Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy…

June 18, 2012

by Louis Clerc

While discussing amongst participants in this network, one of the things that seem to endlessly fascinate us is the role of individuals in international relations – especially private individuals. Not official diplomats, but private individuals involved for one reason or the other into high international politics. What exactly is their role? To what extent can they act? And why?

I was recently reminded of these deliberations while attending a thoroughly enjoyable conference in the University  of Jyväskylä, Finland. The seminar was organized by the local History and Ethnology Department, and it dealt with East-West cultural relations during the Cold War. One of the conference’s presentations, given by Leiden-based Professor Giles Scott-Smith, dealt precisely with “private diplomacy.”

Scott-Smith presented the audience with four private individuals of Dutch origins who moved in the shadow of the Netherlands’ official foreign relations, working to advance certain ideas, and for some of them to create spaces of mediation between East and West: the ex-resistant, ex-intelligence officer Kees van der Heuvel, who used his networks to create contacts with Eastern European and Soviet diplomats; the Professor of Law Frans Alting van Geusau, founder of the JFK Institute in which he organized informal seminars between Eastern European partners and Dutch private or official interests; Rudolf Jurrjens, an Amsterdam-based Academic, main organizer of the Foundation for the Promotion of East-West Contacts; and finally, H. van Eeghen, the heir of a Dutch merchant family who organized meetings between Eastern interests and Dutch officials.These individuals worked in international relations as actors moving outside of “official” diplomacy (either informal or formal).

Scott-Smith quickly organized this fascinating gallery of portraits around their motivations, their links with the Dutch government, their means and  possibilities. He reflected on their potential effect on the mood of Dutch Cold War policy as well as on specific decisions (especially the 1985-86 decision to welcome US missiles on Dutch soil). I specifically gathered two things from his presentation. First of all, for several reasons, these people all seemed to share a certain faith in what Scott-Smith called post-ideological problem-solving; creating links and spaces of mediation between the two blocks seemed to them a way to concentrate on real issues, apart from grandstanding ideological issues. Second, Scott-Smith underlined two ways to look at the work of these characters: an optimistic approach, which sees these actors as useful in-betweeners able to bring enemies to the negotiation table; another, more “negative” approach would describe those either as potential spies, useful idiots subject to manipulation from one side or the other, or disruptive elements in the well-oiled movements of the diplomatic machine.

This presentation brought to my mind the categories and reflections I had been toying with while working on Franco-Nordic relations. These relations appeared as populated with networks and the kind of “private diplomats” Scott-Smith described in his presentation. One could isolate two clear cases and one a bit less clear.

The two clear ones are Paul Boyer and Albert de Lapradelle. Boyer was a French linguist, specialist of the Russian language, whom I studied mostly for his role during the winter 1917-1918 as a lobbyist for the recognition of Finland’s independence. Albert de Lapradelle was a French jurist, specialist and prominent defender of International Law, who assisted from 1899 to 1918 the Finnish national movement in their contact with the French government and international institutions. The less clear one is Raoul Nordling: probably the best-known of these three, Nordling was the Swedish consul in Paris for the first half of the 20th century. A consul, but also a businessman and before everything a citizen of Paris, a town he is credited for saving during the last days of German occupation in August 1944. All of these characters are interesting, and I have been waiting for a suitable time to study these “unorthodox” diplomats. Archives are hard to come by, though. De Lapradalle’s papers, for example, were taken by the Germans in Paris in 1940, then by the Russians; recently repatriated in Paris, they are still awaiting classification in the French Diplomatic Archives. Off-limits for researchers for the time being, unfortunately.

All these characters move in a fascinating interplay between motivations, incentives, networks, contacts, and loyalties. They are in-betweeners, lobbyists for a cause or an interest (often with an internationalist, humanist streak). Sometimes they are also useful idiots used by one camp or the other, or quasi-spies, the intermediaries doubling normal diplomatic networks and doing things official diplomats cannot do… Sometimes they also come across as crafty socialites who managed to reinvest their personal networks and natural skills into an unorthodox career path. Reading the way they present their own action is always interesting, but also problematic: working outside administrative diplomacy, they leave only a small paper trail, and their own accounts are to be treated with care. One of the main things one finds by studying these people is that they are often allowed to work only inside a specific context: change the context, change the people they are used to talk to, and their capacity to influence is dramatically reduced.

Nearer from us, examples abound. One of those is the epitome of the high-profile “public intellectual à la francaise”, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Recently, Lévy came to international fame as the grey eminence behind France’s decision to push for an overthrow of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Not long after the conclusion of the Libyan campaign, he wrote a book and produced a documentary on his role in this affair. The book especially is interesting, and will be doubtlessly used by future historians as a document on this conflict – with proper criticism applied. Lévy is a controversial character, and not a little overbearing. The movie as well as the book literally burst at the seems with self-aggrandizement, and Lévy comes out of these “oeuvres” as the grand architect of Gaddafi’s downfall. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy and most “second characters” in the show appear as mere small fry to be observed, then persuaded by Lévy as he leisurely strides around an ailing planet. In a way, this presents an interesting problem linked with the criticism of sources: pretty much as we mostly know Raoul Nordling through his own diary, we know Bernard-Henri Lévy’s role in the Libyan affair through his own report.

One could very well imagine that Lévy acted mostly as the useful public figure of an operation decided around Nicolas Sarkozy, or merely tilted the balance in the direction of intervention – one influence amongst others. Like always, the matter would look much more like a dialogue between man and context – but of course, for BHL there is only one man: himself. One can’t blame him for setting his priorities straight.

Finally, check the program of this Jyväskylä’s conference. There were lots of interesting presentations on various cultural aspects of the Cold War. East-West relations came out of that as much more complex than one could imagine. The periodization of the Cold War also appeared differently when put under a cultural lens. For the student of the Interwar period, there also seemed to be a lot of phenomena resonating with or finding their roots in Interwar Soviet-Western relations.