Curing the Sick Man: Sir Henry Bulwer and the Ottoman Empire, 1858-1865

(Republic of Letters: Dordrecht, 2011) ISBN 9789089790569, pp. 269 incl. index

This is the first book of a very promising young historian. Laurence Guymer, who is head of the Department of History at Winchester College and a research associate in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, has produced a biography of Sir Henry Bulwer that successfully challenges the conventional account of this colourful mid-Victorian figure. It also raises the question of how ‘diplomatic success’ is judged.

Bulwer was the British ambassador at Constantinople who immediately followed at that post the most famous British diplomat of the period, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe (formerly Stratford Canning). Partly because Stratford was in some respects a hard act to follow, partly because Bulwer was wrongly judged in Britain to be ‘pro-Ottoman’, and partly because he could not resist advertising his extravagance and philandering, pressure for his recall had been mounting for some years before he was finally forced to surrender his position in 1865. But emphasis on pulling off ‘diplomatic triumphs’ or achieving ‘influence’ with the government to which an ambassador is accredited, both of which were characteristic tests of the successful tenure of a post in the nineteenth century and both of which Bulwer is usually thought to have failed, is misplaced. This is because influence might be used too heavy-handedly and before long prove counter-productive, while eye-catching displays of diplomatic virtuosity might not be required if the conflicts requiring them are not allowed to mature – if, in other words, they are quietly nipped in the bud. In fact, the only important test of ambassadorial success is the obvious one: the extent to and price at which they secure the objectives of their governments’ policies, taking into account the obstacles they face. And on this test, as Guymer convincingly argues, Bulwer passed well – if not with flying colours because neither his cogently argued opposition to the capitulations nor active support for the British ‘concession-hunters’ who fell on the Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War chimed with thinking at home (he was in both regards ahead of his time), while his too-public private life caused embarrassment. Nevertheless, an experienced and shrewd diplomat, Bulwer followed the main theme of his instructions, which was to keep things quiet in the Ottoman Empire with a view to prolonging its life and keeping great power relations (not least with the French) on an even keel. He achieved these results despite confronting difficulties not experienced by his illustrious predecessor, particularly the much reduced need of the sultan’s government for British support against Russia following the czar’s defeat in the Crimean War.

Guymer’s biography of Sir Henry Bulwer is properly detached, analytically sophisticated and exhaustively researched. I recommend it most warmly.

2017-07-19T11:53:02+00:00 July 19th, 2017|Tags: |

The Embassy: A story of war and diplomacy

(Beaufort Books: New York, 2016), p. 376, incl. index. ISBN 9780825308253

This book tells the story of the vital role played by the US Embassy in Monrovia in helping to mediate an end to the brutal, 14-year civil war in Liberia in 2003. Its successful diplomacy was assisted by a popular yearning for peace, the absence of significant anti-Americanism in the country, the reputation of the United States for vigorous military intervention in support of its foreign policy (soon assisted in this theatre by a naval task force loitering off the coast), the backing of influential friends (among them the Nigerians), and the leadership of an able and determined ambassador, John Blaney. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which the embassy had to act were extremely dangerous, and Washington more than once encouraged the ambassador to shut up shop and evacuate – which meant that he would have been charged with bad judgment should things have gone wrong. However, the story as told by the mission’s political officer at the time, Dante Paradiso, of how Blaney took this risk and pulled off his remarkable achievement, is an example of a genre much more common in film than in book form: the docudrama. The first question that has to be asked, therefore, is: Does he pull it off?

As a rule, the docudrama provides an account of historical events with little if any direct reference to documentary sources. In such treatments, dialogue presented as if it actually took place is given prominence; the eye is invited to linger on physical features of the backdrop such as storms, riots, striking landscapes, and corpse-littered streets; and ‘human interest’ is stimulated by digressions into the private lives of the individuals conspicuous in the action. Paradiso’s book has all of these features in abundance (in a note in the prelims he frankly admits that ‘in reconstructing the thoughts, dialogue, and experiences of the actors, spoken language and descriptions have been shaped for clarity and narrative cohesion’). And some of this works very well indeed: for example, the biographical detail on and individual actions of Jenkins Vangehn, the locally engaged political assistant; and the vivid descriptions of the detritus of war on the streets. As well as an acute political mind, the author has great sympathy for his subjects, an eye for detail and a fluent style.

On the other hand, I felt that the book was too long and – as a docudrama – lacked pace, sometimes because slipping into purple prose when a more terse delivery would have served better; for example, ‘The shelling of the American embassy made news back home. In Crawford, Texas, at the dry, dusty ranch where the hot winds carried the smells of sagebrush and cow dung and where the leader of the free world spent his vacations, and sometimes hosted distinguished guests, President Bush …’ (p. 205). As for what in reality were clearly the nerve-jangling highpoints of the story – the ambassador’s courageous forays into rebel territory to meet the truculent, unpredictable General Cobra – in the book these just do not stand out. It does not help that the 47 chapters are far too short, and that the prelims lack a contents list. The seven ‘parts’ – The First Attack, Pressure, The Second Attack, The Hast, The Third Attack, Frontline Diplomacy, History on the Bridge – should have been the chapters and the chapters their sections. In short, the packaging of the book leaves a lot to be desired. Furthermore, precisely because it remains essentially a docudrama, historians will be uneasy with it, as they were with H. C. Armstrong’s similarly constructed biography of Atatürk, Grey Wolf (1932); while students of diplomatic method will find that the baggage of this genre just gets in the way.

But the book has redeeming features other than those I mentioned earlier. To begin with, Dante Paradiso was himself one of the important players in this drama, even though he appears in the book not by name but, with unfashionable modesty, simply as ‘the political officer’; so the book is also part memoir – a more familiar genre and valuable primary source in writing about diplomacy. In addition, he shows that he has taken great trouble with his oral history, for at the end of the book he provides ‘notes’ for each chapter that list the interviews on which they chiefly draw. For these reasons, The Embassy provides authoritative insights into just how a diplomatic mission can support a mediation, and subsequently a peacekeeping operation, in the most adverse conditions. His clear account of the ambassador’s rationale for staying the course is particularly interesting (p. 55ff, and Chapter 15). Despite my reservations, therefore, I regard this as a serious book, and a suitable accolade for John Blaney’s embassy – predictably, the ambassador got little enough attention elsewhere when he returned home.
Post Script 1 May 2017: This book has just been named a national gold medalist in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. See also this excellent talk by the author to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

2017-05-01T11:08:42+00:00 December 10th, 2016|Tags: |

Diplomatic Interference and the Law

(Hart: Oxford and Portland, Oregon, 2016), 493pp. incl. index. ISBN 9781849464369 (hb), ISBN 9781509902781 (Epub).

Q: ‘Why will there never be a coup d’état in Washington? A: Because there’s no American Embassy there.’  This old joke serves to highlight the belief – entrenched deeply in poor, weak states – that diplomatic missions too often meddle in the ‘internal’ or ‘domestic’ affairs of the countries in which they are located, sometimes with dramatic consequences. It is a view that was held in the years following the Second World War by the former Yugoslavia, then struggling to extricate itself from the Soviet orbit, and prompted it to press successfully for the codification of diplomatic law. Emerging in the shape of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) signed in 1961, this duly gave prominence to the duty of those enjoying diplomatic privileges and immunities not to interfere in the internal affairs of the state in which they were posted (Art.41.1). But later developments, particularly the strengthening of human rights law, has caused controversy over this subject to increase rather than diminish, and this is the first reason why the appearance of this book by Paul Behrens, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Edinburgh, is so valuable. The other reasons are that the law remains vague on the question, that this is the first attempt to give it serious and comprehensive attention, and that the book is very good indeed.

The author believes that international lawyers have hitherto been disposed to give too much weight to the rule of non-interference, which obviously favours receiving states, and either overlook or unduly minimise the legal arguments that in some circumstances entitle and even oblige those benefiting from diplomatic privileges and immunities to meddle in the ‘internal affairs’ of their hosts. By examining the evolution of customary law on the subject, which he maintains is indispensable since conventional law on it is more or less useless, it is his aim to provide a set of practical ‘guidelines’ for lawful diplomatic interference. The contents list of his work, which can be seen on the publisher’s website here, shows at a glance how he has gone about his difficult task.

Behrens takes a broad view of ‘internal affairs’ (on the definition of which the VCDR is silent); in other words, he adopts a view indulgent to receiving states because it includes the formulation by governments of their foreign as well as their domestic policies. Nevertheless, he also insists that international law entitles diplomats to interfere in the domestic processes by means of which these policies are arrived at, not least on the basis of the list of functions given to them by the VCDR itself. Most important among these, he maintains, are the protection of the sending state’s interests in general and of its nationals in particular, observation and reporting, and the promotion of friendly relations with all of the citizens of receiving states. As for the more controversial question of the entitlement to interference on the basis of human rights law, he points out that – quite apart from the erga omnes obligations by which states are bound – the VCDR’s list of diplomatic functions is admittedly not exhaustive and that, in any case, diplomatic interference to protect human rights is readily embraced by traditional functions, especially observation and political reporting, and protection of the sending state’s interests (large scale human rights abuses can have serious impacts on neighbouring states in particular, especially if fighting induced by such abuses spills outwards, they are inundated with refugees, and the regional economy suffers); it is useful to be reminded that a few states appoint ‘human rights attachés’ to some of their embassies. When the ‘restrictive’ (on diplomats) rule of non-interference meets ‘permissive’ (for diplomats) rules such as these, the author favours conciliatory rather than confrontational methods to resolve them; in crude summary, he argues that conflicts of this sort are best managed when diplomats interfere in the manner least likely to provoke their hosts – always provided it is as efficient as any other realistic method. This theme is elaborated at some length in Part II of the book: ‘Fields of Diplomatic Interference’ (better understood, I think, at least for the non-lawyer, as ‘forms’ of interference).

I have just a few reservations of substance about this generally splendid work, and one of a more technical character.

The latter, which I shall take first, concerns the ‘Timeline of Diplomatic Interference’ in Annex A, a sort of calendar (Oxford English Dictionary, sense 4e) of instances of diplomatic interference from April 1961, when the VCDR was signed, until April 2014, the half centenary of its entry into force. Stretching to a full 110 pages, this contains the bedrock of evidence on which the author bases his argument for the evolution of customary law. Its contents are thus of immense importance and set the book apart from the more superficial treatments of its subject that tend to be the norm. But was the inclusion in the publication of what is in effect a working paper of such length really necessary? Having compiled this calendar and had it always at his elbow, could not the author have referred readers to the key sources via footnotes at first mention of the cases? As it is, including this Annex must have put up the price of the book considerably (although it is still well below that of many law books), thereby helping to put it beyond the reach of those many diplomats from poorer countries who would benefit greatly from reading it. But never mind! Including the full list shows the author’s (unfashionable) honesty and makes his argument more readily testable. Furthermore, in any future paperback edition, which I hope very much will appear, the Annex can safely be deleted because reference can be made to the appropriate pages in the hardback. By way of a footnote to this point, however, it is a pity that – in view of the importance of the Annex – and despite the authority it provides by the very large number (300) of well documented cases it contains, the author fails to include a reminder in its short preamble of why an exhaustive list (which would in any case be an impossibility) is not necessary. For this, the reader needs to go back to pages 19-23 of the Introduction, where the (surmountable) problems involved in establishing the ‘generality’ of practice and legal opinion required of customary law are clearly and authoritatively discussed. Having said this, I was a little surprised to find no cases listed concerning South Africa until 1987, although after the Sharpeville shootings in March 1960 apartheid became for many years probably the cause célèbre of diplomatic interference.

As to reservations of substance, all of which are relatively minor, I note merely two. First, I think it seriously over-optimistic for the author, when introducing his ‘guidelines’ at the end of the book, to state baldly that the demands of the (sophisticated) legal framework he has advanced will not ‘pose insurmountable challenges to Foreign Ministries, who can rely on the knowledge of the resident experts in their legal departments’ (p. 267). Unfortunately, I think it probably true that most foreign ministries don’t even have legal departments, let alone ones with any great expertise; this is the conclusion at which I arrived in researching and revising the chapter on the foreign ministry in my textbook. Second, I think the argument that diplomatic interference is sometimes justified by lawful allowance for the promotion of ‘friendly relations’ between states as well as their governments would have benefited from discussion of the key concept here. True to character, the VCDR also fails to define ‘friendly relations’, and in this regard the author follows suit. However, in the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Diplomacy we took the view that its first sense is ‘normal’ or civilized relations and only its second sense the ‘warm’ relations signified by friendship among humans. In short, it’s easier to justify to a receiving state diplomatic contacts with its opposition groups if this is done in terms of friendly relations sense (1) rather than sense (2).

But these are very minor quibbles. In the round, this book displays great learning, immense research, clear-sighted judgment, and – more than once – an attractive turn of phrase. All students of diplomacy are greatly in the author’s debt, and the guidelines he provides for practitioners at the end are carefully worked and succinctly expressed. A paperback edition soon, please!

A 20 per cent discount on this book is available here by quoting ref: CV7.

2017-02-16T10:33:49+00:00 July 11th, 2016|Tags: |

John le Carré: The Biography

(Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 652 pp. incl. index. ISBN: HB: 978-1-4088-2792-5 TPB: 978-1-4088-2793-2 ePub: 978-1-4088-4944-6[ buy this book ]

I thought to review this book because I had enjoyed the spy novels of John le Carré and, having introduced a chapter on secret intelligence into the latest edition of my textbook and mentioned him in it (p. 155), was keen to see if Adam Sisman had turned up anything new about the novelist’s own short career as an intelligence officer in what was then West Germany. In the event, this was the only disappointment of The Biography because it was the one subject on which le Carré – whose real name is David Cornwell – refused to speak to the author. (It looks as if we shall have to wait a long time for this particular story, which will no doubt be mentioned in the still secret post-1945 official history of the Secret Intelligence Service said to have been written by Gordon Philo, aka ‘Charles Forsyte’ – see in the section headed ‘Novels by former Diplomats and Intelligence Officers’ on this page.) Having said that, what Sisman does tell us is that, having initially been thought disloyal by SIS for depicting his former colleagues as ‘unscrupulous or, worse, incompetent’ in the novel that made his name – The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963) – by the 1990s, if not before, le Carré was once more persona grata at SIS headquarters in London. This was chiefly because of his portrayal of George Smiley, the central figure and successful mole-hunter in later novels. ‘Taken as a whole,’ writes Sisman, ‘David’s oeuvre had portrayed British intelligence as highly effective in the Cold War – arguably, as much more effective than it had been in reality.’ In short, SIS had come to like le Carré because he improved their reputation, both at home and abroad (pp.520-1).

Despite telling us nothing new about the subject’s own career as an intelligence officer, in every other regard this lucid, exhaustively researched, and admirably even-handed biography will be read with great enjoyment by all le Carré fans. There is much fascinating – even shocking – detail on the subject’s early life, particularly his relationship with his father Ronnie, an adept and outrageous swindler who even sought to blackmail his own son. The treatment of le Carré’s dealings with his various publishers as his novels began regularly to hit the number one spot on the US bestseller list is also instructive. For those who have occasionally struggled with the plot-line of some of the spy novels, have difficulty in placing the characters in his cast lists, or would be interested to know which features of persons in le Carré’s own life shaped these fictional individuals, Sisman’s detailed accounts of each novel and how they were written will prove absorbing. It is also most interesting – and a mark of the biographer’s detachment – to give space to criticism as well as praise for the novels, especially the later, polemical ones; for example, Hilary Mantel’s savaging of The Constant Gardener in the New York Review of Books. Other critics given a respectful hearing include John Updike and the always incisive and entertaining British-based Australian, Clive James.

I was also impressed by the attention that Sisman gives to le Carré’s method of writing and research. It might well be presumptuous of me to say so, but I think that any teacher of what it is now fashionable in higher education to call ‘creative writing’ could do far worse than put this book high on their reading list. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the lengthy Index – almost entirely just a proper name index – was not drawn up with The Biography’s value in this regard also in mind. There is no guide in it to pages (350-3, for example) dealing with ‘plot development’, ‘character collection’, and so on. I think that Sisman has missed a trick here.

As I have already indicated, although it bears repeating, Sisman’s book is by no stretch of the imagination a hagiography. Le Carré, he at least strongly hints, sometimes cannot tell the facts of his life from his own fiction, and occasionally writes so obscurely that even someone as close to his mind as his own biographer cannot understand him. Neither does he shrink from describing what seems to be the rather ruthless treatment meted out by his subject to publishers and agents who had served him loyally for many years but eventually been found wanting in energy or imagination; nor from recording le Carré’s inability, now and then, to resist the temptation to engage in venomous public exchanges with fellow writers such as Salman Rushdie – one of the last chapters is headed ‘Mr Angry’. In any case, who is perfect? These failings – if such they are – pale in comparison with Le Carré’s skills and industry as a novelist, his later acts of charity, and his willingness to court critical attack by using his more recent books as vehicles for attacking the corporatism of our age, not least – in this case with some success (p. 536) – in the shape of the not altogether benign influence of the global pharmaceutical industry. To these outstanding merits The Biography does full justice; it is a work worthy of its subject.

2017-02-15T14:39:49+00:00 May 13th, 2016|Tags: |

Diplomacy at the Cutting Edge

GUEST REVIEW by Sir Nicholas Bayne

(Manas Publications: New Delhi, 2015). 371 pp. incl. index. ISBN 978-81-7409-511-6 (paperback).[ buy this book ]

‘A diplomatist’s glory is the most ephemeral of all forms of that transient reward’, wrote Lord Salisbury. Kishan Rana has proved him wrong conclusively over the last twenty years, with eleven books, over 100 articles and courses in diplomatic practice that began in India and have spread to more than twenty countries. Thousands of students and others interested in diplomacy are in his debt, myself among them, as he has lectured for me at the LSE and contributed chapters for three editions of a book. His aim in these long-awaited memoirs is ‘to link [his] experiences with concepts and ideas that may interest professional diplomats and others’. The book therefore forms the prequel to the activity of the last two decades. It reveals the source of the energy and the wisdom that have driven his creativity. He starts with his final post as Ambassador to Germany, since this stimulated many ideas developed in his later work, but I prefer to analyse his career in sequence.

He began inauspiciously. For thirteen years he was a China specialist, including two postings in Beijing. The Indian mission was the best informed of any, but there was no India-China dialogue of any kind. Back in Delhi he advocated reconciliation, but this was blocked higher up. The lasting benefits of this time came from a side posting to Geneva. His newly-married wife Mimi accompanied him (his children were born there) and became a vital support thereafter. A Quaker seminar on improving foreign ministry performance planted the seeds that have since yielded so rich a harvest.

His luck turned when he was named ambassador to Algeria, the first of six head of mission posts. In each of them he showed a genius for seizing the opportunities offered. Algeria was barely known to India then, but it was growing rich from oil revenues. Kishan Rana saw how Indian state-owned firms could interact with their Algerian counterparts, in ways western firms could not, and brought many projects to fruition. He took full advantage of the chance to bring Indian doctors to the country, to everyone’s advantage. A short spell in Prague was less rewarding. Czech and Indian state firms were locked in a cosy embrace, where neither side wanted to innovate. Cultural links provided better openings.

The pattern was broken when, mysteriously, he was called back to serve in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office, only to be dismissed equally mysteriously a year later. His long chapter gives a vivid picture of Indira Gandhi at the height of her powers. But he had little chance to make his own mark and was cut off from his parent ministry. After a brief spell in charge of personnel (where he blamed himself for not doing enough) he returned to his field of real mastery, as head of post in Nairobi, San Francisco, Mauritius and finally Germany.

Kishan Rana perceived that getting close to President Moi was key to success in Kenya and secured regular meetings with him. He intercepted the head of India’s small industries corporation passing through Nairobi and got the Kenyans interested, including Moi himself. Moi was reluctant to let him depart for his next post in San Francisco. But he was reconciled after Rana explained it was for his children’s education and commended this publicly. Once arrived in the US, Rana at once overhauled the consular services offered. He mobilised the Indian-Americans working in IT to promote ‘Software India’, the first campaign of its kind, leading to valuable US investment. Going reluctantly to Mauritius, he found it an absorbing posting. He got close to Prime Minister Jugnauth, avoided political pitfalls and laid the foundations for India to become Mauritius’ largest trading partner.

On a visit to Mauritius, Prime Minister Naramsimha Rao appointed him to Bonn just as India’s economic reforms took effect. Rana was more than ready for them, having complained that Indian state firms behaved like ministries, notoriously ‘among the least efficient organizations known to man’. He was thus well-equipped to mobilise the synergy between newly reforming India and newly reunited Germany. He helped to arouse German industry’s interest in India, intervening at key moments in bilateral summits between Rao and Chancellor Kohl and following up with business leaders. Germany also became India’s strongest backer in the EU, while Indian cultural links made great advances there. Bonn was an outstanding conclusion to his diplomatic career.

Kishan Rana developed to the highest degree the skills required by a bilateral head of mission (though perhaps at the expense of those needed in his home ministry). He both created his own opportunities and seized any unplanned ones that appeared. He had the gift of developing close professional contacts, who often became close personal friends. He was constantly innovative, despite persistent lack of response from New Delhi, which would adopt his ideas years later. For example, he began formulating his own post objectives in the mid-1970s. This was a decade ahead of the British diplomatic service (where my career coincided exactly with his own), while India finally caught up in 2015. He knew the importance of attention to detail, for example in reorganizing the consular operation in San Francisco (I had to do the same ten years later with the passport service in Ottawa). He also knew that not every project worked and was prepared to accept responsibility for failure. Above all, inspired by an initial briefing from Indira Gandhi, he made economic diplomacy his first priority and built up political links on the back of it. All these qualities, as vividly revealed in these memoirs, have given his subsequent work on diplomacy their conviction and their authority.

Guest review, Nicholas Bayne, London School of Economics and Political Science

2017-02-15T15:24:47+00:00 April 7th, 2016|Tags: , |