The US State Department used to be very good at keeping America’s own diplomatic correspondents abreast of foreign policy developments. It gave daily press briefings (also found useful by US embassies for giving pointers to policy) and permitted a ‘press pool’ of American diplomatic correspondents to fly in the same plane as the secretaries of state on their many foreign trips. It has, therefore, been a spectacular public diplomacy own goal for Trump’s State Department, headed if not led by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, to have not a single press briefing until 7 March and also refuse to permit a press pool to accompany Tillerson on his current trip to Asia. These actions have not only deeply angered the US press corps but also delivered the news management of US foreign policy, such as it is, into the hands of others – not always friendly. Only an administration as stupid as that of Donald Trump could have achieved this.
Once more the House of Lords, the ‘upper’ chamber of the British Parliament, has shown itself to be on the side of common decency, not to mention economic prudence: it voted a few days ago by a large margin to bounce back to the cowardly House of Commons the Brexit government’s cruel refusal of a guarantee of continued residence to EU citizens in the UK until the rest of the EU offers a similar guarantee to British nationals living and working in the remaining member states – which could take years; and tonight it has comfortably inflicted a second defeat on the government’s Brexit bill, requiring Theresa May to allow a Parliamentary vote on the terms of any deal her myopic, whistling-in-the-dark cabinet manages to negotiate with the EU. ‘How dare this undemocratic body defy the popularly elected House of Commons, itself simply “respecting” the order given to it by the British people in the referendum of 23 June 2016 to leave the EU?’ goes the howl of the flag-waving Brexit press – ‘Abolish the House of Lords!’ it cries. To which the reply should be that it is precisely because it is an undemocratic body that it dares to adopt an unpopular position. And, more, that any ‘democratic’ state or state that aspires to be a ‘democracy’, but also sees the importance of qualifying the ‘will of the people’ with the wisdom of experience, immense professional expertise, and moral courage would be well advised to consider a similar institution. For the ‘will of the people’ is notoriously capable of manipulation by special interests and super-rich media moguls. And so, too, is its measurement and what this signifies capable of being grossly misrepresented; for example, only 37 per of the British electorate actually voted to advise Parliament of their desire to leave the EU, yet we are constantly told that this amounted to a decision of ‘the people’ binding on Parliament. As for Donald Trump, he lies shamelessly to his constituency about the size of his support,whereas in fact he lost the popular vote in last November’s presidential election by a sizeable margin.
Let it not be forgotten that the British House of Lords is no longer a chamber of empty-headed hereditary peers of the landowning class, so justly and hilariously lampooned by Grenville-Murray in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, it is now composed largely of life peers, men and women overwhelmingly well over the age of 60, who have achieved distinction in many walks of life – be it the law, business, education, medicine, journalism, and so on, even politics. They are nominated by the prime minister of the day but it is a convention that some can also be put forward by the leader of the official opposition and other party leaders, which indirectly, by the way, gives it a democratic tinge. Of course, like any system of patronage, this system can be – and has been – abused. But, by and large, the upper chamber remains a genuine aristocracy, representing ‘the best’ among us, which is the meaning of the original Greek stem, ‘aristoi’. Of these, Patience Wheatcroft is a perfect example. ‘Great Aristotle’, as the late Bernard Crick called him, thought that the best constitutional arrangement achievable in most circumstances was a ‘polity’, by which he meant a democracy mixed with aristocracy. So do I. (The senior, permanent civil service provides another, vital element of aristocracy in this sense.) Let us hear no more calls either for the abolition of the House of Lords, or for it to be elected and therefore ‘more democratic’. Pure democracy is seriously overrated. Its representatives must always be challenged, especially when, as now, they mistakenly believe – forgetting Burke – that they are merely delegates elected to serve as mouthpieces for the views of their supporters, irrespective of their own convictions.
So Boris Johnson, Britain’s diplomatically inept, part-time foreign secretary (his other job is entertainment) is going to Moscow for talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. In announcing this move, he has probably been encouraged by a recent report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons that is critical of Foreign Office handling of Russia. So far so good. However, an outspoken critic of Russian foreign policy, and the minister who urged demonstrators to protest the bombing of Aleppo outside the Russian embassy in London without a thought for the safety of diplomats in the British embassy in Moscow should the Russians have retaliated, Johnson has further let it be known that he will adopt a posture of ‘guarded engagement’ and also say nothing to Lavrov that he has not already said about Russian policy in public. This typical bluster raises at least two questions. First, is this an unusual approach; or, put another way, is his normal procedure in talks with foreign counterparts one of ‘unguarded engagement’? In light of Johnson’s natural tendency to make flippant, throw-away remarks, this is only too likely. Second, if he is going to say nothing about Russian policy that he has not said before, in what sense is his visit designed for the purposes of ‘engagement’? (This is a synonym for diplomacy popularized by the Obama administration.) If it is in fact not so designed, the suspicion must be that, instead, it is just another exercise in grandstanding, with the admittedly remote possibility of further promoting his book on Churchill on the side, as he did on an official visit to Serbia late last year and for which he was heavily criticized. The proposed visit to Russia is, therefore, another reason to pity the poor embassy in Moscow. Having said all this, it must be acknowledged that the idea comes from Lavrov rather than Johnson and some good might come of it.
UN-led prenegotiations for a settlement of the Syrian civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and the main coalition of opposition groups, the Riyadh-based ‘High Negotiations Committee (HNC)’, tragically seem once more to be going nowhere, even though an heroic attempt to talk up progress at the end of the last round of proximity talks in Geneva on 3 March was made by UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and they might well resume later in the month. Quite aside from the continuing absence of agreement on what role in future negotiations – if any – should be permitted to armed opposition groups outside the HNC, not least the Kurds, there is the enormous problem of what subjects should be discussed. Despite the special envoy’s claim that there is at last a ‘clear agenda’, with ‘counter-terrorism’ now up for negotiation, in fact there still does not seem to be anywhere near full agreement on what should be on the agenda or on what should come first. The Syrian regime wants measures against ‘terrorism’ to be not just on the agenda but at the top of it, and in any case controversially defines terrorism as the activity of all groups opposed to it; the opposition wants ‘political transition’ – code for the removal of Bashar – to be there instead. Squaring this circle prior to the commencement of substantive talks would be difficult enough even if one side did not think that it was winning the war and therefore had no need to negotiate at all, which of course – thanks largely to Russian military and Iranian intervention on his behalf – is now the attitude of Bashar al-Assad. This is the position despite the fact that Russia is reported to be leaning on its client to negotiate (perhaps in part to impress the easily impressed Donald Trump) and even to be trying to replace the UN as lead mediator; it is already promoting ‘parallel’ talks in Kazakhstan, albeit at the moment focussed chiefly, it seems, ‘only’ on military questions. Were Russia permitted to become the lead mediator, this might be no bad thing, in spite of Western and Israeli nervousness at the prospect. This is because the chief lesson of recent international mediation efforts in particularly bitter conflicts, as for example in southern Africa and the Balkans, is that they tend to be most successful when a major power grabs the reins from lesser parties offering their services, thereby giving it an enormous incentive to use its leverage to produce a settlement: it anticipates gaining all the credit for success, and fears receiving all the blame for failure. This role has hitherto been virtually monopolized by the United States, but with Washington now to all intents and purposes diplomatically headless, probably only Russia has the leverage and single-mindedness of purpose to pull off a Syria settlement. It should, therefore, be encouraged to manipulate the balance of power between the rivals so as to create a genuine diplomatic moment, and then helped to steer this dreadful war to a diplomatic end. The latter is perhaps too much to expect but spoilers should consider that success would also give Vladimir Putin a stake in the status quo.
The lightning rod on Trump Tower, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, has been fried. As a result, the political storm in the United States provoked by the long-rumoured pre-election contacts between Team Trump and Russian officials (including the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and intelligence officers) has just shifted closer to the president, where it properly belongs. All the signs are that this storm will make the burglary of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972, that eventually brought down President Nixon, look like a minor political blip; after all, not even his worst enemies, I believe, ever accused Nixon of treason. Robert Reich is well worth following on this subject.