‘Why’, she asks herself, ‘didn’t all those pampered diplomats out there see these things coming and warn me? Isn’t that what they’re paid to do?’
She has a point. The central role of diplomats is to provide a quiet, confidential way for national leaders to communicate with each other – that is until WikiLeaks blew up confidentiality. But another important job is to alert their own leaders when political trouble may be brewing in the country or region where they are posted, and giving their leaders the best assessment of how far local authorities can cope.
This calls for subtle qualities. The diplomat has to know what is going on within the circles of power but also out there in the country at large. Indefinable, elusive things such as the national mood must be weighed alongside precise things such as the constitutional powers available to ministers to manage national unrest.
The diplomat also needs to manage several difficult professional balancing acts simultaneously – staying close to a country’s incumbent leadership while keeping lines open to opposition groups (who, after all, may one day be in charge). This involves sending back political reports which are honest about what the embassy knows and expects, but which also frankly remind HQ of all the imponderables the embassy doesn’t know.
Maybe most difficult of all is managing the high-level human factor. Your Prime Minister sees himself as a great friend of your host country’s President. They frequently meet privately in the margins of UN and Davos gatherings. Your Prime Minister knows that the President presides over a system whose human rights record is, ahem, ambiguous. But HQ’s policy conclusion is clear – better to work with the local leader we know than encourage ‘instability’, not least since the main opposition leader sounds like a naive demagogue. In any case, the human rights record there is getting a bit better. Trade is going well and, as we all think we know, growing prosperity helps manage political tensions.
In these circumstances, the diplomat’s own HQ may not be pleased to get reports from the Ambassador that the local President’s power is under threat from angry protesters. They may not want to believe them or even act on them.
One superb example came in 1987, when Mariot Leslie (now UK Ambassador to NATO) wrote a short paper for the FCO Planning Staff arguing that German reunification could come much faster than anyone expected. How we all chortled. Would Moscow allow East Germany to vanish? Never! The paper was tossed on to a high dusty shelf where it stayed, until it was produced with a nonchalant flourish when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
The FCO Planners’ finest hour came very soon after that. No 10 asked for a paper on the likely turn of events in Romania, where the Ceausescu regime was poised to fall. In a moment of pre-Christmas jollification, as a joke the Planners threw in one extra-vivid option, namely that Ceausescu would be toppled and executed. And that’s exactly what happened.
The political dilemma in these situations is real enough: at what point do we decide to abandon the known and accept the unknown? Commenting in March on the Project Syndicate website, French intellectual Dominique Moïsi took the Middle East upheavals as a classic example of the way diplomats put too many eggs in the baskets of unsavoury regimes by not engaging with opposition figures:
‘Revolutionary ruptures upset diplomats’ familiar habits, both in terms of their personal contacts and, more importantly, in terms of their thinking. A fast-forward thrust into the unknown can be exhilarating, but it is also deeply frightening. In the name of ‘realism’, diplomats and foreign policy strategists are naturally conservative.’
Perhaps senior French diplomats have an especially thin time when it comes to having their views taken seriously back in Paris. When I was Ambassador in Belgrade my French colleague glumly told me that he had received a stern reprimand for having the temerity to offer Paris some policy suggestions on the Kosovo problem: ‘Our job is to decide policy – your job is to implement it!’
So Dominique Moïsi has a point, although quite how valid a point it is varies between Foreign Ministries. The Yugoslavia debacle is instructive. Hard though it is to believe now, back in communist Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980 the British Embassy operated under a firm policy of not talking to anti-communist dissidents lest the Belgrade regime be annoyed. Yet down the road the US Embassy maintained a dialogue with veteran dissident Milovan Djilas and life went on well enough.
As previously described in Diplomat (September 2010), back in 1984 my own frustration with the British government’s over-optimistic view compelled me to write a provocative analysis warning that Yugoslavia might get into serious difficulties. Her Majesty’s Government loftily nodded at this pesky First Secretary and pressed on as before: Communist Yugoslavia was a ‘pillar of stability in the Balkans’ – and that was that.
Several years later as tensions were rising across the country, the British Ambassador was exasperated that senior colleagues in London would not accept that things were moving from difficult to dangerous. He wrote back to London giving explicit warnings. He received a snooty reply to the effect that it would not matter much to the UK if Yugoslavia went bad – British holidaymakers would not be going to Dubrovnik in such numbers any longer.
British dismay when Yugoslavia fell apart was as nothing compared to the panic that swept the Russian Foreign Ministry when Milosevic was toppled in 2000. Russia’s intelligence and diplomatic experts had assured the Russian leadership that even if Milosevic lost the election he would find a way to fix the result and stay in power. Bad call. The Russian Foreign Minister had to dash to Belgrade from India to try to salvage something from the policy train-wreck.
One of the most famous modern examples of a top British Ambassador getting it wrong also took place in Moscow in 1988 when British Ambassador Sir Bryan Cartledge’s final despatch argued that it would take Mikhail Gorbachev ‘20 years, perhaps a generation’ to change the Soviet Union. He added: ‘I do not believe that Gorbachev and his allies can bring about a moral, social, psychological, political and economic revolution in the Soviet Union more quickly than that.’ 170 weeks after Sir Brian left Moscow, the Soviet Union collapsed.
A recent Moscow example of dotty diplomatic predictions came in 2009, when Igor Panarin, dean at the Foreign Ministry’s school for future diplomats, warned that in 2010 the US would disintegrate and Russia would get Alaska back. Zero out of ten for accuracy. Ten out of ten for ingenious wishful thinking.
So much for practice. What about the theory of making predictions? Take a stretch of dangerous road. It may be obvious to any road engineer that a crash is likely for ‘objective’ reasons: blind corners, poor road surface, a tendency for drivers to speed along that section, pedestrians often crossing and so on. So a crash is predictable in general terms. Yet it is unpredictable in specific terms. Thousands of vehicles may go by safely before some or other fatal combination of small errors or sheer bad luck causes a nasty accident.
Take the Middle East. For a long time it has been obvious enough to any sane person that various national socialist and other autocracies in the region had to experience political convulsions sooner or later. But would it be sooner or later? Or at least not today?
Precisely when the convulsions break out is in principle unknowable, given the way these societies work. And not all convulsions decisively transform the situation: some leaders have shown themselves to be ruthless and clever enough to try to ride out a serious problem through assorted concessions or, in the case of Muammar Gaddafi, brutal repression.
In moments of crisis, it is not surprising that diplomats struggle to predict the moves of key participants: those participants don’t themselves know just how far to carry bluff and brinkmanship. In 1987 the intensity of the confrontation between India and China over control of mountain passes near Tibet led some Western foreign diplomats to predict a repeat of the armed conflict of 1962. However, the Indian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi travelled to Beijing over the following months and negotiated a mutual de-escalation.
There are less dramatic examples. For many months, opinion polls for the 2005 Polish parliamentary elections pointed to a clear victory for the Civic Platform party and then a coalition with the Law and Justice party. As Ambassador I dutifully informed London to expect this outcome – what could happen to stop it?
Yet in the final days of the campaign, Law and Justice closed the gap and won the election. The planned coalition promptly collapsed. I sent a telegram to London reporting that every prediction I had made for the previous nine months about Polish politics had been completely and utterly wrong. London did not mind too much.