Barder, Brian, Brian Barder’s Diplomatic Diary

Barder, Brian, Brian Barder’s Diplomatic DiaryBarder, Brian, Brian Barder’s Diplomatic Diary, ed. Louise Barder (privately published: London, 2019), pp. 307. Paperback ISBN 978-1-944066-29-1; hardback ISBN 978-1-944066-25-3. Available from Amazon, as well as other booksellers.

Sir Brian Barder, the senior British diplomat and author of the always sage and sometimes gripping What Diplomats Do, died in 2017 but, courtesy of the professional editorial hand of his daughter Louise, has left us another treat. This is what he called a diary and which for the most part has the form of a diary (dated daily entries), although originally it was a series of letters sent to friends from foreign parts. Compared to diplomatic memoirs, diplomatic diaries are a rarity. And since this one is the product of an acute observer who loved the English language and used it in a vigorous and creative style, the appearance of this volume is doubly welcome.

The diary does not cover Barder’s early career, which started in the Colonial Office in 1957, but begins when he arrived in Moscow in February 1971. In that important embassy he was first secretary political, number two to the head of chancery and also press attaché; in September, when his immediate boss went on leave, he became acting head of chancery and right-hand man of the ambassador just as the crisis began in Anglo-Soviet relations provoked by the expulsion of 105 Soviet intelligence officers from London (at almost 100 pages, the Moscow diary is the longest in the book). The next chapters deal with Australia in the mid-1970s, where he was counsellor head of chancery and a little over two years after his arrival faced the political crisis prompted by the sudden sacking of prime minister Gough Whitlam by the governor-general, who looked ‘as always like Mr Micawber, portly in morning coat and top hat, his thick snowy hair flowing out of it and setting off his florid petulant baby face, plum-coloured with tan or anger or both.’ There follow chapters covering an eleven month sabbatical in 1977-8 with the Canadian National Defence College while awaiting the outcome of a radical report on the Diplomatic Service; and finally all of his head of mission appointments bar the last one. These were in Ethiopia, where in the mid-1980s Barder substantially overlapped with an appalling famine that attracted world-wide attention; Poland, in the last years of its Communist regime; and Nigeria, stagnating under yet another military junta at the end of the 1980s. Were it not for the relative stability prevailing at the last two postings, Barder might have been thought of as a diplomatic storm crow.

As a diary not remotely composed with a view to providing a record for historians, this volume has obvious weaknesses from the scholar’s point of view. Diplomatic historians will lament that it contains little on the policy questions that Barder was involved in with his local interlocutors or advice given to London; area specialists on South Africa during the later apartheid years will regret that he kept no diary at all during his London postings, for he was head of Southern Africa Department in the FCO from 1978 until 1982 when the future of Namibia was in the balance; and harried scholars generally might be annoyed that the volume has no index. But for historians of diplomatic method, lovers of travel writing, students who wish for a companion volume to bring more colour and humour to the author’s What Diplomats Do, and finally for the many followers of the author’s well known blog who would like to know more about the man behind it, this book is a must. (The blog has been archived by the British Library because of its ‘high quality’.)

Barder did a vast amount of travelling while at his various posts, some for holiday with his wife Jane and their children but most on duty. And his descriptions of the landscapes and townscapes he saw are vivid and discerning; for example, Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) was ‘like a vast disintegrating museum: the great facades are crumbling as fast as the palace next door is restored, nothing is used for the purposes originally intended, the life-style of the society which camps out in all this baroque splendour is all at odds with its spirit, and the only new buildings are a desecration.’ The difficulties and occasional perils of travelling and finding accommodation, especially in the Soviet Union and Africa, also find much space in the diary and are often the targets of his dry wit. Typically self-deprecating, he refers at one point to the time when ‘diplomats were travellers rather than tourists’ but there are passages in this book which show that Barder did not always travel with the comfort and carefree attitude of the tourist. Even his Moscow flat was no paradise: ‘The cockroaches are drawn up in orderly ranks to receive us,’ he noted of his return to it on 10 May 1972.

What comes out with particular force from the diary is just what a huge, unvaried and often unappetising chore can be the representative work of a conscientious ambassador like Brian Barder. This is because – aside from information gathering and reporting and, in exceptional circumstances such as those in the Ethiopian famine, supporting a major aid mission – this is what the duty of travelling is all about. By April 1990, while in Nigeria, he was beginning to describe his official visits and courtesy calls as ‘identikit’ tours. ‘Much of the time,’ he records on 26 August 1989, ‘we were escorted by police cars with flashing lights and howling sirens, government protocol cars with protocol officials leaning out of the windows trying to bash passers-by with truncheons …’. Courtesy calls to traditional rulers also had a habit of ending on the same note, he wrote from Lagos in April 1990: ‘Your Excellency, it is a great honour and pleasure … my people are suffering from … because of our historic connexions we look to Britain … just a modest residential school complete with staff [would be very welcome]… before We wish Your Excellency Godspeed, hope We may seek your immediate intervention to settle a small problem over Our niece’s visa … .’ With the completion of one more tour inside Nigeria, he added to this entry, ‘we shall have visited and done our official calls in all 21 of the State capitals and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja’ – a sigh is almost audible. As generous as ever, however, he acknowledges an upside to his representational duties, not least in Nigeria: there were ‘also plenty of friendly and often impressive people to meet.’

While I have said that there is little in the diary for diplomatic historians, those with an interest in Anglo-Soviet relations will get from it the flavour of the atmosphere in the Moscow embassy in September and October 1971 when the sensational news was received about the 105 Soviet intelligence officers to be expelled from the UK. As acting head of chancery, Barder accompanied the ambassador, Sir John Killick – only just arrived in Moscow – to the Soviet Foreign Ministry during these weeks and also had to field a British press corps clamouring for information. He was relieved that he was not among those expelled from Moscow in retaliation, for it would have been ‘pretty disastrous financially, disruptive for the children, and generally unsettling’; besides, it would have been disagreeable to be treated ‘like a thing’ in a tit-for-tat exchange. There is far more detail on this affair here than in the transcript of Barder’s interview for the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme (BDOHP), instructive though this is on other stages in his career.

The diary is also illuminating on the pleasures as well as the trials an ambassador might find in accommodating streams of visitors from home, and on the trials devoid of pleasures in dealing with business and press moguls gate-crashing such tragedies as the Ethiopian famine.

This brings me finally to note a reflection made by the author in his Ethiopian diary of 19 April 1983 after he had described, almost with envy, the affection and respect reported to have been earned by a relief worker he had just encountered. ‘Not for the first time in one’s dealings with relief workers,’ he wrote, ‘diplomacy is made to seem a superficial, shallow, almost shameful occupation. Definitely not one of the caring professions, anyway.’ This is a clear echo of the outlook that ripened when he joined the Colonial Office in the Home Civil Service in 1957. Unique among Whitehall departments, this prided itself on putting the interests of colonial peoples before narrow British national interests. As Barder, a life-long socialist and for the greater part of his career a member of the Labour Party, explains in his BDOHP interview, it was only with reluctance that he switched to the Diplomatic Service in 1965 after the Colonial Office had been made obsolete by decolonization. He did not believe that diplomacy was truly a shameful occupation and his own career, much of which is illuminated by this diary, is eloquent testimony of the opposite. But the fact that he could muse on the idea shows just what a fundamentally decent and thoughtful man he was, as well as an outstanding diplomat. I strongly recommend this book.

Barder, Brian, Brian Barder’s Diplomatic Diary2019-12-11T17:04:29+00:00

Room for Diplomacy: The history of Britain’s diplomatic buildings overseas, 1800-2000

Room For Diplomacy: Britain's Diplomatic Buildings Overseas 1800-2000Mark Bertram, Room for Diplomacy: The history of Britain’s diplomatic buildings overseas, 1800-2000, 2nd ed. (Spire Books: Salisbury, 2017), pp. 479 incl. index, ISBN 978-1-904965-54-1

Mark Bertram joined the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works after reading architecture at Cambridge and remained in the civil service as architect, project manager, administrator, estate manager and – in his own words – ‘quasi diplomat’ for the next thirty years. He was the ministry’s regional architect in Hong Kong in the 1970s, moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when it secured control of its own buildings abroad (the ‘diplomatic estate’) in 1983, and was soon head of the estate department. On surrendering that role in 1997 he became a professional adviser to the FCO. He is therefore exceptionally well qualified to have written a book of this nature.

The structure of his work, which has 20 chapters, is a good blend of the thematic with the chronological: for example, ‘Chapter 4: Consulates 1850-1900’, and ‘Chapter 5: Legation Houses 1850-1900’; and ‘Chapter 13: New Commonwealth 1947-1983’, and ‘Chapter 14: Roles, Rules and Rations 1950-1970’. Its greater part consists of detailed descriptions of building types and individual buildings during different periods, together with accounts of the debates their planning prompted at home, some of them acrimonious. Interleaving most chapters, however, are illuminating discussions of the general questions prompted by the subject, and it is these that I found particularly interesting.

The first among these questions to mention because it helps to understand the others, even though it will probably be the one of least interest to students of diplomacy, is where in the government machine overall responsibility for the diplomatic estate should lie. In Britain, this rested from 1824 until 1983 with an already long-established government department responsible for all of central government’s public works (e.g. the British Museum), among which, therefore, the diplomatic estate was only one part; after the 1870s, the Foreign Office did not even have a budget allocation for the overseas estate for the forthcoming year. For most of this period the ministry with overall responsibility for diplomatic buildings abroad was known as the Office of Works, latterly as the Ministry of Works, then the Property Services Agency (PSA). It had its own architects, quantity surveyors, structural engineers, project managers, and so on. In 1983, this all changed when both the responsibility and the money were given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; accordingly, the title of the penultimate chapter of Bertram’s book is ‘Diplomats in Control’, with charge of 4,067 properties in 132 countries. The question is: Was this a good thing? The PSA thought that the diplomats would give insufficient attention to long-term value for money, while the diplomats believed that only they were able to give the right priority to the estate as ‘a tool of British diplomacy’ (p. 403) – and henceforward would be in a position to do so, while being determined to make it cost-effective. Provided a foreign ministry is held to account by a well-qualified select committee of a parliamentary assembly, I am sure that the author is right to support the diplomats’ view.

The second general question is how to acquire and hold property. Initially, envoys and consuls had to find and rent their own, in the last case sometimes – notably in nineteenth century China – even boats moored offshore. Subsequently, governments such as that of Britain assumed the responsibility but were then faced with the choice of whether to lease or purchase existing properties of promise – or build their own. Britain took its first steps in the last direction in the early nineteenth century. Bertram examines, too, a variant on leasehold that began to be exploited by the British in the early twentieth century in cities with ‘relatively sophisticated property expertise (p. 227).’ This was the ‘developer deal’, in which a developer agreed to provide an acceptable site and erect on it a building to an approved plan; in return, the government signed up to rent it for a fixed term of years, usually a long one. The British consulate-general building in Jakarta was erected on this basis at the beginning of the 1930s and continued to be leased by the government until 1981. The advantages and disadvantages of the various options in different circumstances are thoroughly considered.

The third question to arise when the government began to build embassies and consulates was how to design them. When the first resident embassies were established in the early modern period ambassadors and their companions (official and unofficial) lived and worked together in one house. In the British case, Bertram tells us, the growing demand for office space consequent upon the expansion in diplomatic responsibilities following the First World War led to a feeling in London that embassy offices should be lodged separately from the ambassador’s house: the offices (henceforward ‘the embassy’) in the business centre and the ambassador’s living accommodation and ‘machine for entertaining’ (henceforward ‘the residence’) in the cheaper and more spacious suburbs, with the corollary that separate accommodation also had to be offered to the other diplomatic staff. But to the extent that this change came fully to pass after the Second Wold War it was not accepted without stiff resistance by the senior diplomats, who argued that the old design was more efficient as well as more convenient and that, besides, civil servants in London did not grasp the prestige that attached to having one large building in a city centre. A downside to the separation of embassy from ambassadorial residence felt more strongly in London was that it ‘opened the way for more individualistic and transient enthusiasms to flourish on the part of incumbents’ in regard not just to furnishings of the residence but also to modifications to existing buildings and plans for any replacement. ‘The scope for altercations [with London],’ writes the author with feeling, ‘was endless’ (p. 326). Not least because incumbent ambassadors were likely to have left their residence for a new one before any major building works were completed and their successors might possibly have quite different ideas, London’s tolerance for their views had to be strictly limited.

Another question of design that caused tension was the extent to which the operational requirements of a new building should be moulded by stylistic considerations, whether with a view to making it blend into the local milieu or – more usually – project a desired image of the sending state. A related question was whether or not commissions should be awarded to high-profile private architects, who would probably be more difficult to control than those in government employ but might be expected to produce eye-catching results. Style did not begin to become a significant consideration until the late 1950s, when architectural anathemas were heaped on the ‘straight blocks’ to which the Ministry of Works had given birth after the Second World War. At this juncture, private architects were commissioned to design diplomatic buildings for the first time since, exceptionally, the famous Sir Edwin Lutyens had been employed to design the new embassy and residence in Washington, completed in 1930. But the experience of the Ministry of Works with the three projects concerned was not, says Bertram, a good one. Neither the new residence at Lagos by Lionel Brett, occupied in 1961, nor Basil Spence’s Rome Embassy, opened ten years later, were judged to have been operationally ideal by their occupants, and the design for a new embassy and residence at Brasilia by Peter and Alison Smithson was abandoned after a three-year struggle, in part because it was too ambitious and could not be afforded. Henceforward, the government took more care to appoint in-house architects with good track records, better match the professional strengths of private architects to the challenges of each project when commissioning, and tighten up project management.

A further question of design that caused difficulties for traditional reflexes as its importance increased in the last quarter of the twentieth century was how to modify existing buildings or build new ones with physical defence in mind: the question of what is now usually called ‘diplomatic security’. Unfortunately, although understandably, British practice in regard to the defence of diplomatic buildings against attack by terrorists or politically agitated mobs is a subject on which Mark Bertram is noticeably reticent. Nevertheless, here and there his book contains interesting asides on it. He says, for example, that the post-Second World War decision to build residences separately from embassies was later reinforced for reasons of security (p. 358), although he does not say why. Presumably this was chiefly to reduce the likelihood of harm falling to ambassadors and their families by virtue of living in buildings that not only needed to be open to the public but were also correctly assumed to be ‘nests of spies’. (This was a major reason for the notorious attack on and occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.)  He also mentions the security advantages of compounds in the Middle East and Asia, which ‘derived from the military cantonments of India’, and reminds us that they were also prompted with a view to providing a ‘healthy, communal, uncrowded, fairly self-sufficient living and working environment’ (pp. 87, 335) – points I had omitted to mention in my article ‘Diplomatic security and the birth of the compound system’ . He mentions more than once that secure or ‘classified’ offices were always placed on the top floor of buildings (p. 314), which is well-known. Further, during the Cold War, such very limited work as had to be done on British missions in Warsaw Pact countries was done by security-cleared personnel from the UK and all materials were UK-sourced and delivered by diplomatic bag (p. 258). And he gives a brief mention of the FCO’s 1985 security review, which ‘made proposals for relocating some [buildings in unsafe environments] and strengthening the defences of others in respect of site perimeters, gates and barriers, and glazing’ (p. 418). But that – apart from the account of the building of the new embassy in Moscow, opened in 2000, where measures designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping were the main security concern – is it as far as this subject is concerned.

With the reservations that there is – albeit understandably – too little on security and perhaps too much on the careers of individuals, Mark Bertram has written a book on his subject of unrivalled authority and with great clarity. Occasionally, too, a droll sense of humour shines through his text (‘It is an illusion to imagine that bureaucracy lessened in time of war: it just used smaller sheets of thinner paper’, pp. 232-3). The author is at ease with the diplomatic lexicon and provides just the right amount of political context. The book is also carefully sourced, with many references to documents located in The National Archives in London; and it has innumerable illustrations, a bibliography, and good analytical index. It is also supplemented by full descriptions and illustrations in a ‘Catalogue of British embassy and consulate buildings, 1800 – 2010’ on the Web which is freely available here. Room for Diplomacy is unique in accounts of British diplomacy and I cannot recommend it too strongly. The author’s publisher, Spire Books was dissolved in 2016, but it can still be obtained, most cheaply direct from the author via this page.

Room for Diplomacy: The history of Britain’s diplomatic buildings overseas, 1800-20002019-12-05T13:09:20+00:00

Diplomatic Notebooks 1, 1958-1960: The view from Ankara

Zeki Kuneralp, Diplomatic Notebooks 1, 1958-1960: The view from Ankara, ed. and introduced by Sinan Kuneralp (The Isis Press: Istanbul, 2018), ISBN 978-975-428-616-8/978-975-428-617-5, pp. 342, incl. name and analytical index. Publisher’s page

Zeki Kuneralp (1914-1998) was one of Turkey’s most gifted, well-liked and influential diplomats of the second half of the twentieth century. This book, dispassionately edited, introduced and annotated by his son, the scholar-publisher Sinan Kuneralp, is the first of a promised series of six volumes. Beginning in January 1958 and ending in August 1960, when Zeki Kuneralp became ambassador to Switzerland, it covers all but the first seven or eight months of the period when he was assistant secretary-general for political affairs in the Turkish foreign ministry in Ankara (in May 1960 he was elevated to secretary-general).

This volume consists mainly of notes taken by Kuneralp in his private meetings at the ministry with individual members of the Ankara diplomatic corps who called on him or whom – less frequently – he had summoned. But it also includes notes of encounters at the ministry with other foreign visitors, most of them important, and notes taken at meetings he attended where the Turkish principals were senior government figures. In the interests of clarity and accuracy, Kuneralp – who was fluent in English, French, German and Spanish, as well as Turkish – from 1959 onwards took his notes in the language used in the meetings. In the book, most are in English and those taken in Turkish are followed by square-bracketed translations into English; the introduction, footnotes and indexes are also in English.

For Turkey’s foreign relations, these were years dominated by questions concerning its role in the Western alliance systems, especially CENTO after the headquarters of the ‘Baghdad Pact’ were moved from Baghdad to Ankara following the overthrow in 1958 of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq by Kassem; the implications for the Middle East of Nasserist Arab nationalism, including how to react to the formation of the United Arab Republic, also in 1958; and the tangled and explosive Cyprus question, the diplomacy concerning which was gathering pace in these years. Any scholar interested in these subjects will find a wealth of primary source material of great interest in this volume. As for what it reveals about diplomacy itself, I was struck in particular by the degree to which Kuneralp’s meetings with ambassadors, chargé d’affaires, ministers (legation heads), counsellors and others were dominated by the trading of information on questions of common concern. Some of his visitors turned up at his office with great regularity and all pumped him for information, chiefly on what Turkey knew about particular developments in the region, what its attitude to them was, and what if any action it proposed to take. Depending on the visitor, he responded to such questions with more or less freedom – but invariably expected a quid pro quo. He required answers to the same sort of questions about their own countries intelligence and reactions, including assurances of their support for Turkish policy. Typical, as well as absorbing in its own right, were his exchanges with the Israeli chargéd’affaires, Moshe Alon, who on one occasion (16 October 1958) was accompanied by Reuven Shiloah, the founder of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Shiloah was roving ambassador and political adviser to the Israeli foreign minister, and originator and active promoter of the idea that Israel should leapfrog its Arab enemies and seek strategic alliances with the non-Arab states on the perimeter of the Middle East such as Iran, Ethiopia – and Turkey. Between January 1958 and 20 August 1960, Alon and Kuneralp had 41 meetings, all of which are fully recorded in this volume.

Diplomatic Notebooks 1 is a highly unusual book. It bears no resemblance whatever to the common diplomatic memoir; nor is it, despite the similarity of its formatting, a diary, for as the Editor says, ‘the human aspect is absent’. This calls to mind the contrast with Harold Nicolson’s justly famous diaries, written with wit and elegance, and containing many insights into the personalities of the great politicians and diplomats of his day as well as his own family life and personal ambitions. But the contents of Diplomatic Notebooks 1were not written with such ends in view. They were composed by Zeki Kuneralp simply as aids to an accurate memory of his official meetings, essentially as personal ‘minutes’, and – being carefully dated, full and yet succinct – they provide an invaluable resource for both the international historian and the historian of diplomacy. I recommend this book most strongly and look forward very much to the following volumes.

Diplomatic Notebooks 1, 1958-1960: The view from Ankara2019-10-14T20:28:33+01:00

The Summer Capitals of Europe, 1814-1919

(Routledge, 2017), 342pp (incl. index). ISBN: 978-0-415-79245- (hbk); 978-1-315-21170-1 (ebk)

This is an original work, meticulously researched, rich in detail, and written in a clear and – here and there – refreshingly pungent style. Soroka is a Russian scholar but at ease in English.

The Summer Capitals begins with over 100 pages devoted to a detailed description of the spa towns of Europe in the nineteenth century: where they were, what ‘cures’ and accompanying facilities they offered (including daily routines and the special characteristics of their water), who patronised them, why they multiplied, and how and why their character changed – from inaccessible, rustic, medicinal retreats providing bizarre regimes and awful food to sophisticated resorts like Baden-Baden, Biarritz, Carlsbad, Ems, Gastein, Homburg, Monte Carlo, and Plombières, with luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, concert halls, cocottes and gigolos, casinos, racetracks and other entertainments, together with stations for the new railway trains. For the developed spa in the middle and later decades of the century, the cures they offered were still usually taken but for many of their patrons they were not the chief reason for their visits. And it is in these individuals – especially monarchs (often incognito), government ministers and diplomats – that the author is mainly interested in the second part of her book, which is called simply ‘Business of Europe’. Here, she gives much attention to the political purposes behind the spa visits of the Russian czars, Metternich, Bismarck, Napoleon III, Iswolsky, Cavour, Gorchakov, Salisbury, Hardinge, William I, Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and Sazonov, among many other important figures.

Spa cures are shown by the author to have provided excellent cover for informal diplomacy; in fact, in the second half of the nineteenth century there was probably none better. They were the height of fashion, so members of the European aristocratic class were expected to take them regularly; anyone who counted could therefore be met discreetly at a spa and as if ‘by chance’ (p. 133). The opportunities for such encounters – contrived or otherwise – were the greater because there were so many spas to choose from and because in the summer and early autumn (winter on the Riviera) cures usually lasted for weeks and were often repeated annually. The spas were also readily accessible for the rich, even from St Petersburg, and provided an abundance of suitable accommodation. And, like all settings for informal diplomacy, they exposed the participants to fewer risks of unwanted publicity and time-wasting protocol than the more formal gatherings of the great powers of Europe. The result of these many assets was that in quiet times the spas were ‘valuable places for gathering and exchanging information and for various European leaders to get to know each other’ (p. 318). And at critical junctures, as in the case of those occurring during the complex and dangerous preliminaries to the unification of Italy and Germany, when the usual diplomatic channels could be too slow and unreliable, they provided opportunities to seek or confirm alliances and warn or put out peace feelers to potential enemies. It was at such times, argues the author, that ‘the value of spas as diplomatic centres peaked’ (p. 318). But at all times, as she adds, spas were safe places to start diplomatic rumours because, with so many statesmen in residence, ‘it would be almost impossible to trace it to the source’ (p. 11). And they were also useful to monarchs who wished to deal with their foreign counterparts without the constraining attendance of their ministers.

The spas were more or less finished off as cloaks for informal diplomacy by the First World War and when one considers what has been going on at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s plush bolt-hole in Florida, it is probably just as well. It is in fact difficult to think of diplomatic settings in the modern world analogous to those of the nineteenth century spas of Europe, especially for high-level meetings between the representatives of unfriendly states. The annual opening of the UN General Assembly each September has similarities but it provides no ‘cover’ story and is in any case soon over. There is, I suppose, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, but this provides no cloak either and is similarly brief. Both of these settings are also the focus of great media attention. Other than the super yachts and private islands of the super-rich, the nearest parallel is perhaps provided by the funerals of heads of state and government, about which I have written elsewhere. These ‘working funerals’ might be irregular as well as lasting for no more than a few days but at least they provide a genuine cover and are of proven diplomatic value.

Marina Soroka’s book will perhaps be of more interest to international historians than to historians of diplomacy, although – as I hope will by now be evident – it contains food for thought for the latter as well. International historians will be better judges of the impact of spa diplomacy on nineteenth century events but I think she makes a strong case. The structure of some of the chapters is a little meandering but other than that I cannot fault it. I regard it as a first-rate contribution to the diplomatic methods of the 100 years before the First World War.

Post script: Sinan Kuneralp (Isis Press, Istanbul) has just pointed out to me that the title of this book is a ‘bit misleading’ because it could be taken to be a reference to ‘official’ summer capitals; that is, those to which in a few states the government itself (together with the diplomatic corps) would retreat in the summer. He gave me the example of San Sebastian in Spain. However, I’m not aware of any other European states where, in the age before air conditioning and refrigeration, summers were so hot that governments moved elsewhere altogether – as opposed to going partly on holiday – in that season.

The Summer Capitals of Europe, 1814-19192019-10-14T20:28:36+01:00

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.

Curing the Sick Man: Sir Henry Bulwer and the Ottoman Empire, 1858-18652019-10-14T20:28:36+01:00

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.

The Embassy: A story of war and diplomacy2019-10-14T20:28:39+01:00

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.

Diplomatic Interference and the Law2019-10-14T20:28:40+01:00

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.

John le Carré: The Biography2019-10-14T20:28:41+01:00

Back Channel to Cuba: The hidden history of negotiations between Washington and Havana

(The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2014), 524pp. incl. index. ISBN 978-I-4696-1763-3 (cloth); ISBN 978-I-4696-1764-0 (ebook)

This book went to press after the much-publicised handshake between US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December 2013 – but before their historic, simultaneous announcements a year later, assisted by a prisoner exchange and the good offices of the Vatican, that they were resolved to end their 50 years of estrangement and normalise relations. In one way, it was cruel luck for the authors because this is what they had convincingly argued for, and – missing the denouement – their book ends on a note of disappointment with President Obama. But in another way it was a stroke of good fortune because the eye-catching announcements of December 2014 threw a sharp spotlight on Cuban-American relations and made their work essential reading. So authoritative and persuasive is it, moreover, that it is hard to rule out the possibility that in a small way it contributed to this development.

The authors have excellent credentials: William M. LeoGrande is a long-established academic authority on Cuba, while Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, where he is the director of its Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that their book is exhaustively researched and carefully documented. Its structure is remorselessly narrative, with each chapter – beginning with Eisenhower – turning on relations with Cuba during individual US presidencies, except that those of ‘Nixon and Ford’ and ‘Reagan and [George H. W.] Bush’ are grouped together. This plan, it is true, leads to a considerable amount of repetition on the subject of US gambits towards Cuba and the responses to them of the Castro brothers, most of which seem to have varied only by degrees from one administration to the next, but it is a small price to pay for the way the detail stiffens the argument. What is it?

US policy towards Communist Cuba was designed during the Cold War to bring to an end Havana’s alignment with the Soviet Union and support for revolution in Latin America, and thereafter – during the ‘War on Terror’ – simply to get rid of its ‘terrorist’-listed government. What LeoGrande and Kornbluh particularly take issue with, however, are the methods employed in pursuit of this policy: economic embargo, subversion (aka ‘democracy promotion’), an escalating propaganda assault, and diplomatic duplicity. Sustained only by ideologues in successive administrations and fear of the powerful Cuban-American community (with its control of key votes in Florida), these methods were always likely to founder on Cuban patriotic sentiment (which they merely stimulated), the wiliness of the Castros, and the valuable sources of support on which they were able to rely in the outside world – not least in Latin America. And despite being tried for half a century, fail they did; in the process, exposing the limits of Washington’s influence in its own backyard, creating significant difficulties for it within the OAS, and making seriously problematic the cultivation of the interests which both American and Cuban governments admitted they shared. The last of these points is given special emphasis in this book, for these interests were many and important, among them properly regulated emigration from Cuba to the United States, counter-narcotics liaison, hurricane prediction, environmental protection, and – irony of irony – counter-terrorist cooperation, which included tackling air piracy. And it was in large part these common interests that encouraged what LeoGrande and Kornbluh call the ‘back-channel’ diplomacy between Washington and Havana, and which Cuba at any rate hoped might provide a cover for discussion of more sensitive subjects and, step-by-step, lead eventually to a broader rapprochement of the kind achieved in the 1970s between the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Students of diplomacy will find the greatest interest in this book in its account of the various forms taken by this ‘back-channel’, although I must say at once that use of the term ‘back-channel’ in the context of Cuban-American relations is a little misleading. After all, a back-channel presupposes a ‘front channel’, as in the classic case of Soviet-American arms control negotiations in the Nixon-Kissinger era that popularized the term, and there was of course no front channel in Cuban-American relations. A back-channel also suggests intense secrecy and, while much Cuban-American diplomacy was well concealed, much was not. This said, we all know what the authors are getting at: it was a diplomacy featuring in great and surprising abundance all of the techniques employed by states not in diplomatic relations that nevertheless wish to have constructive discussions and even make agreements. Thus special envoys of every sort were employed at all levels: among those with official status, intelligence officers; and among unofficial envoys, businessmen and journalists. The ease of making discreet contact with the permanent high-ranking Cuban mission to the UN in New York was also regularly exploited by the Americans. The frequent offers of assistance by third parties – notably Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland and Canada – were sometimes taken up as well, although the need for them appears not to have been strongly felt and, when this occurred, their activities seem to have been limited chiefly to the provision of good offices as compared to the more interventionist role of mediator. Most significantly perhaps, beginning with the Carter administration in the late 1970s, large interests sections were established under protecting powers in Havana and Washington, although the behaviour of USINT in the Cuban capital during the George W. Bush presidency – especially in 2002-2005 under the cowboy Foreign Service Officer Jim Cason (now a Florida mayor, surprise, surprise) – was openly subversive and, therefore, in flagrant contravention of diplomatic law. (Cason boasts about this in his ADST oral history interview How his supine nominal chief, the Swiss ambassador, lived with all this I cannot imagine.) Not interested in diplomatic method as such, LeoGrande and Kornbluh offer no general thoughts as to which of these devices was most effective in contributing to the ‘back-channel’ to Cuba. With the notable exception just noted, they all seem to have prodded it forward in different ways.

As well as providing rich material on how enemies talk to each other, Back Channel to Cuba provides evidence on other important points of interest to students of diplomacy. I shall pick out just two. One of these is ‘diplomatic support’ by intelligence officers, about which I write in the new chapter on ‘Secret Intelligence’ in the soon-to-appear 5th edition of my textbook, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice and on which evidence is naturally difficult to obtain. Another is the employment during the Carter administration of the characteristic diplomatic method of Ancient Greece; namely, delegations composed of representatives of different political factions or what Harold Nicolson called with disgust ‘mixed embassies’. Fed up with the contrasting visions of Cuba policy of the National Security Council and the State Department, and more especially with the bitter rivalry of their chiefs for its control, President Carter ordered the representatives of both agencies to be stuffed into the US delegation for talks with Cuba (pp. 189-94). Nicolson would have been aghast at this and not at all surprised that it failed; but his judgement on the Greek method was one-sided. Progress with the Cubans by a State Department-only delegation would have been useless if scuppered by the NSC afterwards.

I’m not sure that presenting the conclusion to this book as a list of numbered ‘lessons’ was a good idea: it tends to suggest that all are of equal importance, and there also seems to be overlap between a few, notably those dealing with step-by-step diplomacy. But the work is richly detailed, important and absorbing, and I read every line of it. It really is salutary just to what extent even the presidents most hostile to Communist Cuba were forced to negotiate with its government. The book also has a very good bibliography and – thank goodness – a pretty good index.

Back Channel to Cuba: The hidden history of negotiations between Washington and Havana2019-10-14T20:28:41+01:00
Go to Top