A Very American Coup



The latest confrontation between President-elect Trump and the US intelligence agencies is entertaining theatre for the rest of us. But behind it lie more serious issues. The extent to which the outgoing Obama administration is trying to constrain and undermine its successor is unprecedented. Some of the Republican establishment seem determined to join the Democrats in bringing down a president who has not yet even been inaugurated. It is not clear what Senator McCain intended in passing the intelligence dossier on Trump’s links with the Russians to the FBI, but he risks provoking a breach in American society that could take years to heal. The dossier itself, which has provoked the latest controversy, is typical of those produced, for a high price, by corporate intelligence consultancies: strong on allegations but weak on evidence and even weaker on assessment of sources.


The East Coast Establishment is horrified by Trump’s election as President and appalled by his vulgarity. Many, including Senator McCain, have suffered his insults. But there seems to be more to the Obama administration’s efforts undermine the credibility and freedom of manoeuvre of its successor. The Obama administration began with great expectations. The President himself won the Nobel Prize Peace (although primarily for not being George Bush). But over eight years Obama has achieved little, and what legacy he has left is in danger of quickly being overturned. Republicans in Congress has already announced they will cancel Obamacare. Trump has announced he will cancel the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and will revise the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). The French and the Germans had already, effectively, killed off the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP). Obama’s failure in Syria looks set to be compounded by Trump’s acceptance of the Russian occupation of the Crimea and the continuation of Assad in power in Damascus. Trump has threatened both Obama’s recognition of Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. The pivotal to Asia looks set to be replaced by confrontation with China. Obama might with read Shelley’s Ozymandias.


Obama will be the President whose legacy is trashed by the upstart outsider. The anger is obvious in the actions of the dying Obama administration. The decision to vote against Israel in the Security Council, and Secretary of State Kerry’s speech attacking Israeli settlements looked to limit Trump’s options in the Middle East. Investigation by the US intelligence services into Russian interference in the US presidential elections sought to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election. The expulsion of Russian diplomats as a consequence of the investigation sought to queer Trump’s pitch in Moscow. A series of such controversial initiatives at the end of administration is, in my experience, unprecedented. But they haven’t worked. Israel and Russia can wait out the last days of Obama and then cut their deals with the new president, as shown by Putin’s theatrical non-expulsion of US diplomats. The legitimacy of Trump’s election has been undermined only with those who didn’t vote for him anyway. The evidence in the intelligence services’ report was nowhere near sufficient to call the outcome of the election into question.

John McCain

Hence the latest dossier circulating in Washington about Trump’s relations with Russia, including the allegation that the Russians have incriminating evidence on the President-elect that could be used to blackmail him in the future. The dossier has been doing the rounds in Washington for some time. Senator McCain claims he has presented it to the FBI, but it is not clear what he hopes to achieve. Presumably he wants to further undermine the credibility of Trump, arguing that he’s not fit to hold public office (although I imagine that the Soviets and then the Russian had fascinating files on the womanising of Kennedy and Clinton, or the drug taking of Nixon). Possibly he’s preparing the ground for future impeachment proceedings. Either way he’s playing a dangerous game, as is the East Coast Establishment if it is behind him. The first consequence has been further damage, possibly irreparable, ti the relations between the President-elect and the intelligence services, which will not improve the policy-making of the Trump White House. More seriously, any attempt to remove Trump from office before the end of his term will irrevocably fracture the American political body. It will convince his supporters of the establishment conspiracy against them and risk seriously destabilising American society. You don’t have to like Trump (and I don’t) to believe that the best way ti deal with him is to use of checks and balances the Constitution provides to constrain his freedom of action, and then ensure he only serves one term (ie find a better candidate than Clinton.


The dossier itself was apparently produced by a former British intelligence officer who now runs his own consulting company. It is typical of those produced by corporate intelligence consultancies. It makes a series of allegations, but produces little evidence. Sources are not mentioned, let alone assessed for reliability. Often in these reports press reports and rumours are written up as if produced by confidential sources (a favourite trick of intelligence officers, seeking to justify their expenses, the world over). The dossier as written would not have been acceptable when I worked as an official in the Foreign Office. I would not have expected to be told who the sources were (and indeed would not have been told), but would have expected a description of the sources in terms of reliability, access and how long they had been providing information. Without that, any intelligence would be dismissed as worthless. It is no wonder that neither the CIA nor the FBI are willing to pronounce on the reliability or credibility of the dossier.


The latest exchanges between Trump and the East Coast Establishment are producing delicious ironies. Trump, who made such good use of fake news and lies in the election campaign, complains of lies and fake news being used against him. The Establishment, who complained about lies and fake news being used to undermine Hillary Clinton, now use them to undermine the President-elect. But this is serious. Trump’s election campaign bitterly divided American society. Efforts to question the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and cast doubt on his fitness for office, ultimately to undermine his administration, risk making the damage irreparable.

Shai Masot Has Serious Implications for Diplomacy



An Aljazeera undercover reporter has caught Israeli embassy employee Shai Masot plotting to bring down a British foreign office minister who is seen as too pro Palestinian. Shai Masot also appears to boast about influencing and running other pro-Israeli organisations within the British political scene. It is not clear if he is a diplomat, or if his behaviour is officially endorsed by either the Israeli Embassy or the Israeli government. He may simply be a political adviser employed by the embassy getting carried away by his job. But the resulting scandal raises serious issues about the redlines which diplomats may not cross while carrying out their duties abroad. The redlines are getting vague and the definition of unacceptable behaviour more ambiguous.


The principle that a diplomat should not interfere in the internal affairs of the country where she is deployed ultimately derives from of the Treaty of Westphalia. But it has always been honoured more in the breach than in the observation. On the one hand, the “step grandfather” of Harold Nicholson, Lionel Sackville West, had his diplomatic career ended by commenting on an American presidential election. On the other hand the French Ambassadors in Moscow and London before WWI were major players in shaping and forming Russian and British foreign policy. Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky was hyperactive across the whole range of 1930s and 1940s British political and cultural society (I recommend his wonderful diaries: ¬†https://www.amazon.com/Maisky-Diaries-Wartime-Revelations-Ambassador/dp/0300221703/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1484087665&sr=8-1&keywords=Ivan+maisky). But even then there was disquiet about diplomats seeking to influence public opinion. The Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain frequently complained about Maisky’s activities. The problem was that Maisky did not only talk with British officials and Ministers, but sought to influence politicians, journalists and, in particular, encourage the opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement policies.


Recent developments in diplomacy, in particular the emergence of public and digital diplomacy, have heightened sensitivities. Public diplomacy aims to engage with foreign publics, through a broad range of activities, to promote political and social environments favourable to a country and its specific policy proposals. It encourages diplomats to engage not just with government officials, but with a broad range of state and non-state actors who might shape the political environment. When it is broadly supportive of the government of the day, that government is likely to be relaxed about it. But when public diplomacy aligns more with opposition parties, it starts looking awfully like interference in the internal affairs of a foreign state. Even democratic governments will be sensitive when foreign diplomats carry out public diplomacy activities that are helpful, intentionally or not, to opposition parties. Personal contacts between the diplomat and the local civil society makes this far more sensitive than the centrally controlled propaganda of the Cold War.


Digital diplomacy further blurs distinctions. Social media allow diplomats to participate directly in the political and social debate in the country, without necessarily revealing their identity. Digital tools also enhance diplomats’ networking capabilities, as well as allowing them to transfer other public diplomacy tools (e.g. conferences, debates and presentations) online, significantly increasing their reach. The boundaries between what are acceptable uses of digital diplomacy to transform foreign public opinion and the kind of information warfare (or hybrid warfare) practised by Russia begin to look porous. While it may be clearly unacceptable to hack computers and then leak the stolen emails to influence a presidential election, is it unacceptable for Russian citizens or surrogates, albeit at the behest of the Russian government, to participate in online blogs, debates or newspaper comment sections to the same end? As Zhou Enlai paraphrased Clausewitz, “Diplomacy is warfare by other means”. In the 21st century is digital diplomacy cyber warfare by other means? We run the danger of concluding that digital public diplomacy is okay when carried out by western democracies, but not when carried out by authoritarian regimes.


Direct interference to influence elections was traditionally the work of intelligence services (e.g. the CIA in Italy in 1948). If the Russians did seek to intervene in the US presidential election, it may well have been an operation controlled by the SVR, FSB or GRU. Shai Masot may turn out to be an intelligence officer, or acting in that capacity. If so, he is a particularly clumsy and inept one. Nevertheless, this case illustrates a very real problem of 21st-century diplomacy. The distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable interference in another country’s internal affairs have been blurred, not only by the development of public diplomacy, but also by the entry of non-state actors into the diplomatic arena, the emergence of a new international security agenda (e.g. human rights, climate change, pandemic disease, migration etc) and concepts like the responsibility to protect (R2P). The Vienna Convention no longer covers the issues. This will be a major theme of debate, and controversy, in diplomacy and international relations for the foreseeable future.

Diplomats Must Rediscover Older Skills


The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as Britain’s ambassador to the EU has raised the question of the role of diplomats, especially when they disagree with the policy of the government. This will arise also in the US, where the majority of career diplomats are likely to be appalled by some of President-elect Trump’s foreign policy initiatives. Although the British government has hastened to appoint a replacement for Sir Ivan, the issue is not likely to go away, especially given the suspicions of many of those in favour of Brexit that British officials are working to undermine the policy.


The British Diplomatic Service for many years maintained the fiction that British diplomats did not work for the government of the day but for the Crown, in the same way as the British military. Thus, like army officers, British diplomats received a Royal commission (I still have mine somewhere). I understand this is no longer the case, but anyway it meant somewhat less than it appears. In practice British diplomats, like all other countries’ diplomats, carry out the policies of the government. If they feel unable to do so, they should resign (as Carne Ross did over the Iraq War).


Like other civil servants, during the process of policy formation, diplomats can engage proactively in debate with ministers. This is when they should definitely have the courage to speak truth to power. Ministers will rely on their expertise about international relations and foreign countries, and their advice on what will and will not wash. However, at the end of the day, it is the minister who must take the decision (it is curious that many former diplomats make terrible Foreign Ministers precisely because of their congenital inability to take decisions). Once the policy objectives have been established, it is the duty of the diplomat to advise the government on the most effective strategy for achieving them, drawing on all the tools available. It is also the task of the diplomat to implement that strategy. This is, of course, a simplification. In the messy world of foreign policy, policy objectives have to change as the policy environment changes. Advising on strategies for implementing policy can often merge into advising changes in the policy objectives. Foreign policy-making tends to be an iterative process. However, the general point remains: diplomats advise on formulating and implementing policy, but ministers must decide what the policy is.

Flag of EU with Big Ben in the hole

One of the problems of Brexit, about which Sir Ivan complained in his now famous valedictory email to his staff, is that no clear policy objectives have yet been set. In large part this is the fault of the Prime Minister. With all due respect, simply repeating that Brexit means Brexit is not a policy decision. Moreover, while dividing responsibility for Brexit negotiations among the three most powerful pro-Brexit politicians may have made sense in terms of internal party politics, it was almost guaranteed to produce confusion in policy-making. David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, respectively ministers for Brexit, International Trade and Foreign Secretary, are all powerful political figures with even more powerful egos. None is known as a good collaborator. Instead of working together to produce coherent policy objectives for the Brexit negotiations, they have preferred turf battles over departmental responsibilities and even who gets to use the Foreign Secretary’s country residence and when. The latest such turf battle appears to have been over the role of Sir Ivan’s successor in Brussels. It is therefore possible to sympathise with much of his complaints about the lack of clear ministerial direction.


However, the problem about the Brexit negotiations goes deeper, and relates to the nature of the 21st-century foreign office. Towards the end of the 1990s major changes took place. Traditional political reporting, and the political networking necessary to produce it, were downgraded. Diplomats capable of thinking geopolitically, or in terms of global balances of power, were replaced by Europeanised bureaucrats, accustomed to the very specific negotiating techniques of the European Union. Ability to talk Business School Speak was preferred over foreign languages. Working in the European Department of the Foreign Office, and in particular the UK Mission to the EU in Brussels, became essential to promotion to senior positions. These changes reflected a perception that the European Union had become the most important factor affecting British interests, and that more traditional geopolitical issues were being replaced by a new agenda of global issues like climate change, world trade and international development. These new global issues were increasingly seen as competencies of the European Union (more correctly the European Commission). Britain’s voice and interests would therefore be best articulated through the European Union.


The assumptions underlying this world view have been progressively undermined by the events of the 21st century: 9-11; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economic and financial crisis; the reemergence of Russia as a global player; the increasing assertiveness of China’s foreign policy; Syria and Libya; and the realignment of Turkey towards Moscow. The latest nails in its coffin have been Brexit and the election of Donald Trump (the election of Le Pen as French President next spring would be more like a grenade blowing it apart). It is not clear if the Europeanized bureaucrats of the modern Foreign Office have the intellectual or personality skills and mindset to deal with this less comfortable world. More particularly it is unclear if they understand the nature of negotiating Brexit.


These negotiations will require a clear understanding of the dynamics of the European Union and it’s member states; identifying and manipulating the different groupings and their competing interests and concerns; and identifying what kind of Europe Britain wants to see (as it certainly won’t be anything like the existing Europe) and what kind of relationship or relationships Britain wants to have with it, in terms of security and politics as well as trade. Most important negotiations will be carried out in capital cities, as British diplomats seek to influence the thinking of their governments, meeting their concerns about Brexit and, if necessary, sowing divisions among the 27 EU members. Above all, Britain will need to work with the smaller members who resent the power of the Commission, have their own concerns about security and foreign policy, dislike the idea of further European integration, and are unhappy with the idea of “punishing” Britain “pour encourager les autres” (I suggested a more detailed strategy in my Letter to the Prime Minister http://www.shaunriordan.com/?page_id=286).The Europeanized bureaucrats, like Sir Ivan, who fill the modern foreign office are accustomed to negotiating consensually within the shared assumptions of the European project. It is not clear whether they are capable of getting outside their comfort zone to the extent of developing and implementing the more traditional geopolitical style balance of power diplomacy that Britain will need to secure a successful Brexit.


The 21st century is feeling a lot more like the multipolar world of the 19th century. This does not mean unconstrained realism (think about Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors Campaign). But it does mean Foreign Policy built more around shared interests than shared values or ideologies, and diplomats capable of thinking in terms of global and regional balances of power. It is a world in which a Castlereagh, a Metternich or a Bismarck would feel at home. In Britain this will be driven by the needs of the Brexit negotiations. In the US it will be driven by a US President determined to tear up the comfortable assumptions of his predecessor (see my previous blog: http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=341). British and American officials should stop complaining and instead relish the challenges of resurrecting more traditional diplomatic skills for tackling a volatile and unpredictable world.

Might Trump’s Foreign Policy Actually Make Sense?


Since his election, European elites have enjoyed disparaging Trump, and in particular his ineptitude at foreign policy. They gleefully recount his faux pas when talking about international affairs. It reminds me of the similar way in which we disparaged President Reagan during the Cold War. The British satirical puppet show Spitting Image even had a recurring sketch entitled “the president’s brain is missing”. Yet for all the contempt of European intellectuals, it was President Reagan who initiated the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny (a liberation over which many Western European intellectuals remain curiously ambiguous). Is it possible that President-elect Trump, despite the contempt he provokes in Europe, and perhaps not entirely intentionally, could develop a foreign policy doctrine superior to that of President Obama?


The decline of US hegemony following the Iraq war and the global financial crisis may have been inevitable. President Obama was, of course, not responsible for either. But the dangers of a transition to a multipolar world may have been exacerbated by his foreign policy, or rather the lack of a consistent policy. “Don’t do stupid shit” may have be reassuring following the idiocies of the neo-conservatives, but it does not amount to a foreign policy doctrine. It is not that President Obama has been excessively moral. He has been an enthusiastic use of assassination by drone attack. However, the lack of a clear view of America’s role in the world has generated dangerous uncertainties. Allies are no longer certain if they can depend on America to defend them. Rivals are no longer certain if they can depend on the US to constrain their ambitions. The up-shot has been an increase in tensions and conflicts throughout Spykman’s rimland, from the Baltic republics through the Ukraine to the Middle East, Central Asia and the South China Sea, as allies and rivals recalibrate their security assumptions. The main beneficiary has been Vladmir Putin, who has taken advantage of Obama’s hesitancy to seize the Crimea, destabilise the Ukraine and carve out a new role for Russia in the Middle East.


The doubts that Obama has created in the minds of friends and foes alike is reminiscent of the uncertainties generated by British policy at the beginning of the 20th century. In that case Britain’s attempts to maintain a free hand in Europe through diplomatic ambiguity played a major part in the outbreak of World War I. Uncertainties about British intentions in 1914 drove geopolitical miscalculations in the Chancelleries of Europe. Obama recalls British policy also in the abandonment of global free trade for a new version of Imperial Preference, in this case the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These in effect replaced the global trading rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with free trade areas for America’s friends and allies (just as Britain in the 1930s sought confine the benefits of free trade within the Empire). China, Russia and India were pointedly excluded. Yet even this aspect of Obama’s foreign policy looks condemned to failure. Trump has said he will cancel TPP, and French and German government ministers have rejected key aspects of TTIP.


Immediately after Trump’s election, sitting in the departure lounge of Madrid airport, I tried to identify likely key features of his foreign policy (http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=334). It was not easy. Although much remains obscure, other parts of his approach to international relations are becoming clearer. Trump does not believe in international institutions or alliances, unless allies pay their way. He believes he can reach an agreement with Putin that would lift sanctions on Russia. He will support Israel but has little interest in Syria which he is happy to leave the Russia and Iran to sort out. Europe will be very much to left to fend for itself. At the same time Trump favours a tough line against China, threatening China’s leaders with economic sanctions and recognition of Taiwan. The East Coast Foreign Policy establishment has thrown up its arms in horror. But are these policy position so nonsensical?


Someone at some point will have to reach a deal with Putin to lift sanctions against Russia. It is not in the West’s interest to drive Russia into economic and political collapse. Putin has made Russia, together with Iran, essential players in escaping from the Syria debacle (indeed it may be that Syria’s future is decided in the trilateral talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Kazakhstan without either US or European participation). Given that no one is willing to expel the Russians by force, any deal must recognise the Russian occupation of Crimea (although with some weasel wording to avoid setting a precedent for changing borders by force). This will probably be traded for stabilising a rump and federalised Ukraine. Guarantees for the borders of the Baltic states would in turn be traded for limitations on EU and NATO expansion. NATO will in any case not be the major player it was with Turkey increasingly siding with Moscow and Trump disinterested. The tendency to deal with Moscow will be strengthened by the French presidential elections in which both the likely candidates for the second round run-off (Fillon and Le Pen) are openly pro-Russian. Trump’s self avowed background as a deal maker will naturally incline him towards these kinds of trade-offs.


With fracking ending energy dependence on Middle East oil, the US has little interest in remaining embroiled in the region. Its interventions this millennium have invariably been disastrous. The Obama regime has already shown willingness to sacrifice its traditional relationship with Saudi Arabia in pursuit of nuclear deal with Iran. Whether Trump keeps his promise to rip up that deal may ultimately shape his global geopolitical strategy. Putin will pressure him not to do so. Again it is possible to see the bones of a trade-off allowing the Iran deal to stand and the emergence of a Russia, Iran, Turkey triumvirate in the Middle East in exchange for guarantees for Israel and the US being able to disengage. From the point of view of US interests (although not European interests) allowing Russia to get trapped in trying to sort out the mess in the Middle East may have some strategic advantages.


It is also arguable that China represents a greater threat to American geopolitical and economic interests than Russia (again not true for Europe). The softly softly approach to China of the US Democratic establishment appears to have achieved little. The government of Xi Jinping imposes a brutal internal purge of the Communist Party and repression of freedom of expression at home, while pursuing a proactive and far more aggressive foreign policy than its predecessors. It’s assertion of its sovereignty in the South China Sea is an open challenge to US power and influence in the region. It amounts to a classical example of an emerging power probing the tolerance and will of a declining hegemon. As capital outflows from China continue to increase, the Chinese government may be tempted to a significant devaluation of the renminbi (given the trillion dollars of foreign reserves it has already burnt through trying to support the Rmb, it may have no choice), damaging the regional economy and fulfilling Trump’s complaints about currency manipulation.


It may not simply be a case of Trump calling Beijing’s bluff in a way that previous administrations were reluctant to do. If Trump can combine a deal with Putin with confrontation with Beijing he could drive a global geopolitical realignment. Russia has its own problems with China in Central Asia (where they compete for political and economic influence). China has been reluctant to support Russia over the Crimea or Syria. A containment strategy towards China including the US and Russia (as well as Japan, India and Vietnam) would significantly reduce Chinese influence in the world. Even if this proves beyond Trump’s grasp, a Kissinger-style triangulation between Washington, Moscow and Beijing could prove a more effective way of managing the transition to a multipolar world than Obama’s passive uncertainties. In short, despite the derision of European intellectuals, Trump may prove a more effective geostrategist than Obama, just as Reagan ultimately proved more successful than Carter. The ultimate irony for Europe’s intellectuals may be that it will be Europe, divided internally and over foreign-policy, that will prove increasingly irrelevant, and vulnerable in the new multipolar world – a multipolar world for which the intellectuals of the European Union have so long yearned.