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Offering his experience serving as a British ambassador overseas, Charles Crawford CMG shares a candid insight into what goes on behind closed doors during summit diplomacy

Seen from outside, diplomatic summits look grand yet distant and a tad mysterious: important people using dark diplomatic wiles and guiles to get large things done.

That’s part of it. But a better way to understand it is this.

Imagine blokes in Ye Olde English Pubbe musing on the state of the world:

     Have you seen what the b***** French are doing with our fish?

     Talk about fishy! What about the death of that diplomat in Tehran? CIA or KGB?

     Both! Look at what Putin’s doing to Ukraine!

     Ukraine? What about Cornwall? Paralysed because of some diplomatic junket!

     That’s Brexit for you! We’re stuffed!

And so on. Genial, uninformed yet heartfelt and not unthematic instincts.

Back in capitals, foreign ministry experts pore over the world’s problems. They draft roadmaps, objectives, strategic goals and policy risk matrices. Summit declarations and climate change paradigms. They look studiously at what’s on the one hand. Then they ponder what’s on the other hand. A dense fog of detail, process and analysis. Much of it worthless.

Above them, when Ministers and Prime Ministers meet their foreign counterparts either bilaterally or at a summit, their exchanges are rather like the blokes in the pub. Their top officials have distilled every significant world problem down to a couple of sides of double-spaced briefing. It’s
much more about instinct again. Who gets on with whom. Who trusts whom:

     What the devil is Putin up to now in Ukraine?

     If we bung the Germans something on financial services, can we rely on them to sort out the French on fish?

     What about that Tehran business? Fishy!

     That’s Brexit for you! We’re stuffed!

Back in 2007 as Ambassador in Warsaw I organised the visit by Tony Blair to meet the Polish President and Prime Minister to discuss the proposed EU constitutional treaty. A zany visit from Blair’s point of view: the identical and seemingly idiosyncratic Kaczyński twins occupied those top Polish offices.

By this point I was at my peak diplomatic experience. What Tony Blair needed was not dense analysis of EU and Polish ins and outs. Rather he wanted wisdom. What’s the key thing the Poles want in this latest EU imbroglio? Where are they with us, and where might we clash? And what’s the story with the twins?

I duly prepared three short notes for Number 10.

One was a snapshot of Polish politics, describing how secure the Kaczyński twins were in the short term, their prospects for re-election, and what motivated their core voters (how would defying the Germans at the EU Summit work for them?). Politicians always like to know whether their foreign counterparts will be around for a while and have a solid base.

I also worked up a note summarising where (as seen from Warsaw), the Poles were likely to agree with or oppose us on the key issues, most notably the proposed new EU voting weights. And, crucially, how far Warsaw might go in blocking the whole deal to stop Berlin getting what it wanted on voting.

Perhaps a very long way indeed. Poland had joined the EU just some 170 weeks previously with a very favourable voting weight under the then rules. What? Now Germany wants to change those rules and reduce Poland’s weight? “To nie jest do zaakceptowania!”

In most EU capitals newspaper headlines along the lines of “EU Summit fiasco because of Polish obstinacy” would spread alarm and despondency. Not so back in Poland: the louder the EU squealing that Poland had refused to give in to Berlin’s demands, the more the Kaczyński voting base would be delighted.

I pointed all this out to London. And I sent Number 10 a more personal short email with tips on how the Prime Minister might approach the Polish twins:

Play it straight! No jokes about twins! NB at the Summit there will be only one leader who’s actually read the ghastly Treaty and can give an impromptu three-hour lecture on it without notes. That will be Lech Kaczyński. Don’t underestimate him!

Armed with these simple documents and ignoring the bulging Whitehall briefing, Tony Blair enjoyed meeting the Kaczyńskis, sounding them out on what they wanted and getting a sense of how far they’d go to get it.

At the Summit itself, most EU leaders schemed to push President Kaczyński into submission. This failed. They had underestimated him. The UK delegation too was impressed: “Gosh. Nutty Crawford was right after all. That Kaczyński is smart – and damnably stubborn.”

After bouncing off Poland for a few hours Angela Merkel implored Tony Blair to woo Kaczyński round. In return the perfidious Brits got concessions on what London wanted. As one UK diplomat put it afterwards, “It was like Christmas, with the Germans throwing us presents we weren’t expecting!”

A characteristically crafty EU deal was reached. Poland agreed to a lower EU voting weight, but the change was delayed for a few years.

Then there was the calamitous Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, a diplomatic debacle in a league of its own. What went wrong?

The whole event was set up as globalised free-for-all that degenerated into an uncontrollable haggle in which everyone wanted a bung to sign up.

Since the number of countries that (a) can afford a bung and (b) might choose to pay one is pretty small, the haggle turned into farce. Populist charlatans like Chavez and Mugabe ranted against ‘capitalism’ while demanding capitalism’s money they hadn’t earned. No-one had the nerve to turn off their microphone and bundle them out into the snow. The whole thing was structured to fail, with the EU noisily in the lead and footing the drinks bills.

If you are President Obama at this sorry event, how to salvage something from the wreckage? Easy. Cut a small deal, any deal, proclaim victory, dash for home.

But there has to be something in it for the US. No American president will throw money into a doubtful international pot without some way of checking that some of the money is being spent honestly. Hence Obama’s statement insisting that without respectable verification arrangements a deal would be “empty words on a page.”

A typical ‘Western’ politician’s soundbite, with one important advantage: it was true. Hence its serious disadvantage: undemocratic regimes having a hissy fit at this insulting impugning of their sovereign right to cheat.

It all ended with Obama sitting down with the leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa to hammer out something among themselves, far from the madding crowd of annoying NGOs and other leaders.

In a spasm of post-modern irony a small self-proclaimed group of countries defined the main outcome on behalf of everyone else, with the European Unionists and Russians and other key industrial powers left outside the room.

Such climate summits are a priori problematic. Because the issues are ‘global,’ everyone demands that everyone else takes ‘responsibility’ for tackling it. But no-one takes responsibility if it involves paying too much. Amidst the wrangling small countries get a unique chance to act as spoilers to get bribes. Larger countries that mainly cause the problems and have money for bribes can easily find ways to avoid paying too much.

One final example.

When Hillary Clinton first visited EU HQ as Obama’s newly appointed Secretary of State, she met the then EU leaders team: José Barosso, Herman Van Rompuy and the UK’s Kathy Ashton. Barosso and Van Rompuy startled her by reading out dreary EU policy positions, opening the way for Kathy Ashton to talk to her like a human being.

The EU briefing machine had misunderstood the point of the meeting. It was not about policy. Instead it was about Hillary’s plane-ride home, when she’d tell her Chief of Staff who on the EU side was or was not a useful partner for the new Administration. Kathy Ashton won that one hands-down.

In short, high-level diplomacy is oddly human. It’s all about subtly building relationships.

Which is why diplomacy-by-zoom is limited. You can’t engage frankly with someone you’re peering at in a small window on a screen. Physics, but no chemistry.



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