When States Change Shape

Posted by Kenneth Weisbrode in New Diplomatic History Blog · Comments ( 0 )

These days when columnists announce the beginning of a new thirty years’ war in the Middle East, the redrawing of the Sykes-Picot map, and even the anticipated departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom, it is worth asking about the diplomatic implications.

Where do diplomats fit in the history of border and boundary changes, state breakups, secession, unification? Diplomacy is usually depicted as the handmaiden of such changes—that is, helping to make them peaceful, or otherwise coping with the aftermath.

What of their effects upon diplomats and the diplomatic profession? What happened to the embassy, for example, when an ambassador to the Soviet Union suddenly became accredited to several new “independent” republics? Or when Czechoslovakia or Sudan split in two and sister embassies had to be established; or one embassy had to mediate a division of interests between two states? Were diplomats more the objects or the agents of change? In what particular ways did they condition it? How were the ways themselves conditioned?

It is tempting to start by drawing typologies. For example, there is a literature that examines the relationship between diplomacy and size. These are more or less synchronic studies. There is less written on the diachronic effect of territorial redefinition upon diplomacy.

There are a couple of possible avenues for pursuing it. One is the long standing interest, especially in the history of borders, boundaries and borderlands, in the role of “local diplomacy” in large, loosely governed territories that gradually consolidate. Another is the growing attention to the regrouping of foreign representation, especially in a regional manner that claims to be self-consciously “post-Westphalian.” In 2010 the Swedish foreign ministry announced that it would close five of its embassies in the EU and instead rely upon roving emissaries whose home base became Stockholm. Redrawing bureaucratic maps—pragmatically or otherwise—is not exclusively an EU phenomenon. The United States’ European Command (EUCOM) found dealing with several dozen national governments across Europe, Eurasia and Africa to be too big of a burden. So it divided its responsibilities by sub-region. The job became much easier, and has inspired a further, even more ambitious effort at reorganization.

Political scientists have begun to look harder at these subjects. Diplomatic historians also could have much to contribute to understanding what happens when states change shape.

The Courtiers of Civilization

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Sasson Sofer has written a superb primer on the history and mission of modern diplomacy. It is a short book that can be read in a single sitting, its subject’s vast scope notwithstanding.

Sofer has traced diplomacy from its antecedents in the Near East (with the briefest of nods to practices elsewhere—China & India, for example) before a discussion of modern Western diplomacy as it evolved from the Byzantines to the Venetians and then to the rest of Europe. The story is a familiar one to specialists, though probably not to most present-day professional diplomats or to the general public. All three groups of readers would benefit from the succinct description and categorization which go beyond the two branches of diplomacy named by Harold Nicolson: the mercantile and the heroic. Sofer has identified four traditions: the realist, the integrative, the institutional and the inclusive. He describes them through the words of their best known chroniclers, from Machiavelli, Commynes and Richelieu to Callières and Satow as well as Nicolson (17-18).

As useful as this primer is for students of international relations, its main value, I think, comes from the musings about the roles and identities of diplomats that are scattered throughout the book, especially in its latter half.  Members of NNDH will appreciate Sofer’s emphasis on diplomacy as “a way of life” whose study requires a “pluralistic approach” to the relevance of “the concepts of social distance and estrangement” (xi.) His own choice of “courtier” uses the term in its active sense: diplomats are handmaidens, attendants, servants to their sovereigns and courts, but are also bulwarks of civilization itself, “messenger[s] of an ethically redeeming mission” (xiii). That is, “the good diplomat is the courtier of civilization by being a symbol of peace, a custodian of public virtues, and the flag bearer of the practices of a functional and civilized international society” (55).

Sofer’s short study provides a nice antidote to the widespread mischaracterization of civilization as Kultur, thanks to the self-fulfilling acts of conceptual vandalism by the late Samuel Huntington and others after the end of the Cold War. To Sofer there are not multiple civilizations in conflict with one another (and, by implication, with few intermediaries or common interests) but a single civilization that is greater than the sum of parts whose movements are managed by diplomatic professionals. Just as it is common to misconstrue the meaning of civilization, it is the curse of diplomacy to be reduced to caricature. “Diplomats’ political weakness, but also the fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of diplomacy, impede and hamper their ability to be efficient moral agents of international society” (ix).

This small book goes far in ameliorating that condition. It deserves a wide audience.

NDH at the American Historical Association

Posted by Kenneth Weisbrode in New Diplomatic History Announcements, New Diplomatic History Blog · Comments ( 0 )

Network members and others who may be at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. are encouraged to attend the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s panel, which will explore aspects of diplomacy in light of global history. All are welcome:

The Intersections of Global and Diplomatic History

Toynbee Prize Foundation
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Chair: David Ekbladh, Tufts University
The Age of Complexity: America and the “New Era” of Transatlantic Relations in the 1970s
Ariane Leendertz, Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung

Geneva: Conference or Summit?

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Spectators to the drama unfolding in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program are asking if and when a “deal” will emerge. The purported deal is only an “interim” one that suspends some sanctions in return for a partial commitment by Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. This is similar to other temporary arrangements, namely the 1994 “agreed framework” with North Korea.

The interesting aspect for historians in this Iranian case, unlike the Korean one back in 1994, is that the negotiations are multilateral and have twice in recent weeks risen to the foreign minister level. The form of these negotiations falls somewhere between the “summit” of the latter twentieth century and the ministerial conferences that took place before and after the war. With a few notable exceptions, most summits (but not conferences) were held to seal deals that had already been hammered out ahead. This presumption may have been responsible for the surprise of many commentators to the breakdown of the Iranian talks earlier this month: the US Secretary of State flew in for what appeared to be a final public endorsement. When this did not happen, it was even more surprising to see fingers pointed at his negotiating partner, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, for scuttling it. Now ministers are explaining their presence by the difficulty of the talks, not by their imminent resolution. Evidently the model here is not the summit. But we probably have to go back to the Geneva conference of 1954 to find a multilateral precedent for provisional solutions deadlocked at so high a level: in that case, over Korea, before the ministers turned their attention to Indochina.

If these Iranian talks succeed, even in the short-term, some people may say that they represent a triumph of multilateralism—or, more precisely, a reinvented form of conference diplomacy. If they fail, a search for alternatives to multilateralism will probably begin. But there are not many old alternatives left.

First Conference Report

Posted by Kenneth Weisbrode in New Diplomatic History Blog · Comments ( 0 )

by Giles Scott-Smith

Conference Report

Reframing Diplomacy: New Diplomatic History in the Benelux and Beyond

On 6-7 September the network’s first general conference was held at Leiden University in the Netherlands. There were several goals for the conference, aside from the priority of bringing the network membership together for the first time. Firstly, the Institute of History at Leiden possesses other research clusters examining the role of diplomatic practice in the early modern period, and the conference would connect these streams with research on the modern era. Secondly, the aim was to mix recent trends in Belgian and Dutch diplomatic research in order to promote a cross-fertilisation of project agendas and methodologies. Thirdly, and more loosely, there was the wish to use the event to judge the scale of the field internationally and to what extent its various research strands overlap or diverge.

The conference opened with a keynote lecture by Klaus Kiran Patel (Maastricht University) entitled ‘Unofficial Diplomacy and the New Deal: America’s Global History during the 1930s’. Using Babe Ruth’s Japan tour of 1934 as his starting point, Patel identified four broad areas where diplomatic history can be understood from a ‘new’ perspective: ‘scaffolding’ (official diplomacy sets out the framework for private actors); ‘duplicating’ (simultaneous use of formal and informal diplomatic channels); ‘uploading’ (domestic policy-making as basis for international engagement); ‘role modelling’ (impact of smaller states in specific sectors); and ‘spearheading’ (vanguard role of non-state actors). Patel denied that there was any one particular ‘new’ to be found in new diplomatic history – the new was exactly to be found in the multiplicity of approaches now collecting under an expanded diplomatic heading. The conference fully reflected this few.

Over the ensuing two days, a total of forty-three papers were given in fifteen panels by speakers representing universities from ten different countries. In terms of periodisation, the scope of the papers ranged from the late nineteenth century up to recent studies on multilateralism in the European Union. Six important themes could be identified from the conference.

Firstly, several speakers examined the important role of private individuals, organisations, and businesses acting as mediators, go-betweens, and vectors for making ideas and causes travel across borders. Ann Marie Wilson (Leiden University) spoke of the role of American womens’ organisations as transatlantic humanitarian activists, and Anne-Isabelle Richard (Leiden University) highlighted the impact of the League of Nations’ Societies. Samuël Kruizinga (University of Amsterdam) covered the trade activities of the Netherlands Overseas Trust Company during the First World War, where economic interests cut across the wartime diplomatic landscape. Similarly, Michael Jonas (Helmut-Schmidt-University, Hamburg) highlighted the problematic nature of ‘private diplomacy’ between Sweden and Germany during the same period, demonstrating the resistance of the official diplomatic apparatus to outside efforts at mediation. The importance of sport as a medium through which national identity could be built in Asia was also covered (Stefan Hübner, Bundeswehr University, Munich / Jacobs University, Bremen).

Secondly, there were a group of papers that delved into the identity of diplomats and the protocol of diplomatic practice in different settings. Andreas Rathberger (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Houssine Alloul (University of Antwerp) both looked at the specific setting of the late Ottoman Empire as an example of how diplomatic practices had to adapt to cultural context. Michael Auwers (University of Antwerp) questioned the social and cultural assumptions of ‘becoming a diplomat’ in late nineteenth century. Daniëlle de Vooght (Free University, Brussels) raised the issue of ‘culinary diplomacy’ in the context of the high-level protocol of prestigious diplomatic encounters.

Thirdly, several papers covered the role of individuals as self-styled peace-makers, cultural ambassadors, or Cold War intriguers. These set the activities of Thomas Mann (Ken Marcus, University of La Verne, Los Angeles), Leonard Bernstein (Jonathan Rosenberg, Hunter College, New York), and Dutch journalist Sal Tas (Tity de Vries, Groningen University) as cross-cultural messengers within the wider political context of the times. Others covered the private interventions of Normal Cousins (Allen Pietrobon, American University) and Ernst van Eeghen (Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University) and their efforts to broker superpower deals on nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1980s respectively, and the often behind-the-scenes influence of figures such as Ernst van der Beugel (Albertine Bloemendal, Leiden University) and Jean Violet (Johannes Grossmann, University of Tübingen). All of these figures had their own particular agendas, and were either assisted (Mann, Bernstein, Cousins) or hindered (van Eeghen) in their efforts by the official diplomatic machinery.

Fourthly, there was plenty of attention for transnational actors and their ability to impact on policy-making, their importance for blurring the official / unofficial divide in the policy-making process itself, and their significance in terms of developing linkages of resistance. Jean Monnet was a prime example of this second approach, both through his Action Committee for a United Europe (Thomas Gijswijt, University of Tübingen) and his significant presence in transatlantic circuits of expertise (Mathieu Segers, Utrecht University). Other papers focused on the influence of Amnesty International on human rights policy (Sara Lamberti Moneta, University of Trento) and the developing networks of environmental NGOs in the 1970s (Jan-Henrik Meyer, Ludwig-Maximillian-University, Munich). Another group of papers considered the importance of transnational activism as a particular phenomenon in the context of El Salvador (Aaron Bell, American University), Cuba (Kim Christiaens, University of Leuven), and West European communist parties in the 1960s and 1970s (Alessandro Brogi, University of Arkansas).

Fifthly, the re-examination of traditional diplomacy was carried out through specific studies of prominent diplomats and ambassadors, and the tracking of how diplomatic systems themselves adapted to a changing global environment during the twentieth century. These papers covered developments in Spain (Carlos Sanz, University of Madrid), Belgium (Bertrand Herremans, CEESAG, and Vincent Delcorps, University of Leuven), the Netherlands (Rinko van der Maar, Utrecht University, and Johan van Merrienboer, Radboud University Nijmegen), the United States (David Woolner, FERI / Bard College, and Simon Rofe, SOAS), Norway (Haakon Ikonomou, EUI Florence), India (Amit Das Gupta, Jacobs University, Bremen) and Latin America (Roberto Duran, Catholic Univesity of Chile). There was also special attention for the impact of the European Union on the evolving understanding of diplomatic practice (Alexander Reinfeldt, University of Hamburg).

Lastly, there was a set of papers dealing with the theoretical implications of new diplomatic history, in terms of methodology and subject-matter. This was an eclectic group, ranging from the relevance of economic and technological expertise (Laurence Badel, University of Paris 1, Leonard Laborie, CNRS Paris, and David Burigana, University of Padova) and business diplomacy (Jennifer Kesteleyn, University of Ghent), to the application of prosopography and ‘collective biographies’ for a study of the CSCE negotiations (Angela Romano, LSE, and Martin Brown, Richmond American International University), the relevance of international history for studying public diplomacy (Frank Gerits, EUI Florence), paradiplomacy (Mariano Alvarez, Leiden University), and the obstacles faced in conducting a multinational, multi-organisational study of the Inter-American Highway (Jorrit van den Berk, Radboud University Nijmegen).

The scope of the conference was therefore broad, but not so broad as to be chaotic. The goal was not to set out a strict outline for what is and is not new diplomatic history, but to gauge its richness and its extent. As the six themes above demonstrate, it represents a clear set of research sub-fields, with many already working along similar lines and with corresponding approaches. The conference was useful for illustrating these sub-fields more clearly, and for setting up possible correspondence between them. In this way it is to be hoped that the event also fuelled the recognition of the value of new diplomatic history, not as a passing fad but as an identifiable label that attracts an increasing number of scholars from across the humanities and the social sciences. Of course, the question will remain to what extent it is necessary to designate a ‘new diplomatic history’ in a time when diplomatic history is anyway changing as a discipline. One answer is simply that it is healthy for debate to occasionally push for the renewal and reconsideration of methodological concepts and research patterns. This keeps the door open for new approaches and is valuable for maintaining a fresh, vibrant discipline. The enthusiasm and diversity of the Leiden conference demonstrated that many feel the same way. A follow-up conference for the network is planned to take place at the University of Turku, Finland, in 2015.

Giles Scott-Smith (Roosevelt Study Center / Leiden University)

Nation-states and their enemies

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The voguish appeal of anti-nationalism is one of those things that won’t go away. Students of diplomatic history ought to relish it. The regular appearance of grand theorists touting the end of the nation-state forces more serious thinkers to revisit realities, including the categories that we need to understand the world.

Nations and nationalism are certainly alive and well. No empiricist would deny that. Nor would an empiricist—unlike many social-scientists calling themselves realists—deny that today’s world is very different from the one of the middle nineteenth century, or the middle twentieth, which both saw a peak of nationalist sentiment.

That both periods also saw counter- even anti-nationalist forces, and both supra- and sub-national manifestations of them, does not detract from the enduring power of nationalism. It has generally been an exclusionary but almost never an exclusive historical agent. How else to explain Kosovo in the 1990s, or the millions of Egyptian flags being waved in the streets of Cairo in 2011?

The ambivalence over the state of nationalism affects our understanding of diplomacy. We know that modern diplomacy began in the accommodation of previous imperial methods and practices—Roman, Byzantine, etc.—to the realities of Italian city-states in the early Renaissance. City-state diplomacy has never really gone away and, according to some, may be staging a kind of comeback. Much of the rhetoric of this trend may be anti-national but the reality is different. Few movements succeed in the real world without accommodating themselves to pre-existing methods and structures, including national ones. This is the principal lesson of the “success” of Europeanism in the middle to late 20th century.

The job of diplomacy is to make them all work together, somehow. It would be so much easier to declare the nation-state and its nationalist trappings dead and gone.

Long live the nation-state.

Diplomatic figures

Posted by louisclerc in New Diplomatic History Blog · Comments ( 1 )

Not to turn this blog into a series of obituaries, but two fascinating diplomatic figures have died recently. One of them is probably known of this blog’s readership: the French Stéphane Hessel, who passed away late February; the other certainly less so: the Finn Max Jakobson, who died on March 9th.

These two figures had a lot in common. They were both classical examples of a specific type of diplomat: the multilingual, cosmopolitan, worldly man of words and networks. Both were gifted with great intelligence and fascinating public personalities: while there was an endearing, youthful petulance to Hessel, Jakobson carried himself with, in turn, brooding elegance or the sort of British “service with a smile”-attitude one would expect from someone raised in 1950s London. Both were good writers, and had had full, tortuous lives between borders and languages. Jakobson was born in Viipuri to a Jewish family, before the city became a part of the USSR in the aftermath of World War II. His life unfolded between Helsinki, London and the US, first as a journalist and foreign correspondent, then as a Finnish diplomat, finally as a public intellectual, writer, and the head of a business lobby group, EVA. In 1960s-1970s Finland, he was surprisingly cosmopolitan and unabashedly capitalist. The life of Berlin-born Hessel was an even more bewildering maze of people, places, countries, religions. With a father of Jewish origins and a protestant mother, he had grown between Germany and France, settling in France and to an eventful life between World War II and a post-war career in the French diplomatic services. Both worked in the UN: Hessel in the late 1940s as a modest “errand boy” (his terms); Jakobson in the late 1960s as Finland’s permanent representative.

Hessel was known in France by those with an interest in public affairs, but he came to a wider fame in his later years, with the publication in 2010 of his pamphlet Indignez-vous! (translated in English as Time for outrage!).  The retired diplomat, resistance fighter, death camp survivor, became the grand old man of engagement against injustice, the elegant and soft-spoken godfather of all indignados. Notwithstanding the merits and defaults of this short text, it gave one the occasion to dig deeper into the man’s life and listen to what he had to say about his diplomatic work. France Culture, an operation of the French public radio broadcaster Radio France, did part of the job by re-running a series of interviews Hessel did in 1988 with the journalist Bernard Pingaud. In the second installment of the series, Hessel comes back on the first years of the UN with great candor, and I noted at least two things. First, he insisted on the enthusiasm and energy that characterized the early years of the organization. Hessel describes an unlikely cast of all nationalities, trades and ways of life gathered in New York around the conviction that a new international environment was in the making, that would topple down the old states. For a young French diplomat who had fought in the resistance, New York was one of the obvious places to be, and the UN was a calling. Hessel describes the role of jurists like René Cassin, political figures like Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom he has no compliments strong enough) and others. But, and this is the second thing, the disillusion was quick, and Hessel’s decision in 1951 to ask his transfer to Paris comes from this disappointment. The resilience of the nation-states, he concludes, forced those who stayed, the “international civil servants”, “to feel happiness when anything, however small, succeeds – because they see modest steps towards an international society in even the smallest things, born after the most gruesome debates, through the most difficult compromises.” This part of the interview is a fascinating dive in the mind of  “multilateral diplomats”.

One would never associate Jakobson with this kind of elated hopes and enthusiasm. If he worked also in the UN, he was there always very clearly as Finland’s representative, and as a cold warrior born and bred, was always more tuned to the thoughts of a Henry Kissinger or a Raymond Aron. He also shared with those two the same taste for elegant, witty writing, dry humor, and the slight sneer of those who are always right – and, of course, he was often right.

If Hessel brings us something on multilateral diplomacy and the interesting world of the early UN, Jakobson’s story is a fascinating dip in the meanders of Finland’s foreign relations, political life, and “national image management” during the Cold War. After starting his career in London as a journalist, Jakobson joined the Finnish foreign service as a press attache, then in the late 1950s as the main responsible for Finland’s public diplomacy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the head of the Ministry’s Press and Culture Bureau from 1953 to 1962, then moved up the ladder to the Political Department, the UN as a permanent representative (1965-1971) and Stockholm as an ambassador. In all these posts he followed the lead of Ralph Enckell, one of the grand old men of Finland’s diplomacy in these years. Following Enckell, Jakobson became one of the most influential diplomat in Urho Kekkonen‘s Finland, and a master in the strange games of Finland’s “neutrality in the shadow of power” (to quote from George Maude). Jakobson’s writings over the year do give a good idea of his vision for Finland’s foreign policy. His book on the 1939-1940 Winter War works as a fine entry point in this vision, where Jakobson chastised the Finnish 1930s leadership’s “idealism”, insisted on Finland’s loneliness during the conflict (he would continue to write on Finland as the “lone wolf” of European politics), and advocated a policy of balance between West and East, devoid of grandstanding but conscious of the realities of Finland’s geographical position.

But in the frame of this blog, what makes Jakobson stands out is his activity as an indefatigable, proficient and clever propagandist of Finland’s foreign policy towards foreign and especially Anglo-Saxon audiences. Finnish neutrality during the Cold War had two parts: convincing the East, and convincing the West. Convincing the West, explaining the position of Finland to Anglo-Saxon audiences, journalists, academic, was an important part of what Jakobson did during his career – both in public service and after his diplomatic career ended. Publishing, chaperoning foreign visitors to Finland, providing information to the likes of Stanford University’s Anatole Mazour, reacting to anything written on Finland by foreigners were just some of the activities through which Jakobson worked to spread certain notions on Finland’s foreign policy. He did that naturally as a diplomat, but he continued to do it as a private citizen and as the head of EVA. For many foreigners showing an interest in Finland, the first stop during fact-finding trips to Helsinki was in Max Jakobson’s office. In the small confines of Finland’s public life, marked by a strong sense of common purpose despite differences in visions and interests, participation in this “national” work came naturally. Jakobson’s skillset was also precious, and he is a good example of a series of Finnish figures standing between the private and the public, working from the aisles, especially in contacts with foreigners, “on behalf of Finland” (Suomen asialla). While most studies on Cold War Finland have concentrated on the guys at the top, Kekkonen and his inner circle dealing with the Soviet top brass, the activities of someone like Jakobson was extremely important as well. For anyone from France, the US, or Britain, starting academic research or writing journalistic pieces on Finland in the 1950s-1960s, peoples like Jakobson, Keijo Korhonen and the like were obvious and practical points of contact with a little-known country nobody cared about. Their visions pervaded books, articles and publications, and contributed to make up “what was known” about Finland.


The Inventor of Diplomacy is Dead

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Allan Calhamer, the man who invented the board game called Diplomacy, has died. That his game reached its peak of popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s but appears to have gone out of fashion since may be of interest to historians. The game, according to Calhamer’s obituary,” leaves nothing to chance: there are no dice to roll (as in the comparable board game Risk, which relies on armies to conquer the world), no cards to shuffle (ditto), no pointers to spin. Instead it relies on strategy, cunning and above all verbal prowess.” It is set appropriately in pre-World War I Europe and the players are the then Great Powers. The game was reputedly a favorite of Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy.

They are just two of the more famous aficionados of Realpolitik in the second half of the twentieth century. Historians continue to debate whether or not they were much good at it. They probably would have found it difficult to enjoy this form of pleasure as unabashedly during the 1940s or even the 1950s when collective security was still in vogue. But something of that changed by the end of the latter decade. Matthew Connelly and others have touted the idea of a diplomatic revolution then which rotated the globe from a predominantly East-West axis to (or back to) a North-South one. These years actually may have marked the midpoint of that trend, which began at least two generations earlier. Some people may have seen the Third World struggle, as it was called, as a forerunner of globalization—that is, as the deeper integration, for better or worse, of former colonial territories with the forces of global modernity. Others like Kissinger and Kennedy may have just seen them as being up for grabs. Like any game, in this one there were meant to be winners and losers.

Calhamer was one of the winners. After a very brief time in his country’s diplomatic corps, he settled into the quiet life of a postman. Meanwhile his game sold more than 300,000 copies and was admitted to Games magazine’s Hall of Fame.

Concerned citizens and secret operatives?

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The French scene provided recently two archetypes of informal “diplomats” and other operatives: the concerned citizen, and the dubious cast of private operatives, politicians, diplomats and soldiers one can find around “intelligence” or “secret” issues.

Saturday last week, the family of AQMI-held French hostage Pierre Legrand set a video online asking the group to propose something regarding the fate of Legrand and his three colleagues, whe were all kidnapped in 2010. In the video, Pierre Legrand’s brother Clément addresses AQMi – could it be that direct contacts or this kind would prove more efficient than what the French state has been attempting to do? The Legrand family’s video, however, seems to be more about domestic than international politics; its message is addressed to the government, asking for more involvment in a case that drags on. If technological change, globalization and the new role of technological media have made possible the direct intervention of concerned citizens in international relations, it is still difficult to reach results without the channels of official diplomacy. Clément Legrand’s video exerts public pressure, not so much on AQMI than on the French state.

Hostage situations, that happen at the crossroad between public and private, open and secret, legal and illegal, diplomacy and intelligence, naturally bring to the fore an undefined cast of informal actors used as relays between governments and the groups holding hostages. A recent documentary on three French journalists held hostages in Iraq presented a wonderful series of such archetypes. The documentary evoked the kidnapping and eventual liberation of three French reporters between 2004 and 2005: Christian Chesnot, Georges Malbrunot and their iraqi driver were kidnapped in August 2004 and liberated in December; Florence Aubenas and her guide Hussein Hanoun were kidnapped in January 2005 and liberated in June. The documentary described the negotiations prior to their liberation, especially presenting the actors on the French side.

On the official side, one could meet an impressive cast of diplomats with ties in the intelligence community. First was Pierre Brochand, a former diplomat, then head of the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE); second came his colleague Bernard Bajolet, the then French ambassador in Irak, fluent both in Arabic and in the meanders of intelligence, Irak, and diplomacy. Those were two specialists, in-between the diplomatic and intelligence communities, who didn’t seem to get along too well with two other actors, “les abrutis” in Brochand’s terms. First of all Philippe Brett, archetype of the shabby in-between with friends in high places, an overblown past as a “security adviser”, and an obvious desire to be involved. Second, the MP Didier Julia, well-versed in Iraki matters under Sadam Hussein, former friend of Tariq Aziz, and “ready to help”. In the case of Chesnot and Malbrunot, Brett and Julia involved themselves seemingly without asking anyone; Brett would even pretend for a while that he managed to obtain the hostages’ liberation, only to have to acknowledge that he didn’t…

It is easy to become unhealthily fascinated by these networks, their high-flying characters and dubious deals. But, if conducted with the necessary caution, the historical study of intelligence activities gives one a wonderful openning on diplomatic relations and a rather unorthodox “diplomatic community”. In the French case, Thomas Gomart, Pierre Lacoste or Olivier Forcade, for example, have worked to develop this area of research in the history of French foreign policy.


A cas d’école in informal diplomacy: Carne Ross’ Independent Diplomat

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In August 2009, Foreign Policy blogger Michael Wilkerson decided to write a short piece about the intriguing organization run by former British diplomat Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat. Referring to an Associated Press piece and a few other sources, he described Ross’s outfit as diplomats-for-a-fee, professional lobbyists providing unrecognized international entities with the know-how and networks they need to bring up their cases in international arenas. Money would come from either the clients themselves or from foundations and donors eager to help the international representation of micro-nations, autonomous regions, governments in exile and the like. Ross, who says he left the British Foreign Service in disgust after Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, did not appreciate Wilkerson’s snarly tone. He commented, and Wilkerson shot back. Four years before, The Guardian had also published a long piece on Ross.

ID was brought back to the attention of FP’s readers this week with a profile of Ross and an analysis of ID’s activities helping Southern Sudan. The article, written by Cristina Odone, did a good work at, first presenting ID’s activities as groundbreaking, and then deflating it some. In fairness, Ross does most of the inflating himself: he has a knack for web-savvy self-promotion, and grand ideas to express about the democratization of international relations by private actors, the greediness and narrow-mindedness of state diplomacy, or diplomats as an “unaccountable elite”. An “anarchist diplomat”, eager to represent the small and weak in the bleak arenas of world politics. Odone, however, does point to a few problems. While Ross affirms that ID represents only “the good guys”, one would hesitate to qualify some of their clients as such: can the “Georgian dream” coalition, for example, one of their clients, be qualified as one of the good guys? ID is a non-profit organization, but running it might also mean accepting money from unsavory or dubious sources. Also, while in the conclusion of his book (Independent Diplomat, Hurst, 2007) Ross denounces the discrepancy between the power of corporate lobbying and the weakness of many public international entities, picking the good guys among these public entities might be tricky: integrity is ID’s source of legitimacy, but keeping it might be difficult. Such an outfit might also be limited to certain operations: while they provided Southern Sudan with expertise and networks to voice their concerns in the UN’s Security Council, it would have been a bit more difficult for them to weight on the negotiations where the recognition of Southern Sudan was decided.

Finally, Odone emphasizes the diplomatic conservatism of new world powers (China, Brazil, India, etc), that might be a barrier to the activities of the likes of Carne Ross: new states, or states arriving to new statuses in the world system, tend to go for what they see as the traditional way of doing things in the “diplomatic community”. In order to be credible, you have to “look” credible. One can see that in the case of Finland in the 1920s-1930s, with its diplomats eager to look, act, talk like the diplomats of old Europe, or in the first Soviet diplomatic service, that Sabine Dullin for example has described as strongly attached to forms and protocol inspired by old Western European powers. Diplomacy is not just lobbying for specific interests: it is also an artificial space where people with certain norms and standards socialize and interact. ID’s men know these norms and standards, because most of them are former diplomats. But they don’t really “belong” to this diplomatic space, especially since it welcomed new, more conservative actors – they act at the fringes of it.

In the frame of this blog, ID looks like a great cas d’école of informal diplomacy. The phenomenon and the reactions it triggered are not new. NGOs or personalities have done the same thing at different times, sometimes packaging their lobbying into a wider project for the international community: turn-of-the-century movements for international law and peace, for example, lobbied for the emergence of an international community guaranteeing peace. National lobbying for small nations in Eastern Europe also worked the same.

But there are also very contemporary elements in ID’s case. Ross’s rhetoric of grassroots global activism bears resemblance to some of Julian Assange’s musings: old traditions work as impediments to democracy and justice, some forces are deprived of representation in the world as it is, and things should be set right by courageous activists and grassroots movements. The erosion of the nation-state and its legitimacy as the center of international politics also gives a space for these kind of organizations: ID’s March 2012 communique announced that Ross would participate in an exercise exploring Texas’ theoretical secession from the United States… In this case, the confusion in terms reveals a contemporary confusion in notions: can the term “diplomacy” be used in what should be considered as a “domestic” context? There is the same interesting confusion in Ross’ book, where he writes that

“Every action, whether buying fruit, employing a cleaner, or choosing where to take your holidays is international, and is, in its way, a form of diplomacy. Everyone is a diplomat.” (p. 216)

This is interesting because it deprives the term “diplomacy” of its meaning: what I would call “international relations”, Ross calls “diplomacy”. But if everyone is a diplomat, then why would anybody need Ross’ organization? Maybe because diplomacy is still a particular space within international relations, strongly differentiated, and where specific know-how is necessary. Ross’ logic blurs all these lines, in a world where such blurring has become easier.

The end of the Cold War also meant the resurgence of small, semi-official local entities in need of representation but that do not fulfill nation-state criteria, essentially giving birth to an under-growth of international actors in need for representation. Ross’ organization also seems to work mostly in some of the many multilateral settings available today (the UN, the EU, etc). The scene looks a bit like the 1920s, with international organizations and a host of different territories with different statuses.

But, despite Ross’ denegations, ID seems to be mostly about lobbying, consultancy, and public relations activities by former professionals in a specific, highly technical field, with all the problems and dilemmas associated with that. We are switching a set of motivations (national interest, etc) for another one (belief systems about the transformative power of private enlightened activism, philanthropy, economic interests, etc) in a diplomatic system where old norms remain pretty much the standard. What Ross provides is expertise and networks, a sort of attorney service to international actors. His activities catch the eye because of the image one could have of traditional diplomats as extremely important civil servants, loyal representatives of one state. But in the post 9/11 transatlantic world, where notions of national bond are evolving and many are not anymore ready to shout “my country, right or wrong”, some diplomats might consider putting their skills to someone else’ use than their “own” state.

PS. Talking about ID just after a post on Martti Ahtisaari’s CMI brings interesting problems of classification to the surface. Both are clear examples of informal, private, you-name-it “non-national” diplomacy. But at the same time they function at different levels and in different ways.