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James Landale, BBC News, diplomatic correspondent discusses the art of animal diplomacy, and diplomats using animals to promote their own interests

What is it with British diplomats and animals? Sir Simon McDonald is head of the diplomatic service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is Permanent Under Secretary at one of the great departments of the British state. He is a Knight Commander of the most distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. So in the corridors of Whitehall, Sir Simon is a top dog.

And yet a gentle perusal of his Twitter feed shows Britain’s chief diplomat not only touring the world’s capitals, inspecting his troops and banging the drum for Britain. It also shows him stroking an inordinate number of cats like some latter day Blofeld, the James Bond villain. Here is a picture of Sir Simon with ‘Lawrence of Abdoun’ who flies the feline flag for Britain at the Embassy in Amman. Here is another showing him greeting ‘Charlie’ and ‘Lupin’ at the British Embassy in Manila.

Most of all, Sir Simon is pictured with his own official cat, named – inevitably – Palmerston, after the great nineteenth century British statesman. Palmerston is on Twitter, going by the name of @diplomog, described I kid you not, as the ‘official account of the @foreignoffice Chief Mouser.’ There are pictures of the cat disporting himself on Sir Simon’s well carpeted office floor, greeting foreign visitors, being hugged by passing ministers. When Jeremy Hunt arrived at the FCO in July, one of the new Foreign Secretary’s first meetings was, yes, with Palmerston. I am sure Sir Simon publishes a few of these tweets himself but most are the work of his officials who joined the FCO thinking they were going to shape Britain’s place in the world but have ended up pretending to be a cat. In April, Sir Simon even gave the cat a performance appraisal: “Palmerston has been @foreignoffice 2 years today. In his 2nd year, he caught 30 mice & 1 pigeon, added 21.7K Twitter followers & raised £1K for charity. Grade A performance!”

Now I am sure Palmerston is a cost-effective way for the tax payer to keep down the rats at King Charles Street. He probably cheers up a workforce that can at times be depressed by poor pay and conditions. But is Palmerston a good diplomat? Is he a literal embodiment of soft power? Or do foreign politicians scratch their heads and wonder if Brexit is beginning to get to Britain’s official classes?

The truth is that diplomats have always used animals to promote their interests. Just not necessarily cats. In times gone by monarchs and emperors gave lions and tigers and elephants to other leaders, as symbols of their power and virility. Egyptian pharaohs liked to give giraffes to foreign powers in the hope of boosting trade. Former kings of England used to receive so many animals from foreign leaders they kept a menagerie of bears, lions and elephants at the Tower of London. In the 1980s, President Suharto of Indonesialiked to give his counterparts Komodo dragons.

At other times, countries have used animals to promote their national character. Australian leaders like to allow their foreign counterparts to cuddle koala bears. I have read reports that Australia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually has a manual on animal diplomacy. In Chinagiant pandas have been diplomatic gifts for more than a thousand years, known inevitably as ‘panda diplomacy.’ The two pandas given to the USin 1972 to mark Richard Nixon’s historic visit were seen by millions of Americans at the National Zoo in Washington. So successful was this diplomacy that Ted Heath, the British Prime Minister, insisted that Britain should get some pandas too when he visited China two years later. These days the Chinese merely lend their bears for a few years.

Animals can also be used for perhaps less benign diplomacy. In 2007, Vladimir Putin brought his black Labrador, Connie, into a meeting with Chancellor Merkel of Germany. The German chancellor is not that keen on dogs having been bitten as a child and looked deeply uncomfortable. This prompted accusations the Russian president had deliberately tried to intimidate Mrs Merkel, something he later denied. I wonder if Mrs Merkel was familiar with the words of the American comedian Will Rogers, who once defined diplomacy as “the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock?” In contrast, Mr Putin is kinder to his closer allies. He once gave Hugo Chavez, then President of Venezuela, a black terrier from a type bred by Stalin to be prison guard dogs.

There are, of course, risks with using animals for diplomacy. Not all Arab ambassadors have felt comfortable having lunch at Buckingham Palace with the Queen’s corgis running around their feet. The former Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps in London, Sir Anthony Figgis, used to keep two terriers in his office at the Palace but they were so unruly he had to lock them up in a cupboard when diplomats visited. He clearly wanted to avoid following in the footsteps of the US Ambassador to Norwayin 1909. His bulldog attacked both dogs and humans until it was killed by an angry citizen, an act much celebrated by the Norwegian newspapers.

So Sir Simon Macdonald’s cat diplomacy is nothing new and is clearly catching on. Across Whitehall, other departments have got their own, er, copycats: ‘Gladstone’ at the Treasury, ‘Evie’ at the Cabinet Office. The Spanish Embassy in London has a tabby called ‘Conoce a Pepe’ whom they describe as “handsome and clever.” At the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, French diplomats have recruited ‘Nomi’ and ‘Noe.’ At the Australian foreign ministry in Canberra, ‘Frankie’ and ‘Ella’ purr for their nation. Even Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, appears to have a cat to keep him company in the Ecuadorian Embassy where he has been holed up for the past six years. Inevitably, he gave the cat its own Twitter feed – @EmbassyCat – which he used to promote his interests until the embassy cut off his internet connection.

There is an old saying in Washington, that if you want a friend, get a dog. If you are a diplomat in London, you clearly have to get a cat.


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