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The Physics Of Diplomacy

charles crawfordFormer UK Ambassador Charles Crawford on the tensions between Mass and Velocity that have shaped world history

Your awesomely brilliant child gets an interview at Cambridge University to try for an undergraduate place in Natural Sciences. The languid tutor throws out this one:

You have a long, steep, friction-free slope.

Two identical cylinders are at the top.


One rolls down, one slides down.

They set off at the same time.

Which gets to the bottom faster?

Oh, and explain why.

Cunning. In physics – much like in diplomacy – it’s not enough to know the right answer. You need to know why it’s the right answer. Baffled? See the end of this article.

Physics is all about how nature works in practice: relationships between matter, movement, energy and force. Thus the simple formula for kinetic energy (the energy something possesses due to its motion):


E          Kinetic Energy

M        Mass

V         Velocity

Smart Diplomat readers see immediately that it’s Velocity, not Mass, that makes the real difference here. A car travelling at 20mph takes only some 12 metres to stop. A car travelling at 60mph (i.e. three times faster) takes over 70 metres to stop. A wet football kicked into your face might break your nose. A bullet weighing far less than the football but with far higher velocity whizzes through your head. Tank shells are small and very fast, not slow and heavy: you get exponential increases in explosive impact by increasing velocity.

This tension between Mass and Velocity has shaped world history. This year marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. A small English army led by Henry V using light longbows crushed a far larger French army in heavy armour. Velocity: 1, Mass: 0.

Then in 1683, near Vienna, the largest cavalry charge in history led by Poland’s King John III Sobieski raced straight at the heart of the massed Ottoman positions to end the advance of Islam into Europe. The disgraced Ottoman commander was executed by his own side in Belgrade, strangled by a silk rope as befitted someone of his distinction. Velocity: 2, Mass: 0.

More recently, the first Star Wars film gave us the ultimate movie triumph of Velocity over Mass: Luke Skywalker in a tiny X-Wing fighter explodes the Death Star. Velocity 3, Mass 0.

Not that Velocity always beats Mass. Even the nimblest small army can be overwhelmed by waves of accurate heavy artillery. An atom bomb achieves things that hundreds of tanks cannot do. The point is simply that people and systems with high velocity and relatively less mass may have quite different options for managing distance, time and manoeuverability.

From the days of Agincourt until about 30 years ago the world loved Mass. Mass production. Mass movements. Heavy weapons. Heavy industry. As the Industrial Revolution and the Machine Age accelerated, leaders, artists and intellectuals alike were fascinated by the sheer size, speed, noise and raw power of the machines building our modern world. Nothing like these mighty devices had ever been seen before. Society itself increasingly was seen as an intricate machine, each of us tiny cogs making the works go round. Economists came to use the very imagery or language of Newtonian physics to describe how things worked. The balance of payments; inputs and outputs; market equilibrium.

Then Gordon Moore and other colleagues in California developed a brilliant new way to miniaturise computer processes – the microprocessor. Each advance made the next advance easier and cheaper: exponential growth in inventiveness rewarded Velocity at the expense of Mass. A top of the range IBM computer in 1964 was a big, expensive, heavy box with a (then) astounding 8MB of memory whirring through 35,000 instructions per second. Now we carry in our pockets or on our wrists cheap devices running millions of instructions per second. That’s why we can use our phones to video a squabble on a train and send the images around the world for free.

So far so familiar, if still worth recalling. What about diplomacy?

Diplomacy was designed around formal exchanges between leaders. All sorts of laborious practices and institutions were created centuries ago to help make that happen. Letters of Credence and Notes Verbales. Embassies. Foreign Ministries. Bulging diplomatic bags. More generally we live in a world of large slow ‘massive’ institutions (government, corporations, trades unions, national health services and so on) designed for completely different information and innovation conditions.

Look at it another way. ‘Government’ is still based upon a pre-medieval idea that social control requires centralised power to emit orders to people backed by force. What if millions of people now have the spontaneous networking power to challenge those orders faster than they can be issued or enforced?

This raises deep and largely unanswered moral questions about the consent of those being governed to what is being done by their leaders in their name. For most of human history, we ordinary people have had no way to express consent or dissent in a structured speedy way. We now can. And soon we’ll all be able to use 3D printers to create simple guns. The implications for, well, everything, are more than unsettling.

The EU is the classic example of diplomatic Mass growing at the expense of Velocity. Almost everything about the EU is now at odds with the dynamic, scary world we live in. The fat salaries and pensions presiding over impenetrable procedures and untransparent decisions. The constant overriding of voters’ opinions. Swamps of process guarded by a European elite who, having blundered in creating the eurozone on unsound foundations, now demand even more centralised power over voters and their money.

Such dysfunctionality creates a crisis of Legitimacy. Greece is the most acute example catching the headlines, but other good ones are bubbling along. Neither Left or Right take comfort from this grim situation: neither know what to do about it. Does anyone in Whitehall or Brussels or Washington have a plan for a radical but workable alternative when existing arrangements abruptly crash?

The EU’s common foreign policy is particularly prone to piling on Mass but losing Velocity.  Lots of European countries intoning the same policies, but struggling to take decisions to implement any of them. Piles of badly drafted declarations. Feeble, unfocused action to implement them.

Even in Europe itself the EU has a wobbly on/off policy of engagement with Belarus, and cannot unite around the simple task of agreeing whether a fellow European state (Kosovo) actually exists. Maybe that unhappy example shows that when it comes to issues at the heart of world diplomacy, namely recognition policy, Mass should always trump Velocity? Has it been wise for the UK and others to push ahead busily without working up a solid EU approach first and finding a way to accommodate Serbia, Russia, China or India? Either way the policy is inept.

Surely, the Eurofederalists say, in today’s world it makes sense for European countries to pool sovereignty to get more Mass! But why is ‘pooling sovereignty’ likely to be more effective? Countries like China, Russia, Brazil, India and plenty of other states have authority and make their weight felt because they are not part of a sluggish, sovereignty-diluting formation: they are free to act as they decide. Take Norway and (in a very different way) Qatar. Both are smaller countries yet exerting plenty of quiet influence by using diplomatic agility and money to make a difference where they choose to do so.

In some policy areas Mass does look to work better than Velocity. The systematic rolling out of democratic reform to former communist Europe has shown the value of painstaking EU process, in Poland and elsewhere. As we are now seeing, the going is much harder in Ukraine (as in Belarus and other CIS countries) where principles of EU pluralism collide with the entrenched interests of post-KGB structures aimed at maintaining Moscow’s psychological and operational influence. Russia cannot compete with the EU on Mass (or Money), so it is resorting to Velocity: using classic mobile military deployments and various modes of ‘asymmetric warfare’ to collapse Ukraine’s eastern borders and leave NATO looking nervous.

In short, in today’s world Velocity is the way to bet. In just a few months Islamic State fanatics have raced to make devastating gains at the expense of regional stability in and around Syria or Iraq. Imposing as the world’s foreign and defence ministries (and great banks and huge corporations) may look, they are all vulnerable to invisible speed-of-light cyber-attacks or other sabotage created by swarms of wily hackers or solitary leakers.

In a world where fast-moving chaos and confusion can break out anywhere with scarcely a moment’s notice, what do diplomats steeped in process and patience do? Nothing but hope forlornly that somehow the old familiar ways keep going, at least until they themselves reach retirement?


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