Trump's Dishonesty is Testing Diplomats As Never Before
I almost instantly regretted retweeting a pithy obituary for the recently deceased Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitali Churkin, which read “an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”. It flirted too close to the taboo on not speaking ill of the dead, to which I try to adhere. It is more than a taboo, in fact. Even the faintest hint of schadenfreude over those who have just died is undignified and self-debasing.
Not that Sir Henry Wotten’s famous quote is wrong when it comes to Russian diplomats. I worked with them as my counterparts on a near-daily basis when I was posted to the British Embassy in Moscow a few years ago. During that time, I was regularly caught somewhere between fascinated and appalled at their cynicism.
Many of them were ostensibly decent, pleasant and highly intelligent people. And yet they were also completely comfortable with lying brazenly to justify the appalling conduct of their bosses in Vladimir Putin’s thieving, murderous regime. Somehow, they appeared easily able to rationalise it as a routine part of their job and to treat diplomacy as a victimless game with winners, losers and no rules. Sadly, Russian diplomats telling outrageous lies like “we don’t have any soldiers in Ukraine and, if they are there, then they must be on holiday” is nothing new.
As the former US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power did rather less discretely with Churkin about Syria, I often wanted to ask my more personable Russian counterparts how they managed to feel no shame about their dishonesty, or coped with it if they did. But I never found the right moment because it always felt too professionally discourteous, and probably unproductive anyway, to do so.
From a personal standpoint, I always found the “honest man sent abroad to lie for his country” cliché irritating during the two decades I spent as a British diplomat. We did not lie (really - and I am not doing it now either). Rather like torture for the military and intelligence services, lying in diplomacy is a temptingly easy option that does not work. Sooner or later you get caught out, which is embarrassing. More importantly, it makes it harder to achieve agreements on issues of crucial importance because doing so depends on everyone involved being able to trust each other to honour their word.
the UK and US diplomatic services are now about to have their scruples tested like never before
That is not to pretend that diplomacy involves simply blurting out everything you know and think about the issue concerned. Persuasion in any walk of life involves emphasising the points that best make your case and downplaying others. But outright lying remains wrong and ultimately unproductive for any diplomat who seeks to serve his country successfully.
I am sure the word “Iraq” will be springing to some readers’ minds at this point. That horrible episode was the closest I ever got to doubting our own honesty. The information we were given and the actions that resulted were catastrophically wrong. But ultimately, even in that case, we did not lie.
Intriguingly, the UK and US diplomatic services are now about to have their scruples tested like never before. Both the Foreign Office and the State Department are now at the service of people who obtained power through rampant dishonesty.
The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s journalistic career was built on a series of proven lies about the EU, upon which he based his columns as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. In a rare example of consistency on his part, he has continued to be a complete stranger to the truth throughout his political career. Johnson was one of the leading proponents of the “£350m a week for the NHS” untruth that the Leave campaign’s leading strategist, Dominic Cummings, openly boasts was crucial to winning the referendum.
The Diplomatic Service Johnson now leads is central to the task of negotiating Brexit. The stakes could not be higher for the country, the government and, most importantly for him, Johnson’s career. But the hand that Britain holds as the much smaller, more desperate party in these negotiations is pitifully weak. When the discussions get difficult, as they will almost immediately, will Johnson be able to change the habit of a lifetime and resist resorting to deceit in an attempt to gain an advantage? And, if not, will his equally under pressure government colleagues and the more careerist senior diplomats who sometimes come to the fore at times like this be willing to stop him or refuse to join in?
It matters that they do. With so many negotiating partners (27 Member States and several EU Institutions) and Europe’s entire media watching closely, any lying will soon be spotted and exposed. The chances of Britain salvaging a workable deal from the wreckage of Brexit depend on maintaining what’s left of the trust between us and our erstwhile European partners. Lose that trust and the incentive to grant Britain concessions rather than nail it the floor for the trouble it has caused will disappear with it.
Sooner rather than later, the State Department will have to choose
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office’s opposite numbers in the US State Department appear to be adopting a different tack in response to having a serial liar, President Donald Trump, as their master.
Barely a day has passed since Trump took office without him or one of his sidekicks wading calamitously into foreign policy. Equating the US with the murderous Russian regime, pointlessly infuriating China, abusing Australia, undermining NATO, openly discussing North Korea within earshot of anyone listening at Mar-e-Lago… the list is almost endless. Yet the State Department has remained resolutely silent and disengaged throughout.
This might be because so many of its senior officials resigned after Trump was elected and have yet to be replaced. It could be because they are waiting for the new, notoriously media-shy Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to get his cowboy boots under the table. But it mostly looks like they are attempting to stick to the mantra “if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all”. But this position is clearly unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, the State Department will have to choose between openly contradicting their liar-in-chief of a President or promoting his mendacious views to the world.
There are times when I miss being in the thick of international political matters as a diplomat. Now is not one of them.
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