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.

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