on terror had revived a ‘coercive diplomacy’ and helped turn many diplomats into willing purveyors of military reconnaissance and imperial stabilisation. Yet for all the failings of diplomatic bureaucracies (language training is a persistent difficulty – as recently as 2018, the State Department had twice as many capable Portuguese speakers as Chinese speakers, and the Foreign Office had more staff with expert-level Spanish than with Arabic, Mandarin and Russian put together), the job of recognising and smoothing over countervailing interests among states is as important as it ever has been. There just aren’t many alternatives to dogged, and often doomed, efforts at persuasion.
Countries that select their diplomats by political appointment come in for some deserved sneering from those that deploy professional civil servants. British leaders are proud that the country has more or less managed to avoid political appointments to diplomatic posts. In Europe, few countries have followed the example set by Ashton. Her two successors, Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell, came directly from the foreign ministries of Italy and Spain. But so much British and European diplomatic effort is now about corporate promotion rather than statecraft, and political appointments do have their advantages. US ambassadors chosen because they have well-connected chums can sometimes offer easy access to the US president. When Joe Biden appointed Rahm Emanuel as ambassador in Tokyo, Japanese officials understood that they had been given a direct line to the president, and what that meant about US priorities.
Diplomatic sinecures and sales bureaucracies go some way towards explaining why back channels, freelancers, national security advisers and intelligence officials have ended up trespassing on diplomatic turf with such regularity. It was CIA Director Burns who travelled to Moscow in November 2022 to make contact with Russia at a time when the war in Ukraine had made relations particularly dangerous. In the first week of April this year, Burns travelled to Riyadh to air American displeasure at recent Saudi overtures to China. This is part of what Burns calls ‘intelligence diplomacy’. Relations between the US and China have suffered long periods of hazardous silence over the past year. When a real effort was made to redress this in May, it was the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who travelled to Vienna to meet the director of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Wang Yi. These were critical moments when much rested on a conversation between a few people, the most senior of whom weren’t diplomats. The meeting in Vienna set up visits to Beijing by the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, and the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. Diplomacy has never been the preserve of specialised professionals alone. But it says something about the present moment that so much of it is now farmed out to national security, military and intelligence agencies.
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