September 3, 2001 Monday Final Edition
Diplomacy not what it used to be;
Hywel Williams looks at the differences between British and French ambassadors.
BYLINE: The Guardian
SECTION: A; Pg. 9
LENGTH: 533 words
WHAT do diplomats do? There was a time when the treaties they drafted made European history, but diplomatic history has now been shoved aside by more stimulating speculations about the mentalities of the masses and the intrigues of elites.
There is still a residual mystique about diplomats, and anonymity remains their prerogative. The secret agreements of aristocratic cabinets that led to war in August 1914 discredited secret treaties, but the 'D" number plate proves that there is still a freemasonry across frontiers.
Mutual recognition arrived early. The heralds of the ancient Greek city states were given special privileges when they arrived with messages, and placed under the special care of the god Hermes, that charming, powerful trickster.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has survived cost-cutting questioning about embassy cocktails. In a very British way, though, the plush upholstery remains, but there is an emptiness of purpose. Even the sentimental Arabists have gone. Diplomats promote trade now. It seems rather a decline. The secrecy of British diplomacy remains its leading characteristic and vice.
Who in the ambassadorial class, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, can claim to have influenced public opinion in the past 20 years? Who would have wanted to? Last week in Paris there was a very public conference of all of France's 180 ambassadors, convened by Prime Minister Jospin. There were three days of round-table discussions open to the Press. Sometimes the questions were familiar. How to promote cultural variety and biodiversity? Can French survive as a language used in Africa?
It has been refreshing to see Their Excellencies asking deep questions. How can diplomacy promote the rights of man? What is French foreign policy on the rights of woman? How can diplomacy fight against AIDS? To ask such questions reminds us how averse diplomats are to principle and theory. To ask them in a session open to debate is unheard ofin France.
There are differences of diplomatic temper and national style; cultural differences widen the gap between our diplomats. British diplomats believe abstraction comes too easily to the French, with their smattering of school philosophy. French diplomats think Britain has a favourite abstraction too: a selective moralism. Its foreign policy has always used ethics as a means to power. Questions about the role of diplomacy have concentrated on the obvious. The ease of communication in the age of CNN makes diplomacy more, not less, necessary. Public opinion is created quickly through imagery. This opinion is emotional and needs educating. Globalisation creates an angry recidivism and a sense in many localities of being patronised.
Democratic diplomacy is about interpreting one culture to another. Its practitioners have to leave the monastic-diplomatic compound, to be accessible to the media, and to talk of principles and rights as well as the usual pragmatism.
British diplomats are career professionals imitating the secretiveness of their aristocratic predecessors. The French, heirs to the diplomacy of Cardinal Richelieu, seem already to be taking the lead in openness.