James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News makes various observations about this tool of much diplomacy…
There is an old joke about the difference between a camel and a diplomat. One can walk for days without needing to drink. The other can drink for days without needing to work.
And like all good jokes, it contains a distilled grain of truth. Alcohol is the holy spirit that lubricates diplomacy. It is a reason to meet, the breaker of barriers, the loosener of tongues, the ritual that turns dialogue into conversation into gossip.
The glory days of two bottle lunches may be well behind us, and thank God say our doctors and livers. But I will always offer a diplomatic lunch guest a glass of something that he or she might desire to whet their appetite. There is little better than a sharp snifter to mark the moment when a dull morning segues into a good meal. Each year I observe six weeks of complete abstinence during Lent and I am sure I get less business done. Lunch is certainly less fun.
But a small tincture at the midday meal is one thing, the boozy diplomatic dinner is another. Here the required skills are quite different. Out of courtesy one must try to match the other guests, drink to drink, without putting a foot wrong yourself while also trying to remember what everyone else is saying. It is quite a skill. Top tip? Write everything down as soon as you can on your way home. There is nothing more frustrating than half-remembering an echo of a juicy piece of information that has become firmly hidden deep within your still half-sozzled brain.
Alcohol has many other uses. At a diplomatic reception or dinner, it can be used to showcase a national product. The French have their Champagne, the Argentines their Malbec, the Canadians their ice wine. The Slovenes boast of a particular pear brandy where the fruit is actually grown in the bottle, on the tree. Some of these drinks are lovely, others require a tough constitution. I have drunk pangalactic gargleblasters from ambassadors whose people seemingly survived ice ages and wars by remaining permanently drunk. All this to toast other people’s monarchs and offer libations to other people’s gods!
Some diplomats are disarmingly frank about their country’s alcoholic efforts. One US envoy used to greet me at his residence by putting a can into my hand and saying: “Here, James, have one of our fizzy, pissy American beers, it’s all I have got, it’s all I can give you.” Some countries are just too cold, too hot or too infertile to grow vines and happy to admit it. Iceland’s Ambassador to London, Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson, recently told the Shortlist magazine: “We don’t boast of good wines in Iceland.” His frankness is matched by Slovakia’s Ambassador to London, Lubomir Rehak, who told the same magazine: “We’ll always serve wine with dinner. There is a Slovakian saying: ‘Let’s have a glass of wine or else the goose might think it’s been swallowed by a dog.”
For some diplomats, alcohol is not for their interlocutors but for themselves. If one lives in an air-conditioned container in a heavily fortified camp in a hostile country where the only entertainment is a ping-pong table and watching war movies with ex-special forces security guards, then drinking oneself into a nightly delirium can become, for some, an increasingly attractive option. A US State Department document in 2010 noted that: “Each US diplomat based in Kabul is limited to no more than one bottle of hard liquor, three bottles of wine and two cases of beer per day.” I think this was supposed to be for entertaining rather than consuming themselves but not for nothing is alcoholism rife in this profession. One North Koreandiplomat in Islamabad found his home targeted in 2017 by well-informed burglars who discovered thousands of bottles booze worth more than £100,000. According to the police, the thieves made off with 1,200 bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, 200 cases of French wine, 60 cartons of beer and dozens of bottles of tequila. The cash-strapped envoy denied he had been trading the booze on the black market in a country where it is illegal for Muslims to drink alcohol.
Of course, for some diplomats, alcohol is not an option. It may be forbidden by their culture, faith or taste buds. Much diplomacy can be done over a cup of tea. Few Englishmen would deny that. Many other envoys insist that a strong local coffee can revive the most exhausted of negotiators. But few good diplomatic deals have ever been sealed over a glass of orange juice. A Spanish ambassador to the court of Peter II in Russia in 1728 set up a diplomatic club called the Order of the Anti-Sober because he said that “in that part of the world all affairs are concluded on a bottle.” The famous Tehran conference in 1943 – when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin hammered out a strategy for the next stage of the war – took place in a fog of alcoholic daze as the world leaders toasted each other with vodka and champagne. Stalin, though, was not always to be trusted when in his cups. According to the author Ben Wright, when the French leader, Charles De Gaulle, was visiting Moscow in 1944, his Soviet counterpart got so drunk that during the official dinner he shouted out: “Bring out the machine guns. Let’s liquidate the diplomats!” The Americans were more cautious with their own leaders. So worried was the White House that President Nixon would succumb to the taste of strong rice wine during his historic visit to China in 1972 that he was explicitly ordered never to drink during the interminable toasts. In more recent times, one American envoy was so excised by drinking at the United Nations, he protested publicly. So many UN diplomats were turning up drunk to boring budget negotiations that Joseph Torsella, US Ambassador for management and reform, tabled a formal proposal “that the negotiating rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone.”
The truth is that alcohol is a tool of much diplomacy. It oils the social interaction that allows officials, envoys and local stakeholders to come together, to get to know one another better so that when they have to negotiate or deliver robust messages, they have a relationship with the person on the other side of the table. When abused to excess, alcohol can be a cause of physical and professional ruin. But when exploited in moderation, it can further the national interest, glass by glass, sip by sip.