The Accidental Diplomatist Part 2: Two Hundred and Fifty Shades of Grey


I returned from the bar balancing the three glasses in my hand. I decided that this time I would join him for a drink. I put the glasses on the table. He pulled the pint of beer and whisky chaser towards him, leaving my gin and tonic. As I sat down he raised the whisky glass towards me.

“Your health” he said. “I am glad you decided to join me in a drink.”

“I was told that a diplomat has to be able to drink” I replied. “Even female diplomats.”

He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “Are you actually a diplomat yet?” he asked me.

“I am a member of the diplomatic service” I replied. “I am just completing my training at the Diplomatic Academy.”

“Diplomatic Academy. We didn’t have that when I joined. We were expected to learn on the job. But that’s another story. So you’ve never actually been posted abroad. You’re not actually a Diplomat yet. You still have time to save yourself and get out.” He smiled.

“What do you mean save myself?” I asked.

“They never tell you do they,” he said. “Not until it is too late. You see diplomats are strange creatures. Once you have served abroad as a diplomat, you will never really be at home anywhere. Diplomats don’t live in countries but rather in a kind of artificial world. Someone wrote a book about it once. They called it something like living in Diplomaticis. Have you ever been to a Diplomatic dinner party? he raised his eyebrows at me as he dragged on his pint.


“No, not yet.” I was a little confused by the question.

“You would expect them to be interesting” he said. All these people from different countries who have served all over the world in places with different cultures, different histories. You’d expect them to consist of a series of fascinating anecdotes about each diplomat’s experiences.”

“Aren’t they?” I asked.

“No” he said. “They are bloody boring. Everyone goes on and on about cars, servants, their children’s education, inadequate allowances and the stupidity of the locally employed staff, not to mention the impossibility of the local civil servants.”

“Sounds ghastly.”

“It is. But it is also important. You see, Diplomats have more in common with each other than they do with other human beings, including their own countrymen. They see the world in a particularly diplomatic way. They don’t see black or white only greys.”

“50 shades of grey.” I tried to lighten the atmosphere.

“Well, I have not heard that one before.” The smile was sarcastic. “But more likely two hundred and fifty shades of grey. But it matters because it means they can talk to each other in ways that they cannot talk to other people. More important, they can talk to each other in ways that politicians and other people can’t. They have enough of a shared way of seeing the world that they can keep talking, even when their countries are in conflict. You could say that the diplomats, with their shared obsessions about education, allowances and servants, are the last bulwark against barbarism. They can keep talking when other humans would be fighting, or insulting each other”.


He stopped, and sipped from his whisky before taking another draft of beer from his pint. I was fascinated by how he drank whisky using his left-hand and the beer his right. I remembered a Spanish friend of my father who used to smoke black tobacco with his left hand and Virginia tobacco with his right hand, constantly alternating between the two kinds of cigarettes. He had not lived long into his 60s. I wondered how much longer this guy had. I had been told I could learn from him, but I was beginning to wonder how long he had been in the pub before I arrived, and how many more whisky chasers he had consumed. Diplomats obsessed with their allowances did not seem much of a bulwark against barbarism to me.

Putting both glasses back on the table, he seemed to realise what I was thinking. “You don’t believe me do you?” he said. Let me tell you a story, so that I can convince you.”

“The most fun I’ve had as a diplomat was early in my career. I had already served abroad, so, unlike you, could claim to be a real diplomat already. You will see from the story that my soul was already poisoned. It still is by the way. Once you have served as a diplomat, resigning from the service won’t help you. You never get yourself back. Anyway, back to the story.

“We had just decided that we were going to leave UNESCO. In theory we had announced that we were giving UNESCO a year to put its house in order, but in practice we had already decided to go. UNESCO was holding a World Youth Congress in Barcelona. I argued that I ought to be sent as a diplomatic observer to the Congress, to ensure that neither the Soviets nor the UNESCO Secretariat were manipulating it for anti-Western propaganda. To be honest, it struck me as a good opportunity to spend a week in Barcelona at government expense. The first surprise on arriving was to discover that, as “British diplomatic observer”, I was one of the youngest people at the youth Congress.”

He stopped and looked at me. “How old are you?”

“28” I replied.

“28, and you still haven’t done posting. But then I suppose you have done a masters and a doctorate and I don’t know what else.”

“Masters and doctorate” I replied.

“In my day we just did a degree and then joined. I was sent to Barcelona aged 24, and had already done a posting, albeit a short-term one. At 28 I was wandering around Tiananmen body counting. Anyway, I discovered that the idea of a UNESCO Youth Congress was not to bring young people together, but rather experts on youth. As a consequence, most of the participants were in their 40s and 50s. Each national delegation had a token youth, usually some kid of 16 or 17. But it was made quite clear to them that they were not expected to participate in any meaningful way.


“No-one else had sent a diplomat to the conference, so my arrival caused something of a panic. Many hoped to persuade the Brits to stay in UNESCO, in large part to persuade the Americans, who had left the year before, to return. The European embassies in Madrid quickly dispatched senior embassy staff to Barcelona, where they were instructed to put themselves under the leadership of Britain’s diplomatic observer. This led to the surreal outcome of a 24 year old third sectary from the British Foreign Office chairing European coordination meetings of 40 and 50 year old counsellors and first secretaries from the European embassies in Madrid. In UNESCO the Secretariat were equally unnerved by the presence of a British diplomat, and I found myself frequently being invited for meetings with the secretary general and other senior officials. Finally the Soviets, who far from trying to manipulate UNESCO against Western interests were more concerned about not being blamed for Britain leaving, decided they needed to establish a liaison with me. One of the more discreet members of their delegation, I always assumed he was one of the KGB minders, accordingly got in touch with me and asked if we could discuss how to avoid “politicising the Congress”. As you can imagine, in the midst of all this, I had a ball, seeing myself as a combination of Castlereagh and Metternich in Vienna.


“My exchanges with my Soviet counterpart lead to some interesting incidents. One of our main concerns at the time, although it seems idiosyncratic now, was with disarmament resolutions. We were convinced that the Soviets were taking advantage of the peace and nuclear disarmament movements to undermine western defence policies. My Soviet counterpart had obviously been instructed to be cooperative, to avoid any suggestion that they were using UNESCO as a forum in the disarmament struggle. The draft resolution on disarmament, which had been prepared by the well meaning liberals of the UNESCO Secretariat rather than the Soviets, contained several awkward or disobliging phrases. In the margins of the Congress, my Soviet colleague and I agreed that these should be removed, and that a teacher in the British delegation would propose their removal. I duly spoke to this rather amiable secondary school teacher from Hertfordshire who agreed to table the amendments in the committee meeting. Both he and I were unpleasantly surprised when the Polish delegate rose to his feet to reject the amendments in a torrent of Cold War rhetoric.


“I signalled angrily at my Soviet counterpart and we left the room together. Before I could even open my mouth, he placed his hands on my shoulders and started to apologise for this “Polish idiot”. He didn’t try to conceal the traditional Russian contempt for the Poles. When I asked what he proposed, he told me to get my secondary school teacher to insist on his amendments. He would fix the Pole. It took me some time to persuade the poor secondary school teacher to return to the fray. He had been badly shaken by the violence of the Pole’s attacks. Eventually, however, he agreed, and rose to his feet. He had barely finished, rather timorously, proposing the amendments again when the Pole leapt to his feet. This time the attitude was different. Instead of a Cold War rant, he was full of apologies to my secondary school teacher, whom he hailed as a wise and percipient analyst of the international scene. Five minutes of abject self basement was concluded by seconding the British amendments. I wonder if my poor secondary school teacher ever recovered from the experience, or realised what had happened. But this is not really the point of the story, or any rate only part of it.”


He repeated his trick of raising his whisky glass to his mouth with his left hand and then raising his beer with his right hand I was sure that if smoking has still been allowed in British pubs, a cigarette would then had been raised his lips. As it was, he placed both glasses back on the table and wiped his mouth was the back of his hand before continuing.

“The main point point of my story’s are the NGO types. The professional do-gooders from volunteer and other organisations. There were several of them at the Congress, mainly for some reason Dutch. They took their use work very seriously. They saw this Congress as a great opportunity for advancing the debate on youth issues. They disliked intensely the French lefty political types who made up much of the senior UNESCO Secretariat. They saw me as an ally in holding the secretariat’s feet to the fire. I spent much time with them at the beginning of the Congress as they expounded to me about the need to reform UNESCO and ensure that it did its core work properly. As the Congress went on they showed me their draft resolutions, focusing on real youth related issues rather than the kind of disarmament and people’s rights language that caused such concern in London. But you see there is the thing. They saw this in black and white terms. There was a good outcome and a bad outcome, and for then it was very important to get the good outcome. But that wasn’t how I saw the world. My instructions were to ensure an acceptable outcome. To ensure that nothing at the Congress would make Britain’s relations with UNESCO even worse than they were. By the middle of the week the UNESCO secretariat had reached the same conclusion. Increasingly, I was invited in to their offices at the conference centre and shown draft resolutions for the Congress. I used the drafts my new Dutch friend had given me, but as tools to weaken the language of the UNESCO drafts. By the end of the last night of the Congress we had a final draft resolution which, while achieving nothing for the youth of the world, would at least cause of no new problems between UNESCO and Britain. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do, and would mean I could return home with something of an achievement.”


I thought he was going to have another drink. But instead he stared into the distance for a moment, finally smiling to himself.
“I can still remember the reaction of my new Dutch friends, although I don’t think they thought me as their friend anymore. They saw me coming out of the Secretary General’s temporary office with smiling UNESCO officials surrounding me. At the same time someone gave them the copy of the draft resolution. Traitor was one of the kindest words they used about me. I had betrayed them and their trust. They made it pretty clear I would not be invited to their end of Congress drinks that night. In fact I spent the night on my own in the hotel, writing up my report for the office. Without secure communications I would have to deliver it when I got back on the Monday morning.”

I must have looked at him with incredulity. He smiled indulgently.

“It was the Cold War, and I had probably been negotiating with a KGB officer. And of course, we did not have digital communications, encrypted or otherwise. Anyway, that is the end of the story. I suppose really there are two points. Diplomats are a peculiar species, who focus on managing, rather than resolving, problems, and among themselves. In my world, in my era, we dominated international affairs. We could keep it in the realm of the grey. It wasn’t very moral, and we resolved few if any problems. But we were able to keep the show on the road. I wonder if that will still be true in the future. Everyone keeps talking about new diplomatic actors, or how NGOs are now active participants in international relations. But has anyone stopped to ask if that is a good thing. The world may be more moral if led by those who see it in black and white, like my Dutch NGO friends, but will it be safer?”


He paused, and this time he did take a long slug of both the whisky and the beer. I looked at him sipping my gin and tonic. I had a feeling he had told me something important, and wanted to reflect on it further. He smiled.

“I must be going” I said. “My boyfriend is waiting at home for me, and with any luck he has cooked dinner.”

I stood and picked up my bag from beside the chair. He looked up at me.

“Along you go then. But remember what I said at the beginning. Once you serve abroad as a diplomat, it poisons your soul. You will never feel at home anywhere, here or abroad. Get out while you can.”

Reflections on the Terrorist Attack on Westminster Bridge

It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter was if the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist     1984 – George Orwell


Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London produced the usual outpouring of moral outrage from across the political spectrum. The police and security forces were praised, as they had to be. The media indulged in desperate speculation about the who, how, what and why, and what the consequences might be. Calls have emerged already to increase the surveillance powers of the police and intelligence services. Without wanting to underestimate the misery and suffering of the families of the dead, or the injured, there is a need for some perspective among the emotional outpouring.


Terrorism is not the major threat to the security and welfare of European citizens in the second decade of the 21st century (it might be to Turkish, Iraqi or Syrian citizens, but that is another story). There are fewer terrorist attacks, and fewer deaths death resulting from terrorism, than in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Provisional IRA, ETA, the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof were at their height. Islamic terrorism in the UK has killed half as many people as Irish Republican attacks on the British mainland (without even taking account of the killings in Northern Ireland), and the vast majority of those in one attack. In part this results from the efforts of the security services and the more sophisticated means of surveillance now available. As does the decreasing sophistication of the terrorist attack themselves. But it also reflects a reduced threat. There are many more ways of dying an unnatural death in modern Britain than Islamic terrorism.


It is worth noting the declining sophistication of Islamic terrorist attacks across Europe over the last year or so. European intelligence and security services can claim some success in this. It is not simply a change of tactics by so-called Islamic State (IS). IS would love still to launch sophisticated attacks by cells of their fighters under direct control with guns and bombs. It provides for the best propaganda (and morale boost for struggling IS fighters in Iraq and Syria) and generates more real terror in western societies. But they do not, at the moment, appear to have the capability to do so. Hence low-tech attacks by individuals with limited if any direct contact with IS. Although this can make life hard for the security services, it limits the sheer carnage such attacks are likely to produce (the Nice horror with notwithstanding).


The police and security services of course have a vested interest in building up the threat from Islamic terrorism. It justifies their budgets and their recruitment (it is interesting that the Security Service was uninterested in terrorism as long as it could justify its existence by the Cold War). It allows them to seek ever more intrusive surveillance powers, whether they truly need them or not. I learnt long ago that in Whitehall the word “security” can be used to justify or secure almost anything: the magic token word. It seems extraordinary that the police and the security services have more extensive and intrusive surveillance powers now than in the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Provisional IRA mainland campaign and in the midst of the Cold War against the Soviet union. No doubt they will now ask for more.


There are two problems with this. Firstly, through the increased surveillance and the heightened fear of terrorism that is used to justify it, we undermine the liberty and freedom of the society we are seeking to defend. However we dress it up, increasing public fear about terrorism, in the way that the media and some politicians seem only happy to do, inflames anti-Islamic feeling and fuels populist far right wing thinking. The more we drive a wedge between Islamic and non-Islamic communities in our society, the more social instability and violence risk. The more we use the fear of terrorism to justify limiting ancient (and hard-won) liberties, the more the government looks like a Burkean tyrant.


Secondly, the obsession with terrorism diverts attention and resources from greater threats to our societies and their welfare and security. In the short term we live in a world of geopolitical uncertainty. The combination of Trump in the US, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey and Xi Jiping in China pose far greater threats to our way of life and economic well-being than any would-be jihadist in his sad bedsit. The fragmentation of Syria, Iraq and Libya, in all of which we played a part, drive the migration crisis that both fuels right-wing populism and threatens to overwhelm the neighbouring states. In the longer term, issues like climate change and epidemic disease pose even more existential threats. Yet we seem incapable of developing credible and coherent strategies for confronting either the short or long term challenges. It is so much easier to frighten the citizens about terrorism.


I returned to my main point. Instead of flooding London with armed police (supposedly to reassure the public, but in practice increasing their fears), calling emergency meetings and debating new security measures, let’s treat this attack as we would a pile up on the motorway: tragic for the victims and their families but no real threat to society as a whole. If there are low-key and sensible steps we can adopt to prevent further pile ups, let’s do them. But otherwise let’s be clear that this is the kind of event which, sadly, will happen every now and then. Meanwhile we need to engage with the far greater threats out there in a dangerous world.


Oh, and by the way, if anyone else tries to invoke the “Blitz spirit” – thousands killed in nightly bombing raids …