After I left the bar I went home full of doubts about my new profession. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alienated from my own country. Or live in a netherworld of diplomacy. I talked it over with my boyfriend over dinner, but he convinced me that it was just an old rogue making fun of a young rookie. That in turn convinced me that I didn’t really want to see the old guy anymore. I mentioned this to one of my tutors at the Academy. He said it was up to me, but that talking with retired diplomat was always interesting. They sometimes gave a different perspective that came from a longer term view. Sometimes we could all be too quick to think everything was new and different, especially in the world of diplomacy. I thought about it, and in the end decided to see him again. Curiosity about what other stories he might tell me overcame the doubts he generated in me about my new profession. Accordingly, the next week I went to the pub again. My understanding was that he would always there at around 6 o’clock. To my disappointment, and a little bit of relief, his table was empty. I hung around for half an hour, nursing a gin and tonic, but he didn’t show. I told my tutor at the Academy the next day. He told me not to worry. The retired diplomat was getting on a bit, and had not lived the healthiest of lifestyle. No diplomat of his generation had. He was probably unwell. I should just try another day. However, my tutor must have sent him a message, for when I got to the Academy the next day there was a note waiting for me, inviting me for dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Gerrard Street.
I arrived a little late at the and found him already seated waiting for me. Instead of a pint, he had a glass of Chinese beer sitting in front of him.
“So you decided to listen to the old duffer again, after all” he said. “This is Qingdao beer, I think it is the best in China. Will you have some? You know I served there?”
He waved at the waiter as I sat down. The waiter brought across the menus.
“How are you” I asked. “I missed you in the pub the other day.”
“Sorry” he replied. “Your tutor told me that you had been there. That’s why I decided to invite you for a Chinese to make up. I thought Sichuanese food – Chuancai. It’s got more bite than Cantonese, although I know they Cantonese food is more traditional here in Chinatown. I learnt that when I was studying Chinese.”
“I didn’t realise you” spoke Chinese I said.
“Yes” he replied. “And it was very frustrating. All my friends assumed I would be able to order food in the restaurants in Chinatown. They didn’t realise that I was learning Mandarin and the Chinese community in London all spoke Cantonese.”
“Are they so different?” I asked.
“About different as French and German. I once had to interpret between a Hong Kong Chinese official and a Chinese government official when I was in Beijing. The Hong Kong official spoke English and Cantonese. The mainland official only spoke Mandarin. They never for gave me either of them the face they had lost having to rely on a big nose to interpret for them.” He chuckled “Is there anything in particular you like?”
“No, not really. I don’t know Sichuanese food very well. Why don’t you order for us.”
“Okay.” He spoke to the waiter in Chinese, I imagine to show off in front of me. For some reason it irritated me.
“I thought they only spoke Cantonese” I said.
“That was in the old days” he replied. “There is a new influx of migrants from China who all speak Mandarin.”
My embarrassment at not being able to distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin was saved by the arrival of my beer, with another bottle of Tsingtao for my host. He poured the new bottle into his glass and took a long draft. I sipped mine. It was surprisingly good, light and refreshing
“Tsingtao was a German concession. They introduced beer making my there. That’s why it’s so good. It’s particularly good in the summer”. He took another appreciative draft of the beer. “So what do you want to talk about today?”
“I am not sure I really understood what you told me last time” I said. “I mean about the shades of grey and why non-diplomats with black and white views of the world are so dangerous. Why do you think being a diplomat is so corrupting of the soul?”
He thought for a while and then began.
“Let’s go back to the war in Bosnia. You remember, when Yugoslavia was breaking apart in the 1990s?”
“Vaguely” I replied. “It was a case study at the Academy.”
“How quickly time passes, and memory fades” he laughed. “But at the Academy, did they teach you the real lessons I wonder.”
I started to open my mouth, but he waved at me to be quiet.
“During most of that war I worked in the Yugoslav department in the Foreign Office. Actually we called it the Eastern Adriatic Unit, but that doesn’t really matter. Although I worked on the desk in London, I used to have to visit the Yugoslav capitals to meet local officials and familiarise myself with local politics. It was also a way of letting our Ambassadors out there bend my ear about whatever was annoying them. This included Sarajevo, which always terrified me. Not so much the threat of being shot by a sniper, as the fear that the aircraft we flew in was going to crash into the mountains. We used to fly down from Zagreb in big military transport aircraft. They would “dive bomb” the airport to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles. This meant a very steep descent in a big aircraft. Used to terrify me. I am still afraid of flying. Then once we were on the ground we would put on our flat jackets and helmets and wait for an armoured personnel carrier to backup to the aircraft. We would then leap from the aircraft straight into the armoured personnel carrier, before being driven off to the UN headquarters. I remember someone once asking me later if I had ever been to Sarajevo, and when I said yes, asking me if I had seen the spot where Princeps had shot dead Franz Ferdinand. I replied yes, but only out the small porthole of an armoured personnel carrier, because when I was there that street with known as Sniper Alley.
“The routine was always the same. We would be driven to the headquarters of the UN protection force, commonly known UNPROFOR , where we would be briefed by the British officers on secondment there. The briefings always told us that things were better than they seemed, and warned of the dangers of airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb. Then we would be taken on to meet the Bosnian government, which always meant being berated for an hour by the Prime Minister Silajdzic. Reasonably enough he argued that the arms embargo was forcing the Bosnian government to fight with one arm tied behind its back, and pleaded for real support against the Bosnian Serbs. He would complain of the atrocities which we did not condemn, and ask why we thought we should be evenhanded between monstrous assassins and democrats defending their government. I confess that even in my younger days I sat through this with a weary worldly wiseness. Remember what I told you about your soul.”
He stop as the food was delivered. I was to discover later that all China hands like to show off by explaining the meal they have ordered, and he was no exception.
“This is Gongbao Jiding, the favourite chicken dish of Bao, a judge who is supposed to have lived in Chengdu in the 19th century. And this is Mapu Doufu, Mother Pu’s beancurd. Be careful. If they’ve made it right it should blow off the back of your throat.” And so on for the rest of the dishes. With my culinary education completed, he pick up some chicken with his chopsticks before continuing.
“After our ear beating by Silajdzic, we would be taken in convoy up to Pale to meet the Bosnian Serbs. For some reason, we always seemed to arrive at lunchtime, and they always had a meal laid on for us. Unlike Silajdzic, who was always angry, they always treated off with an exaggerated bonhomie, offering endless toasts of slivovitz sliver under awnings by their headquarters. Even when making bullying complaints, they would soften them with back slaps and another toast. Their murderous commander Mladic could be particularly engaging when he chose, which may be why we found it so hard to believe he was ordering the massacres. We were always careful to make sure there were no cameras around. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the UNPROFOR Commander Michael Rose, who managed to get himself snapped apparently laughing at a Mladic joke. I did once make the mistake of making my own complaint. Mladic had asked how our arrival in Sarajevo had been (of course knowing full well). I commented it would be nicer if we did not have to hide from the snipers in the hills. He immediately replied by offering a ceasefire whenever we were arriving or departing from Sarajevo. We just needed to give him a little notice to make sure the order got down the line. Suddenly realising how that would look in the media (“British diplomat negotiates his own safety in Sarajevo siege while local people continue to die”) I quickly declined the offer. Then it would be back down the hill and out of Sarajevo in the reverse order. We always tried to avoid having to stay the night in Sarajevo. A little bit of war zone tourism, with the added protection of diplomatic immunity.”
He stopped, with a look of disgust on his face. For several minutes he said nothing, eating mouthful after mouthful of the different Chinese dishes on the table. Finally he washed them down with another long draft of beer.
“You know what Thucydides said about the powerful and the weak?”
“Yes” I replied The Melian dialogue. The powerful do what they will and the weak do what they are allowed to.”
“Well yes, that’s part of it. But you’ve forgotten the first part, which is the most important. Thucydides says that justice only exists among equals. Then he goes on to say the powerful can do as they like but the week must do what they are allowed to. It was true in Bosnia as it was in the Peloponnesian war. It is still true today in Syria.”
I looked at him, trying to gauge if he was really that cynical. He held my gaze.
“There’s another thing” he said. There is only one way outsiders can sort out a Civil War.”
“How? I asked, picking up my cue.
“By picking a side and making sure they win. Pick the more moral side, or the side that best suits your interests , or the side that is most likely to maintain security and stability. Then arm them, give them air support, boots on the ground, whatever they need to make sure they win. And then just at the point when they are going to win, make sure they deal generously with the losers. In the end it was what the Americans made us do in Bosnia. In the end we supported the Bosnian against the Serbs and, when the Serbs were facing defeat, forced them all to the negotiating table. Meanwhile we had lost four years and tens of thousands of lives.”
“But can you not take a more balanced approach? Surely you can mitigate the consequences without getting fully involved on one side or the other” I asked. His line was definitely not what we learnt at the Academy.
He shook his head.
“Humanitarian assistance” he snorted. “Look what good that did in Bosnia. It just prolonged the fighting. The UN served only to make sure that no one ever won a completely decisive victory. So thousands more die. The same has happened in Syria. If you want to stop the suffering, stop the war. If you want to stop the war, picks sides and stop it. We are kidding ourselves if we think our humanitarian interventions, and our expressions of moral outrage, do anything to civilised warfare.”
“So those are my lessons for today” I asked.
“Just one more thing” he said. “Beware group-think. We could have ended the Bosnian war on day one if we had targeted airstrikes against the Serbian artillery and tanks. With less infantry, most of which spent all day drunk, the Serbs needed their kit to beat the Muslims. And we knew where it was, because it was where it had to be, on the front line. But we spent four years convincing ourselves, and anyone who would listen to us, that airstrikes would be counter-productive. That they would not work. I remember preaching this to numerous European diplomats in London. In the end, the Americans forced us into the air strikes. And guess what happened. They worked.”
A silence settled upon us like a pall. The gloom was almost tangible. Despite the excellence of the food, I wasn’t really hungry anymore. I began wondering about excuses to leave.