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Do diplomats matter as much as they once did?

British embassy in Paris. Credit: Getty

British embassy in Paris. Credit: Getty

January 15, 2018   5 mins

Complaints from Carrie Gracie, the estimable and now outgoing BBC China Editor, that she is paid half the salary of her male peers led the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, to deplore the fact that: “BBC foreign editors can earn more than Her Majesty’s ambassadors in the same jurisdiction”. Ms Gracie’s £135,000 a year is more than Dame Barbara Wooding earns as UK ambassador to Beijing (£120-124,000), while North America Editor Jon Sopel receives £200-249,000 as against the £180-184,000 salary range of our man in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch.

Apart from the disgrace of paying women less than men to do the same job, the Gracie Affair raises tricky questions about pay differences, between career reporters and those who have been more highly-paid presenters, like Gracie versus Sopel. Not to mention between those who have learned Mandarin to operate in a police state, vis-a-vis the greater air time expected of those who report from Washington, Brussels or the Middle East compared with reporting from China. That last issue perhaps reflecting how slow the BBC has been to catch up with where global power is tangibly migrating.

No sooner had we absorbed this shocking news about pay inequality at the publicly-funded BBC, than President Trump cancelled his visit to Britain because of the $1 billion cost and “off location” of the new US embassy at Nine Elms, a glass cube we can see a mile away from the back of our house, where I was planning pre-demo sharpeners for friends from out of town.

Trump misleadingly blamed President Obama for this move from Grosvenor Square – where residents have long objected to impossible security – despite the decision being taken under George W Bush. Although Trump regards himself as a hotshot real estate developer, the fact that Vauxhall and Battersea (not to mention Elephant and Castle) are the most dynamic developments happening in central London has escaped his attention – like so much else.

Nor are embassies fully in the policy loop back in Whitehall. One effect of increased digitalisation has been paranoia about leaks. This means that more business between No10 and the FCO, or between the Cabinet Office and the departments of state is done verbally.

These two overnight media sensations indirectly put the spotlight on how much – or how little – we value diplomats and their embassy operations in the contemporary world.

While most historians could name various ambassadors in the years before 1914 or 1939 – names like Maisky and Ribbentrop come easily to mind –I would be hard pressed to name a single foreign ambassador to the Court of St James’s, excepting H.E. Liu Xiaoming who was kind enough to send a three page critique of my latest book last week. I am vaguely aware that a man called ‘Woody’ (with a fortune from Johnson Baby Oil) is the US ambassador too, but he is eclipsed by each Tweet from Trump. I had to look up the identities of our ambassadors to Beijing and Washington, though I have met some of their august predecessors, together with three former ambassadors to Moscow.

The downgrading of traditional diplomacy is partly technological. It is surely telling, I am reliably told, that our secret intelligence services get 90% of their information on the cheap from sophisticated trawling of online data, before they decide to commit the much more expensive human resources (spies) for the last 10% of what they need to know.

In the past, Foreign Secretaries relied on exquisitely crafted telegrams recording a UK ambassador’s hour long meeting with the French or German foreign minister. Nowadays, the frequency of international and EU summits mean that prime ministers and presidents (and their foreign ministers) commune face to face, or via their own encrypted mobile phones. Ambassadors have ceased to be crucial to these encounters, rather they are just more cogs in a bigger wheel. Like it or not, the EU has also intruded itself into diplomatic relations between nation states. The EU’s External Action Service (created by Baroness Ashton) has a budget of approximately £420 million, with 1,457 staff in Brussels and 1,960 spread around 140 delegations and consulates. One in twelve of the ambassadors are British nationals.

Just after his election, an acquaintance joked that the FCO probably had better contacts within Hizbollah than in Team Trump.

Apart from technology, other factors have led to the downgrading of our ambassadors, leaving aside their universal resentment about representing a boss who is widely regarded as a buffoon and clown. Pity Andrew Patrick the ambassador to Burma who in September had to stop the clown reciting Kipling’s ‘Road to Mandalay’ in a Yangon temple. “Not appropriate,” Patrick hissed. “Great stuff,” replied Johnson.

Modern ambassadors are overburdened;

  • A long-term emphasis on selling things has led to diplomats becoming a glorified sales force for UK plc;
  • While there has been a surge in having to deal with immigration issues or doped and drugged Brits needing consular assistance in jails.
  • Calls from whizz kid diplomats for embassies to become all-tweeting enthusiasts on social media have not gone down well among FCO traditionalists, though it is interesting (having been a minor victim of it) that Moscow’s man in London seems to have gone down this road with great relish, backed up by an army of robotic trolls.

One subject always conspicuously omitted from discussions of diplomacy is also the power of direct foreign lobbying operations which simply by-pass the FCO by directly interfering in government and the legislature. One thing I would ban straight way would be all Conservative or Labour ‘friends of X or Y’ country with their endless possibilities for bribes and freebies.[1]

Nor are embassies fully in the policy loop back in Whitehall. One effect of increased digitalisation has been paranoia about leaks. This means that more business between No10 and the FCO, or between the Cabinet Office and the departments of state is done verbally, so that written information is not automatically circulated between departments or shared with those who toil on our behalf abroad. A foreign government wanting to know about the UK can probably get more accurate information from open source material on the internet than from anything they might glean from a British embassy.

Part of me is still romantic about having distinctive, cultivated personalities as a kind of prism through which our government appraises foreign countries. A beautiful new coffee table book by James Stourton reminds us too of the architectural glories of British missions on the Nile and Seine. People like Rodric Braithwaite, David Hannay, Christopher Mallaby and Robin Rennick are difficult to reproduce as ambassadors of distinction.

The obvious risk is that such elite figures are ill-equipped to pick up the subterranean turmoil which produced a Donald Trump as US president. Indeed, just after his election, an acquaintance joked that the FCO probably had better contacts within Hizbollah than in Team Trump, though to be fair, that probably also reflects the extent to which our foreign policy has become captured/obsessed with the most backward and hopeless of the world’s major regions. This is not solely a British problem since I can recall the incredulity on the face of South Korea’s ambassador to the UK (a former banker of course) when I casually suggested he might like to visit other parts of Britain in order to meet people who were not City financiers. “What would be the point?”, he replied.

Brexit is likely to further accentuate this country’s loss of international standing, if only because Britain was a major Atlanticist influence within the EU and an English-speaking commercial gateway to it. The world is already weary of reading our domestic political ‘quirks’, and with the crass behavior of the present Foreign Secretary (although Chinese intelligence officers are convinced it must be an exceptionally cunning move they cannot yet fathom).

Attempts to revive the prestige of former times, whether by appointing colourful eccentrics in the Johnson mould, or serving English wines in settings blessed with Tracey Emins’ and Damian Hursts’ on the walls and Oasis on TV screens, will be just painful reminders of His Excellency’s decline in status. Maybe, as I have long argued, we should follow the US example in selling off the edifice in King Charles Street to a Gulf hotel chain (or maybe to Donald Trump), relocating the FCO to a new bloc in the Elephant, as part of a more radical rethink about where this country wants to position itself in coming decades, and more importantly perhaps, what face we wish to show to the wider world.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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