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.
While studying documents on the ‘treaty of friendship’ signed between the State Department and the CIA in 1977, which – by providing assurances that Agency operations would no longer cause nasty surprises to diplomats – was designed to improve relations between CIA station chiefs and the US ambassadors who gave them diplomatic cover, I came across a particularly interesting memo. This revealed that Arthur Hartman, a senior Department of State officer, had told the CIA that, in embassies where the ambassador was a political appointee, station chiefs should not brief this individual on operations, as provided in the State-CIA treaty – but instead the Deputy Chief of Mission, a Foreign Service Officer. Of course, FSOs dislike political appointees, so this opinion is hardly surprising. But there was no suggestion in this document that the CIA officer, Richard Lehman, dismissed it as simply special pleading. Indeed, in light of the Agency’s firmly rooted belief that great care has to be taken over what can be divulged to ambassadors in part because they are not trained to detect expert probing for information by hostile intelligence agencies, it is likely that it would have been even more nervous than the State Department’s professionals about briefing political appointees, who are invariably lacking even in diplomatic experience.
Assuming that nothing much has changed since the 1970s in the unavoidably difficult relationship between ambassadors and CIA station chiefs, it would be amazing should the latter not to be turning white at the thought of trusting sensitive information to many of the people Donald Trump is seeking to make chiefs of mission – and, should they refuse to divulge it, re-kindle the serious trouble between the Agency and Team Trump caused in the transition by the furore over the Russia dossier (see blog below). The rumour that ambassadorships were being offered to disbelieving talent scouts if they could deliver ‘great’ singers for the President-elect’s inauguration might have been fake news. So might the comical story that Sarah Palin is even now being seriously considered as Ambassador to Canada, as Canadians are fervently praying (if it’s true, Trump might as well follow the idea to its logical conclusion and just send a stuffed moose to Ottawa). But other dangerous candidates are only too serious. Among these is David Friedman – Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, whose experience has evidently given him no understanding of bankrupt foreign policies – who is close to Senate confirmation as new US Ambassador to Israel.
Post scripts: (1) During his visit to the White House in mid-February, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was assured that Sarah Palin would not be the next US ambassador at Ottawa, according to the Globe and Mail. (2) Friedman was confirmed by the Senate as US Ambassador to Israel on 23 March 2017 on a vote of 52 to 46. There is plenty of press comment on this controversial appointment.
Radical changes of government have in the past often led to tension between the new regime and at least some of the state’s diplomatic servants at foreign posts, even on occasion resulting in two envoys claiming to be the legitimate representative, as in the case of appointees by the Crown and the Commonwealth at Constantinople during the English civil war in the mid-seventeenth century. However, the scale of what has been described as a ‘major bureaucratic uprising’ on the part of American diplomats against President Trump’s contemptible and typically impetuous executive order on refugees seems without precedent. It takes the form of a cogently argued memo demolishing the White House order and is being circulated for signature among Foreign Service Officers (FSOs); it has reportedly already received the support of almost 1,000 of them. It is to be sent to the top echelons of the State Department via the ‘dissent channel’. I gather from the press coverage that more than one version is circulating but at least one of them can be read here. No doubt the memo will fall on deaf ears, for there is no more unconquerable arrogance than the arrogance of the ignorant. Team Trump’s reaction – already foreshadowed by its so-called ‘press secretary’ – will no doubt be to conduct a McCarthyite witch-hunt to identify and fire the courageous diplomats concerned, even though formally any users of the dissent channel are protected against reprisals.
Postscript: On the predictably low level of morale in the State Department as of early March 2017, see this much cited article in The Atlantic by Julia Ioffe.