On Diplomat magazine’s 70th anniversary, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford asks what’s new in diplomacy
1947. Diplomat magazine is founded! To mark this auspicious occasion the post-war world keeps itself busy.
Nigeria starts moving towards independence. The United Nations takes control of Trieste. Al Capone dies of a heart attack. European peace treaties are signed. The Allies abolish the German state of Prussia. The IMF opens its doors.
Communists take power in Poland and start to crush democracy in Hungary. Voice of America starts to broadcast to eastern Europe. The Cold War starts. US President Truman announces huge aid for Turkey and Greece to push back against Soviet communism. The Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe is launched. The CIA is set up. The AK-47 assault rifle appears.
Tumultuous events and huge casualties as Pakistan breaks from India and emerges as an independent state. France lowers daily bread rations to 200g, causing riots. The Netherlands ends police actions in Indonesia. The UN votes to partition Palestine, creating the state of Israel. A new ‘electronic transistor’ is shown.
All that and lots more 70 years ago. Is that a long time or a short time? It’s only some 3,600 weeks. What’s changed since then? Everything? And nothing?
Let’s look at some key diplomatic themes over that period.
What’s striking about 1947 is how few independent states were members of the United Nations, and how slowly it grew thereafter.
51 founding member states set up the UN in 1945. By the end of 1947 six other states had joined them. By the end of 1957 only a further 25 countries (including Spain, Japan, Ghana, Italy, Indonesia and Malaysia) had signed the Charter. Thereafter membership soared as the European empires fell away: state after state in Africa and Asia gained independence. A divided Germany joined the UN only in 1973.
The UN now has 193 member states representing almost everyone on Earth. This creates a far more ‘democratic’ atmosphere in global discourse, even if many states are no democracies. It’s not the so-called Big Powers calling the shots: all states have a voice and demand respect.
As the UN has grown and grown, so have its acronymistic agencies and programmes and their myriad rules and norms. The UN website lists 11 Programmes and Funds, 15 Specialised Agencies and three Other Entities and Related Organisations.
All this is fearsomely complex. Each of these bodies has its own membership, funding and procedures. Each clamours for more attention – and more resources. Prune or rationalise all this? Impossible!
How to reflect so many positions and concerns sensibly in any one key document such as the UN’s own 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as proclaimed in 2015? A bemused world gets a sprawling text of nearly 16,000 words: 6,400 words of introductory language; 266 words giving in summary form the 17 Sustainable Development Goals themselves: 5,300 words elaborating on targets/themes for each SDG; and 3,800 rambling words on implementation. Isn’t all this rather … alienating?
Meanwhile odd little curiosities linger on from those first UN years. The UN Charter set up a Military Staff Committee to provide joint air force contingents from the five UN Permanent Members ready for discretionary UN use. This noble cooperative idea soon got dropped as the Cold War started. The Committee has done nothing of note since 1947. It still meets every fortnight.
When we look back on 1947, we’re baffled. International phone-calls were hugely expensive. There were no photocopiers. Email did not get going until some 50 years later. No-one knew anything. Women were largely excluded. How did anything get done?
But what if a diplomat in 1947 hops in a time-machine and emerges amidst all the junk process of the modern foreign ministry? Gazillions of emails and Tweets. Skype international calls are free. Health ‘n’ Safety. Objectives. Targets. Roadmaps. Diversity. No bullying. No affectionate pats on the knee. How does anything get done?
One big change over this period is the decline of the foreign ministry. In codifying diplomatic practice as developed over centuries, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations gave a prominent role to national Ministries for Foreign Affairs (sic). Not least in Article 41:
“All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State, or such other ministry as may be agreed.”
When I joined the UK Foreign Office in 1979, this was still the rule. Whitehall departments wanting to send messages to their opposite numbers ‘overseas’ would pass a draft to the FCO desk responsible, using underground tubes and compressed air to whiz the text under the street. An FCO desk officer would peruse this communication, loftily correct the split infinitives, and send a ‘telegram’ containing the message to the British embassy in the country concerned with an instruction to convey it to the right part of the government. Messages between states were controlled.
That arrangement lasted only for as long as foreign ministries had a practical monopoly on international communication technology. All that has frayed if not collapsed, first with fax machines then with emails and other Internet advances. Ministries set up to deal with domestic issues (tax, environment, health, policing) gleefully seized on any opportunities to widen their policy scope to the level of ‘international coordination’. Why should overseas trips, handy per diem payments and lots of self-importance be limited to so-called diplomats?
Worse even than that, world leaders often actually talk to each other. Presidents and Prime Ministers chat on the phone or bump into each other at conferences and exchange views without clearing their lines with officials. Pondering the state of things over an impossibly expensive private drink at Davos, these leaders might even start to muse that they have more in common with each other than with the ghastly populations they each represent.
Some governments (eg in Brazil and Russia) manage to keep a steely grip on their formal communications with other states. Not the UK’s Incredible Shrinking Foreign Office. Back in the last century the UK’s development spending was part of national diplomacy. Now national diplomacy is a forlorn and declining part of UK development spending.
Have the issues of world diplomacy changed since 1947? No and yes.
The great thematic issues of diplomacy, namely relations between states and whether states exist or not, never go away. That 1947 diplomat emerging from the time-machine would emit a sardonic smile of recognition at issues high on the international agenda. How Germany and Russia and the United Kingdom fit with Europe. Spain v Catalonia. Tensions in the Balkans. The Korean peninsula. The status of Israel. Borders in Africa. World trade rules. India v Pakistan. Trouble in Burma. Nuclear disarmament. Migrants and refugees.
Yet there is now a big difference in tone. Back in 1947 the world had some 2.5 billion people, with many of them grindingly poor. Now there are well over seven billion people, with a good proportion still grindingly poor. But they’re getting a bit richer quite quickly by historical standards.
This puts global resources under strain. If (say) a billion people get just enough money to afford fish and chips once a week, that’s 52 BILLION FISH A YEAR getting caught and eaten that were not getting caught and eaten previously. What does that do to the planet’s marine diversity?
What if those seven billion people all talk at the same time, getting a voice through cheap mobile phones? They’ll find ways to organise themselves and do things on their own, without governments and plump international development paradigms.
All this creates quite new options for disrupting the world of dense rules that has grown up since 1947. Mere governments no longer seem able to control events, amidst the clamour of an e-Tower of Babel. How to draft laws and standards for privacy and security and borders that might be out of date before they’re passed or simply unenforceable in practice? All those sprawling tax-free UN and multifarious other international organisations nervously hear the windows rattling from the hubbub outside of millions of people posing awkward demands. Access! Accountability! Justice!
Thus our two eternal existential questions of diplomacy whose answers shaped the post-World War II world in 1947 reappear in 2017 in a dynamic, turbulent way. Who decides? Who decides who decides?