These days I do a fair amount of training work, with a view to sharing with anyone who wants to listen (and pay) some fascinating lessons from my own diplomatic career. The course includes a multiple-choice ‘diplomatic skills’ questionnaire with course participants asked to complete the answers. The following question always produces a range of interesting responses and a lively discussion:
Which of the below is the most important quality in diplomatic work and why?
d) Good judgement
g) Getting on with people
h) Personal appearance
Most people favour Good Judgement, Honesty and Discretion. I argue that the answer is Accuracy. If you are smart, loyal, honest and discreet, but get the basic facts wrong, you’re a menace to everyone. However, at a recent training course one participant brought up in a communist tradition confidently gave one answer which does not usually get given: Loyalty.
In his memoirs leading Bolshevik and Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov favoured loyalty over experience or competence. He contrasted his predecessor Maxim Litvinov (‘an intelligent man, an exceptional personality, but we did not trust him’) with men like Vladimir Dekanazov (‘a good official, a loyal man’) and Andrei Gromyko (‘still young and inexperienced, but loyal’).
Few diplomats would challenge the proposition that loyalty is a central part of their work. More likely they would say that because loyalty is such a central part of their professional life, it ‘goes without saying’. Nonetheless, this begs the question: loyalty to what precisely?
Many diplomatic services have taken the view that it is better not to risk any contradiction between private family loyalty and professional loyalty to the diplomats’ country, banning them from marrying foreign nationals. It was not too surprising that Stalin and his inner circle did not fully trust Maxim Litvinov. He came from a rich Jewish family, plus he had married an Englishwoman, Ivy Lowe.
The double agent who did the most damage to British intelligence operations was George Blake, another person with ambiguous private loyalties: his mother was Dutch, his father a naturalised British subject of Turkish/Jewish origin. Blake ruthlessly betrayed dozens of agents who were working for the UK against the Soviet Union, many of whom were believed to have been executed. Sentenced to 42 years imprisonment for his treasonable activities, Blake famously escaped from prison in 1966 and made his way to Moscow where he lived in comfort and honour. He insisted that he had never felt British: ‘To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged,’ he said.
Another example cuts exactly the opposite way. Anwar Choudhury is a senior British diplomat of Bangladeshi origin who joined the FCO after working for the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office. He has served as High Commissioner to Bangladesh and even survived an assassination attempt against him in 2004. Did his sense of ‘belonging’ to the UK enrage local extremist enemies?
All this suggests that central to the idea of loyalty is self-identity. Few diplomats go through a career without having grave doubts at different points about the morality or wisdom of the instructions coming from HQ. Yet a microscopic number of diplomats resign on principle in protest against those instructions. Different reasons and rationalisations are found for staying loyal even under extreme circumstances (for example when the leadership of the state the diplomat represents is busy brutalising its own people).
No doubt sheer cowardice or fear of losing a privileged position is one driving motivation. Yet it is not all about cynicism: every state needs a professional diplomatic cadre, so perhaps little is gained in the greater scheme of things by resigning when things get difficult.
That said, the Libya case has given rise to a spectacular number of high profile diplomatic changes of side, with one Libyan ambassador after another announcing support for the opposition forces struggling to bring down the Gaddafi regime.
Whereas host governments might or might not commend the high principle shown by such a defection, unwelcome problems quickly arise if some diplomats in an embassy switch sides but others don’t. Who is running the local Libyan embassy for the purpose of carrying on routine diplomatic business? Who gets invited to which functions? Does a Libyan diplomat who has announced a switch of loyalty still get diplomatic immunity? What about the official embassy car? What if the uprising fails and Gaddafi wins – must we throw these people out of the Libyan Embassy? Who needs all these complications anyway?
How these questions and many others are answered will depend upon local circumstances and, perhaps, the personalities concerned. The worst outcome from a host government’s point of view is the outcome we have ended up with, the Libya crisis in particular, violently dragging on with no obvious end in sight. The Gaddafi elite are clinging on to power despite NATO forces blowing up significant quantities of military equipment. Could a worst-case scenario unfold, namely a de facto or even de jure partition of Libya, with unfathomable complications for Libya’s diplomatic representation at the UN and around the world? In short, the Libya drama exemplifies the greatest challenge to any diplomat’s loyalty to his/her country: what to do if the country slumps into civil war or even disappears altogether?
This problem was faced in acute form by Soviet diplomats when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. They had represented one massive state – what to do when the 15 former Soviet republics had each become a new country? For most diplomats born and raised in Russia, the choice was simple: stick with the new Russian Foreign Ministry. But those diplomats born and raised elsewhere in the Soviet Union had a painful choice. Better to stay on in powerful Moscow as a Russian diplomat, or return to one’s home republic and hope for a role in the nascent and disorganised Foreign Ministry there? If the latter, would they be trusted by the new leadership?
Many chose to stick with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Thus in 1995 when Russia and Ukraine were haggling over the fate of the Black Sea Fleet, the negotiating team representing Russia included plenty of ethnic Ukrainian expert diplomats.
The abrupt collapse of East Germany presented a different dilemma: instead of one state becoming 15 states, two states became one. What should happen to the diplomats who had represented communist East?
West Germany took a tough line, almost completely excluding former East German diplomats from any overseas representational roles, even jobs in supposedly less important bilateral development, technical or scientific projects. Former East German Ambassador at the UN Bernhard Neugebauer last year expressed to Deutsche Welle his bitterness at the way he and most of his communist colleagues had been treated after reunification: ‘Diplomacy – and politics in general – is the dirtiest thing in the world and tends to create problems rather than solve them,’ he said.
The emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971/72 gives us another striking example of what happens when one state splits in two. As Bangladesh’s struggle to break from Pakistan intensified, Pakistan’s distinguished diplomat Abul Fateh faced a painful dilemma. Should he stay on as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iraq or choose an uncertain future with his native land? He decided to join the Bangladesh cause and slipped into Kuwait with his family before making his way to London.
This news caused a sensation, with the Pakistan government furiously denouncing his defection. Fateh went on to play a distinguished role in establishing Bangladesh’s new diplomatic service and represented his country in Paris, London and Algiers.
A different sort of test of professional loyalty comes when people (national diplomats or ordinary citizens alike) are posted to join international organisations. In principle they are expected to leave behind national allegiances and instead follow the supposedly lofty policies of their new employers. Not so easy in practice.
One especially striking example of the moral conflicts which can arise from the yawning chasm between theory and practice was the fate of Danish diplomat Paul Bang-Jensen who died, apparently after taking his own life, in 1959. Bang-Jensen refused to hand over to his superiors at the UN a list of names of Hungarians who in strict confidence had testified against communist atrocities in Hungary. Bang-Jensen feared (not without reason) that top UN processes had been infiltrated by communists who wanted to retaliate against the relatives of those who sought to publicise the truth. His unwavering loyalty to honesty rather than the demands of the UN hierarchy cost him his job and led to his tragic end.
Could we see a tumultuous test of British diplomatic loyalties in the coming years if Scotland holds a referendum and opts for independence? Recent SNP gains show the country may well be heading in this direction. Will the FCO’s sizeable tartan army of Scottish diplomats vote to stay in London representing a reduced UK or will they go north en masse to help Scotland set up its new diplomatic service? In either case, who will trust them?