From plastic tissue boxes to statues of statemen in Roman dress, former press secretary to two British Foreign Secretaries and executive director at APCO Worldwide, Simon McGee, asks why the business of diplomacy demands so much bad taste
Everyone’s a twenty-first century diplomatist now. The Naked Diplomat, Tom Fletcher’s excellent treatise on digital diplomacy, is gospel and envoys everywhere are tweeting like maniacs, as if their annual performance appraisals depend on attracting Twitter followers. But the ways of the past are not quite dead because today’s diplomats, modern and urbane in every other way, still abide by a bizarre code of aesthetics, power projection and gift giving that can be summed up as an obsession with what I call ‘diplotat.’
‘Tat,’ if you are not familiar with the term, is a marvellous British noun: most Brits would probably use it when describing an object that is tasteless and/or tatty. Tat is the fine junk on display in tourist souvenir shops the world over, like a charming two euro plastic thermometer magnet or a hand-painted glass ashtray. And to my mind, diplotat can also be a statue, building or décor that, while perfectly and expensively executed, is so daft or overcooked that it is only tolerated in the world of international relations or politics. As anyone who has ever been involved in any aspect of diplomacy can attest, tat maintains a frighteningly strong grip on modern diplomacy.
At the least offensive end of the bad taste spectrum are so-called ‘goody bags’ handed out to delegations and journalists at multilateral gatherings. Branded pens and notepads are fine no matter the design or colour scheme because they’re actually useful. And those free portable mobile phone chargers are also handy, so long as you are willing to trust the host government handing them out. But for some inexplicable reason, as many readers will know from bewildered experience, EU and G7 presidencies insist on commissioning ties (for him) and scarves (for her) to mark their country’s fabulous chairing and hosting of meetings. There is always the briefest hope as you peer into the bag that perhaps this time the tie or scarf won’t be ugly and completely unwearable; but alas it always is. The only rational explanation is a secret and long-standing stitch up between protocol officers and EU silk farmers.
Another category of tat is the rubbish sometimes masquerading as an apparently valuable gift or symbol of friendship. Yes, we know that it’s the thought that counts, rather than the value of the gift itself, but the world needs an international convention on diplotat to prevent the horrible waste in valuable resources and energy that goes into making an engraved commemorative glass platter or a metal urn; and let’s not start on the carbon footprint. Accompanying a former boss on an official visit to the Far East, I once sat in a ministerial waiting room lined with diplotat in glass cases, a temple to plastic, low-density metals and banal words of friendship. It was a cold place. We’ve all heard about the islands of single-use, non-biodegradable plastics bobbing about our oceans; but doesn’t anyone think of the mountains of zero-use tat clogging up cupboards and mantelpieces across the world’s ministries of foreign affairs?
Yet diplotat is not limited to gifts exchanged: it also adorns the tables and walls of diplomacy’s salons. In some parts of the world it is almost impossible to believe the variety and sheer awfulness of the gilded plastic tissue boxes present in every official reception room, often in pride of place on a table at the head of the room between national flags and seated principals. These seem to have been produced exclusively for ministries of foreign affairs and the dashboards of grand taxis. And very few things seek to project power (often patriarchal power, unsurprisingly, and usually unsuccessfully) as images of stallions and eagles. I’ve lost count of the number of ministries I’ve been to where every single room and corridor featured fairly inept paintings of anatomically incorrect horses. I can only assume that the animal artists are in on the act with those protocol people and the silk farmers.
And Western countries fare no better. Many people rightly marvel at the splendour of the Italianate palazzo on St James’s Park that is home to the FCO. The grand staircase leading up to the Locarno Rooms, the Foreign Secretary’s office and the Ambassador’s Waiting Room is indeed very grand, and the assortment of other courts, staircases and rooms are equally impressive. But if you enter the building through the IndiaOffice entrance on the main quad, presided over by a tough-looking Gurkha soldier, you’ll come across the stone statues of eighteenth-century English statesmen dressed in Roman togas and centurion outfits. These were all serious men of their time – including Major General Stringer Lawrence, the first commander in chief of British-occupied India – and yet by today’s standard they look completely ridiculous. Mind you, who am I to say that, a century after Brexit, British diplomats going about their twenty-second century public service on King Charles Street shouldn’t have the pleasure of milling around statues of David Miliband, William Hague and Boris Johnson dressed as Roman legionnaires?
But the pinnacle of diplotat, as I saw on my travels with British foreign ministers, was in the land of the free and home of the brave. For the home of the US State Department, the Harry S. Truman Building, in Foggy Bottom, Washington DC, is the worst/best culprit of them all.
The majority of the building is very much a product of its late 1950s and early 1960s time; think glass, stone, and Mad Menwood panelling. Completed in 1961, I think it’s cool as hell. And yet there’s a strange quirk about this building that makes it the epicentre of global diplotat. If you take the lift to the seventh or eighth floor you will enter a strange multi-dimensional time and place warp. The first time you step into the lift you might think that you’re going to another floor in a modernist building; but you would be wrong. Because when you step out of the lift – for a meeting with the Secretary of State or an undersecretary, for a press conference in the round Treaty Room or a diplomatic reception – you find yourself in the salons of a late Georgian/American colonial era mansion, not unlike the fine rooms of the White House, full of whitewashed Corinthian columns and plasterwork, drooping with chandeliers and surrounded by what is reputed to be one of the grandest collections of early American furniture, silver, rugs and paintings in the country. The intention is to wow foreign diplomats with the kind of old school gilt and mirrors that you find in the Quai d’Orsay. But a funny thing happens: your eyes see old but your mind screams modernist building. Sadly, the net effect for me is more Disney World and diplotat rather than a convincing projection of American history and power.
So, for the sake of Foggy Bottom as much as the goody bag of Romania’s upcoming EU presidency, we need another diplo revolution. Just as Fletcher sketched out the future of digital diplomacy, surely it’s now time for others to update the aesthetics of diplomacy. Why should cool ministries and offices exist only in the likes of Danish political drama Borgen? It’s time for protocol officers everywhere to step up to the plate.