Where Policy Meets Reality
Clint Eastwood’s films are a rich source of insight and wisdom for the diplomatist. None more so than the magnificent The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
In the final scenes, Good Clint shows the Ugly bad guy the unmarked grave where the gold is buried: ‘You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.’
The point being that in this world there’s two kinds of diplomats: those who write the rules, safe at HQ, and those who have to go out into the world, to try to implement them.
My own FCO career was mainly that of the digger – the poor sap sent forth to try to make sense of different countries and cultures from the vantage point of being there on the spot. I was expected to extract meaning from the myriad daily goings-on in these countries, and transmit back to London my insights on what, if anything, they meant for British policy.
Back in the early 1980s, there was no training for British diplomats on how to do this. The general idea was that one should pick up the files, see what other people did, and do it rather like that. That banal guidance did not answer one big question: did London want to hear bad news, or not?
My first overseas posting was in 1981 to Belgrade as Second Secretary (Information). Tito had died during the previous year. Would Yugoslavia cope? In those days, the Embassy had a morning meeting at which the Ambassador and the Embassy policy officers would discuss the news and decide what to report to London. My task was to brief the meeting on internal politics. A nasty shock. How to work out from piles of Yugo-communist media verbiage what, if anything, was new? And how, if at all, it might matter?
As the posting proceeded, I somehow became proficient at reading Yugoslav newspapers at top speed. I realised that very little of the supposed information in these newspapers made any difference at all to London; the great bulk of our reporting was sent in the weekly diplomatic bag and was well out of date when it finally landed on the Yugoslav desk, high in the FCO.
To alleviate the tedium, I started trying to analyse what was ‘really’ going on in post-Tito Yugoslavia. I reached conclusions that did not chime with official thinking.
The key British policy for that part of Europe during the Cold War (then very chilly), was to support Yugoslavia. They were the ‘good’ communists, having broken with Stalin in 1948 and stayed ‘non-aligned’ between West and East ever since. Tito’s arcane socialist self-management economy was a triumphant success, at least by the dismal standards of the Warsaw Pact. Sarajevo was hosting the Winter Olympics in 1984. Yugoslav citizens did not need visas to visit the UK. You could even buy some Western newspapers here and there in regional capitals. Freedom!
In short, British and Western policy had it that Yugoslavia was a ‘pillar of stability in the Balkans’. The Embassy hierarchy were disinclined to send anything back to HQ that might, ahem, rock the boat – or, much more worryingly, raise eyebrows.
Take the Kosovo problem. As I reached Belgrade in early 1981, there had been ‘disturbances’ in Pristina. Crowds of students had demonstrated in favour of upgrading Kosovo from a province within Serbia to a full republic within Yugoslavia. News of any such popular rumbling in a communist country created international interest. Was the Titoist edifice of a united country starting to crumble?
The communist authorities in Belgrade clamped down hard. Scores of Kosovo Albanians were given perfunctory trials often lasting only a couple of days and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for ‘counter revolutionary activity’ or ‘hostile propaganda’.
By any normal standards, this oppressive over-reaction was a human rights disgrace on a significant scale. I did my best to summarise for London the fact that these trials were happening, basing my work primarily on Belgrade media reports (not a likely source of unbiased information). But because Yugoslavia was in the Good communist camp (unlike the Bad communists in Moscow and the merely Ugly communists in Enver Hoxha’s Albania and Ceausescu’s Romania) no-one in London or Washington cared if some dirty work was done in Pristina to keep things stable.
What of Yugoslav human rights abuses more generally? When I was in Belgrade, the different regional communist leaderships took varyingly tough lines against local dissidents, the more so if they could be accused of ‘anarcho-liberalism’ (that is, advocating democracy), ‘nationalism’ (calling for greater freedom for their own ethnic community), or ‘clero-nationalism’ (nationalism with religious overtones). The prominent Islamic thinker Alija Izetbegovic (later President of Bosnia after communism collapsed) was jailed for five years in the 1980s under this latter heading.
As the UK’s Olympic Attaché for the 1984 Winter Olympics, I had to attend briefings in Sarajevo as the games approached. One such briefing featured a dreary exposition from a Bosnian communist on the wondrous economic and social achievements of socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. Annoyed by this trivial propaganda, I finally asked if he might tell us where political prisoners such as Izetbegovic and Vojislav Seselj (a Serb then in prison for ‘nationalism’ – now on trial again at the Hague Tribunal for war crimes committed in the 1990s) fitted in to this bright picture. ‘When you look at a rose do you see only the thorns?’ came the sour reply.
After a couple of years of all this, I started to realise that communist Yugoslavia was a pack of lies. Self-management created manifold distortions and irresponsibility. The regional communist leaders distrusted each other, but joined forces craftily to play West off against East: ‘East! Give us cheap weapons or we’ll have no choice but to become capitalists!’ ‘West! Give us cheap credits or we’ll have no choice but to join Moscow!’
Most importantly, the authority of the central Yugoslav institutions in Belgrade was leeching away to cynical national socialistic republican capitals.
I concluded that basing UK policy on the proposition that ‘Yugoslavia was a pillar of stability in the Balkans’ was unwise. It was just not as stable as it looked. However, did the Embassy want to send that unsettling message to London? No.
The affable Ambassador rather enjoyed my youthful and lively heresies. The point I was missing, he said, was that in practice things would work out well enough. In grand analyses sent back to Ministers he pointed to the undoubted difficulties Yugoslavia faced in years to come, but concluded that there was no need to be unduly alarmed: ‘Yugoslavia will muddle through somehow.’
This siren phrase made me think. What did it mean? The word ‘muddle’ conveyed a homely sense of getting along without being too organised about it, yet without encountering disaster. The word ‘through’ suggested nonetheless a sense of direction, plus the prospect of emerging from stormy seas into calmer waters, or from prickly jungles out onto benign sunny uplands. ‘Somehow’ denoted the positive ideas of improvisation and agility, albeit with wobbly moments. Having little else to do, I wrote a paper: Yugoslavia: MTS, or Non-MTS?
I argued that the muddle-through-somehow (MTS) idea made sense only if some events were not ‘muddling through’ (non-MTS). Had Europe ‘muddled through’ World War Two? Surely that phrase did not capture the enormity of the misery and upheaval that the conflict had brought. The task for the Embassy was to see if any of the forces now emerging in Yugoslavia could portend radical non-MTS dangers, and to report to London accordingly.
I identified serious non-MTS trends. Yugoslavia was living far beyond its means. As living standards edged down, the regional communists were each playing a populist/nationalist card to blame other republic leaders (and by implication the other communities). Kosovo was an angry powder-keg. Above all, the Slovenes and Croats (‘Crovenes’) had decentralised views of how Yugoslavia should be run which were incompatible with demands from the Serbs in Belgrade for more central coordination.
I concluded that Yugoslavia was not unique in having complex problems. What looked to be unique was the absence of any serious mechanism for solving them. This was dangerous. The Embassy hierarchy did not want this paper sent to London. Long exchanges of inconclusive minutes ensued. I still have copies of them, squirreled away.
I left the post in 1984. Back at HQ I went along to Personnel to discuss my future. ‘You are getting a reputation for being argumentative,’ said the frumpy HR lady. ‘Wouldn’t you argue if you saw disaster looming but everyone else ignored it?’ I replied in some exasperation. ‘See, you’re arguing again,’ came the smug response.
And so I moved onto the Air Services Desk and then FCO Speechwriting. The Cold War ended. A mere 300 weeks or so after I left Belgrade, Yugoslavia indeed collapsed into appalling violence and ghastly war crimes. Huge British and international resources were poured in to help stop the fighting and pay for post-conflict reconstruction.
Yes, I had been argumentative. I had even been right. What I see now, with the benefit of much more experience, was that I had not been convincing.
Not that it would have made much difference had I been convincing. Finance Ministries don’t want to adjust their plans to warnings of disaster. They prefer to ignore the problem and instead pay out reluctantly as and when disaster creates real problems, which the taxpayer is prepared to fund to clean up. In Yugoslavia’s case, this was far more expensive than the cost of investing in diplomatic initiatives to bribe the reckless Yugoslavs into calming down.
What are feisty young Chinese or Indian diplomats now drafting in their European Embassies? Maybe a paper entitled ‘The eurozone: MTS, or non-MTS?’ Will they be allowed to send it back to HQ?
‘You are getting a reputation for being argumentative,’ said the frumpy HR lady. ‘Wouldn’t you argue if you saw disaster looming but everyone else ignored it?’ I replied in some exasperation. ‘See, you’re arguing again,’ came the smug response.
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