The Accidental Diplomatist IV: Face to Face

A silence settled on 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.

He must have noticed. He made a deliberate effort to lighten the mood. He raised both hands, palms towards me.

“Come on, old man, don’t be so gloomy. It´s not so bad. It´s like the man said …”

I stared at him in momentary incomprehension.

“Sorry,” he said. “Renaissance and Swiss cuckoo clocks and all that. The film, The Third Man. Orson Welles …” He smiled apologetically.

“No, I´m sorry.” I recovered from my confusion at the sudden change of tone. “I don´t really do films. Well not old ones. I imagine it is old.”

“Oh yes. 1940s I think. Black and white. It´s just that you look a bit down.”

“I feel it. It´s like every time I talk to you I wonder why I´ve become a diplomat. It´s not just that you make it sound so cynical. We are supposed to be the cynical generation that believes in nothing. But you also make it seem like a catalogue of continued failure. You never achieve anything or solve any problems. What´s the point?”

I realised I was almost on the point of tears. He stopped smiling and looked at me seriously.

“I didn´t want to make you feel like that, I don’t want to discourage you from being a diplomat. The head of the academy thinks highly of you. That´s why he encouraged me to share my experiences with you. Between you and me, I think you´re going places. And diplomats aren´t cynics who believe in nothing. It may seem like we achieve nothing, or never solve problems. But that may be because the problems we deal with are so complex they cannot be solved. We can still make a difference just by being there. The last guardians against barbarism.”

I looked at him for a second. “But is that even true?” I asked. “With the new digital technologies, are we even necessary? Online communications, social media campaigns, algorithms analysing big data – perhaps we will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robots.”

“What, you´re worried about being replaced by a diplobot?” he emphasised the last word as if proud of his knowledge of technical terminology. “I don’t think so. But let me tell you another story.”

“I´m not sure I´m up to it” I said.

“Oh don´t worry, it won´t be depressing” he replied. “Even though it also relates to my time dealing with the War in Bosnia, it is not about death and destruction. You might even find it amusing.” He signalled to the waiter to bring two more Qingdao beers before I could object, ignoring the half full glass in front of me. When the beers had arrived, he filled both glasses, took a deep draught from his own, and began.

“There is a tradition, or there used to be, that Prime Ministers would write a personal letter recording their conversations with foreign leaders. This was not the details of formal negotiations. That was left to the private secretaries. This was more the personal stuff, the impressions they got, what the foreign leader was like to deal with. Sometimes it might be the impressions they had got about the foreign leader´s intentions. Sometimes it might be an off the cuff comment that gave some insight into his thinking. Do you know if they still do these records, prime ministers I mean? I suppose they´ll be emails now.”

“I´m sorry” I confessed, sipping from my beer “I don´t move in such august circles.”

“You will, one day” he re-assured me. “Anyway, the point of this is that one day we got one of these prime minister letters. Practically everything got copied to those of us dealing with Yugoslavia, because practically every meeting between heads of government of ministers would make some mention of the war in Bosnia, even if only fleeting. Anyway, in this case we got a letter describing a meeting with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Meetings with the Germans were always interesting for us. In some senses it had been the Germans´ determination to recognise the independence of both Croatia and Bosnia at the same time that had got us into the mess in the first place. Many of us were uncomfortable with their open support for their Croatian allies. We thought that, given their record in Yugoslavia in the second world war, they might have hung back a bit, if only for decency´s sake.”

He took another long draft of his beer. I suddenly realised he had been a smoker. It was something about the way he held the glass that reminded me of my grandfather. I´m certain that if we had been talking in a restaurant twenty years earlier, he would have been dragging on a cigarette rather than his beer. Or perhaps both. He went on.

“But the interesting thing about the letter wasn’t about Yugoslavia, or the war in Bosnia, or at least not directly. Kohl spoke about how he maintained good relations with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Everyone else had problems with Yeltsin who was, to put it mildly, mercurial and difficult to tie down. But Kohl seemed to be able to manage better than the rest. Kohl explained to our Prime Minister that his secret was to share a sauna with him. They would sit in the sauna, Kohl drinking schnapps and Yeltsin drinking vodka, discussing the world situation and bilateral relations. I remember visualising it. Two great mountains of fat – do you remember what they looked like?”

I nodded.

“Well then, two great mountains of fat, naked in the sauna. For the sake of our digestion, I prefer to think of them with their private parts protected by a towel. The two of them sitting in the sauna, drinking, sweating and settling the affairs of the west. Apparently that is how Kohl best got Yeltsin to focus. Ah, but there´s one aspect I didn´t tell you.”

For a second he grinned at me across the table.

“Kohl famously spoke only German. Yeltsin certainly didn´t speak any German. As far as I am aware, apart from a very inadequate smattering of English, he spoke only Russian. So we have to alter the image we have just painted for ourselves. We now have two mountains of fat, with, we hope, their towels across their laps, sitting in a sauna drinking, sweating and talking. But we must add an interpreter, or, if protocol is being followed, two interpreters. I assume the interpreters would not be naked, but suited in very damp suits, sweating even more profusely than their principles. Without wanting to be accused of sexual prejudice, I´m hoping the interpreters were male.”

Despite myself, I found myself grinning at the image he had drawn. He took another draft of his beer. Finding the glass empty, he waved at the waiter. He looked enquiringly at me, but I quickly shook my head. My glass was still nearly full.

“But” he continued, “the picture is not yet complete. If interpreters were present, we must imagine also note-takers there, ensuring an accurate account of what must have been progressively more slurred conversations. So now we have our tableau. Two naked man mountains, we hope partially covered by towels, steadily drinking towards mutual oblivion, and four very damp, uncomfortable and besuited diplomats, holding very soggy notebooks in support. Gives you another view of high level diplomacy, doesn’t it.”

He looked at me over the table. I laughed.

“It does! And thank you for excluding me and my sisterhood from the tableau.”

“My pleasure” he replied. “That does, however, make the point that it is a diplomatic technique with limited application. Despite his enthusiasm for being seen bare chested, I can´t imagine Frau Merkel using the same approach to discuss the Ukraine with President Putin, can you?”

“No” I coughed, still laughing. “My generation will have to find new approaches to high level summitry.”

“Well you certainly wouldn’t be able to deploy a diplobot. The damp would probably short its circuits. But there is a serious point too.” He stopped smiling and I tried to stop laughing.

“Diplomacy” he went on “is about intentions. It´s also about trust, but you trust someone because you think you understand their intentions. Evaluating someone´s intentions only comes with knowing, meeting them face to face. There´s nothing mystical about it. It´s not like George Bush looking into Putin´s eyes and seeing his soul. If he did he had remarkable eyesight.”

For a second he chortled, but was then more serious again. “No, its about repeatedly meeting people face to face, getting to know them, and making personal judgements about what they are telling you. Yes, intentions matter in diplomacy, and they are best judged by humans getting to know humans. I don’t see diplobots doing that. Diplobots will not replace you any time soon. And if they do, may God have mercy on our souls.”

He crossed himself, semi-mockingly I thought, although now later I´m not so sure.

“Do you want anything else?” he asked me. I shook my head. He waved at the waiter again, but this time for the bill.

The Really Dark Side of Facebook

The world has been outraged by Cambridge Analitica scraping personal data from Facebook to facilitate targeted campaigning in the US Presidential election and, possibly, the Brexit referendum. But this is small beer.

The real story is how Facebook, and other social media platforms and search machines (like Google), support Russian Information Warfare, while frustrating Public Diplomacy strategies.

Either Facebook starts sharing more information about how its algorithms work, or social media platforms will be reduced to battlefields for 21st century warfare. The advertisers won´t like it.

Cambridge Analitica devised an app which enabled them to scrape personal data from Facebook users so as to develop targeted campaigning for the 2016 US Presidential election (and possibly the Brexit vote). Outrage was universal. Congress summoned Zuckerberg to explain himself (which demonstrated only that the House of Representatives has a marginally better understanding of the internet than the Senate). The British House of Commons had to make do with a whistle blower from Cambridge Analitica. But there is nothing new here. Scraping data from the internet for nefarious (or beneficent) purposes has been around for years. It can be dealt with either by regulation (the EU´s General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR – for example protects the data of EU citizens wherever it is stored in the world) or by education (teaching people to be careful about what they put online).

The really dirty secret about Facebook, and other social media platforms and search machines, is the way in which they facilitate Russian Information Warfare, while frustrating public diplomacy campaigns aimed at countering information war. Social media platforms like Facebook are driven by algorithms that ensure that users get content that fits with their known likes. They are designed to allow advertisers to target users with products they are likely to buy. But they also ensure that users only receive news and opinions (and friends proposals) that fit with their known prejudices. This matters. As a growing number of people receive some or all of their news from social media, social media tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, their existing prejudices. This in turn reinforces the echo chamber effect, where we listen only to news and opinions we already agree with. Political and social debate is increasingly fragmented.


Search machines use algorithms to order the webpages generated by any search. Although the public may think that such algorithms objectively reflect the relevance to the individual search, there are in fact a series of factors that come into play. Algorithms are in fact not objective, despite their complicated mathematics, but reflect the epistemological biases of their designers. Experts who have studied how the algorithms of search machines like Google function have developed search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to ensure that any given webpage gains priority in the ordering of a search result. In 2015 far right political groups used SEO techniques to game Google. Searches for how many people died in the holocaust first produced webpages by holocaust deniers.

Russian information warfare aims at generating uncertainty in western societies. It does not aim to convince people of one interpretation of events, but undermine confidence in all interpretations of events. Fake news does not want to convince people that it is true, but rather that all news is equally fake. Information warfare uses disinformation to fragment social and political debate and so undermine citizens´ confidence in the narratives of their governments. Russia uses surrogates, whether Moscow troll farms or innocent dupes, both to ensure plausible deniability, but also to avoid the need for consistency in the messages or disinformation it is promoting. This allows it to reach out to echo chambers with radically different views. Social media platforms like Facebook fit the needs of Information Warfare like a glove. Information warriors tailor their messages to the different echo chambers they want to enflame. Facebook´s algorithms ensure they arrive. The hard thing about combating fake news is not that it is fake, but that each individual is receiving the fake news he or she wants to believe (including political elites and liberals, who are equally vulnerable). Social media algorithms deliver the disinformation to the targets already disposed to believe it, and conceal the role of the information warriors.

Public Diplomacy aims to engage with foreign publics as a whole to create political and social environments favourable to subsequent specific policy proposals. Governments do public diplomacy because they believe that foreign publics can influence the decisions taken by their governments. Although modern public diplomacy centres on two (or more) way conversations with foreign publics, it must be coherent to be effective. Although it uses surrogates, it does so not to conceal its origins, but because the surrogates are more credible or effective advocates than diplomats. Public diplomacy seeks to change opinions, not reinforce prejudices. The fragmentation of social and political debate produced by the echo chamber effect, reinforced by social media algorithms, makes it difficult to engage with foreign publics as a whole. To the extent that public diplomacy campaigns depend on social media like Facebook and Twitter, the same algorithms condemn them to reach only those who already agree with their premises. Social media algorithms not only make it hard for public diplomacy to change the opinions of foreign publics, it makes it virtually impossible for public diplomats to reach those who disagree with them. If you can´t get to them you can´t change their minds.

To devise public diplomacy campaigns to counter Russian (and other) Information Warfare, western diplomats need to understand better the algorithms on which social media platforms and search engines operate. But neither Facebook nor Google are going to share this information lightly. These algorithms are the competitive advantage on which their business models depend. Zuckerberg would mush prefer stringent regulation to risking the details of Facebook´s algorithms becoming known to his competitors. However, if social media platforms and search engines do not collaborate with western governments, they may find western governments countering Russian information warfare with their own version. Facebook and other social media platforms would be reduced to the battlefields of 21st century information warfare. The advertisers who fund these platforms and search engines now would rapidly be scared off. In as far as social media platforms and search machines are not simply commercial operations, but shape the environment of international relations, the companies that own them may find themselves facing coercive diplomacy.

Pompeo Meets Kim Jung-un – Does Trump Have A Strategy for Korea?

The Washington Post has announced that Secretary of State designate Pompeo held secret meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in Pyongyang during Easter.

Does this mean that President Trump has developed a strategy for North Korea, and East Asia, as a whole?

Does this make Pompeo Kissinger to Trump´s Nixon? Or does Trump just see this as a new chapter of the Art of the Deal?

What happens when Trump finds there is no deal to make?

Analysts were surprised by the Washington Post´s revelation that CIA Director and Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang over Easter for meetings with North Korean leader Kin Jung-un. The visit grants greater seriousness to the forthcoming meeting between Trump and Kim, apparently scheduled for June. The closest parallel in recent US diplomatic history was Henry Kissinger´s secret visit to Beijing to prepare for Richard Nixon´s subsequent visit to China and famous meeting with Mao Zedong. Given the role of that visit in China´s “opening to the west”, its ultimate consequence can be seen as Xi Jinping. The embroilment of Nixon in the Watergate scandal, and his subsequent resignation to avoid impeachment, seem to draw another parallel with a President Trump embattled by the investigations into his administration´s links with Russia. Do Republican presidents threatened by special prosecutors seek to escape domestic woes by visits to East Asian tyrants?

There are, of course, important differences between Presidents Nixon and Trump. Nixon´s visit to China pre-dated the Watergate scandal. Nixon was a professional politician, whereas Trump is a businessman who has turned to politics late in life. Most important, Nixon saw his visit to China as part of a broader strategy for dealing with the Cold War. Although many would give Kissinger credit for the strategic thinking, partly because of Watergate and partly because Kissinger is still alive, Nixon had floated the idea of dialogue with China in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article. The aim was to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to play Beijing off against Moscow – the so-called triangulation strategy. Improving relations with China would allow Nixon to advance détente with a Soviet leadership fearing isolation (the other objective of Nixon´s visit, to get the Chinese to pressure the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, fared less well).

It seems unlikely that Trump is thinking in such strategic terms. His approach to international relations is transactional. He believes he can do deals with other leaders that will promote US interests. Central to this transactional approach is Trumps confidence in his deal-making abilities and the personal touch. Personal relations between strong man leaders “trumps” patient diplomacy. Trump believes he can cut a deal with Kim Jung-un that will solve the problem of North Korea´s nuclear weapons programme. There are significant dangers in this approach. For Kim securing a one-on-one meeting with a US President, something neither his father or grandfather achieved, is in itself a major success. But when he talks about de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsular, he means the withdrawal of US forces. Given the preponderance of North Korean conventional forces, it is difficult to see how the US could ever sign up to this. But it is equally difficult to see Kim giving up his nuclear insurance policy as long as US forces remain in South Korea. How will Trump react to discovering there is no deal to be made? Previous experience suggests with petulance and a storm of angry and provocative tweets. Unless the personal chemistry between two narcissistic juveniles works wonders, a face to face meeting between Trump and Kim could make the situation even more dangerous.

There is no evidence that Trump has taken account of, or even thought about, the wider geopolitical implications of his meeting with Kim. The Chinese will be keen to ensure that Kim protects China´s core interests in the Korean peninsular, primarily that Korea remains divided and the Americans a long way away from the river Yalu. It would be interesting to know the precise timing of the meeting between Kim and Pompeo, and whether it was before or after Kim´s visit to Beijing. The Japanese will be kin to ensure continued US support, against both North Korea and China. The Russians too have been sniffing around in Pyongyang (Kim´s grandfather was, after all, a protégé of Stalin and not Mao Zedong). Their intentions are not at all clear: offering themselves to Kim as an alternative backer to China; re-asserting an Asian role; tweaking the Americans; or even tweaking the Chinese. But they will be a factor in Kim´s assessment of where his interests lie. As for the poor South Koreans, who are well aware of their likely casualties in the event of conflict with the North, conventional or nuclear, and who seem to be the real architects of the Trump-Kim meeting, they want only to reduce the tensions.

Nor is there any evidence that Trump has considered what message a summit with Kim sends outside the Far East. But the Iranians will be listening and learning the lesson. If you want a one-on-one meeting with the US President, get nuclear weapons, and fast. If, as seems likely with Bolton now to egg him on, Trump refuses to certify the nuclear deal with Iran, we should expect the Iranians to resume their nuclear weapons programme, with further destabilisation of the Middle East.

Pompeo´s visit to Pyongyang does increase the likelihood that the meeting between Trump and Kim Jung-un will take place. But Pompeo is no Kissinger, and Trump is no Nixon (nor is Kim a Mao Zedong). There is no broader strategy for East Asia, nor any understanding of how this impacts elsewhere in the world. Trump will approach the talks like the hustler he is seeking to cut a deal. If, as likely, he fails, the situation could be even more dangerous than before the meeting.