From Boris Johnson to Donald Trump: the long decline of diplomacy

Is the new generation of diplomats committed to traditional forms of statecraft: patient negotiation, coalition-building, strategic vision?

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At this moment of global anxiety, when the liberal democratic order often appears to be disintegrating, it does not help that some of the world’s great diplomatic powerhouses increasingly resemble derelict shells.

Foggy Bottom, the home of the US state department, truly is treated like the arse end of the Trump administration. The UK’s once mighty Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also been humbled, with responsibility for the defining political issue outsourced to the new Brexit department. As Donald Trump continues to hurl a wrecking ball at conventional statecraft, the global diplomatic corps looks depleted and defenceless. The world is suffering from a chronic diplomatic deficit.

This dearth of expertise and talent is especially pronounced in Washington, DC. Rex Tillerson, a titan of the oil industry, has been sidelined and sometimes humiliated by his new boss. He is now commonly regarded as the weakest secretary of state of recent times; “Rexit” could come any day.

The barrel-chested national security adviser, HR McMaster, also cuts a diminutive figure. After his early months were consumed by West Wing feuding – a daily onslaught from the Bannonites – he has struggled to assert himself.

The United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been the foreign affairs star of Trump’s first year in office – Tillerson “fucking hates” her, it is said. Haley has toughened the sanctions regime against North Korea and produced an electrifying moment of diplomatic theatre, when she rose from her chair at the Security Council’s horseshoe table to brandish pictures of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime.

Yet this ambitious 46-year-old, one senses, primarily views the UN as a platform for her future presidential ambitions. Haley is more of a retail politician than a diplomat.

Rather than filling this vacuum, US career diplomats are stampeding towards the exit. More than a hundred senior foreign service officers have left the state department since January 2017, an incalculable loss of institutional wisdom.

British diplomacy is held to be in unambiguous decline. Boris Johnson is castigated by critics as the worst foreign secretary of recent times. Not a “serious heavyweight” was the scornful verdict of Lord Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office. Last year, the Times reported that White House officials regard Johnson as “a joke”. In conversation with US officials, my sense is that they rather enjoy the vaudeville nature of Johnson visits, but view them as a sideshow.

At the UN, the new secretary general, António Guterres, who was appointed partly because of his presentational skills, has kept a determinedly low profile. UN staffers, who applauded his tenure as refugee commissioner, hoped he would announce himself with a grand gesture, such as leading a UN convoy into Aleppo in Syria.

Yet such is Guterres’s fear of upsetting Trump, that it puts one in mind of a witness protection participant. Unlike other UN officials, who denounced the president’s alleged “shithole” slur against African countries as racist, Guterres refused to criticise the global body’s biggest paymaster. The view on the former Portuguese prime minister is that he is a more accomplished politician than diplomat, which underscores the wider problem.

There are notable exceptions. The US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, has emerged as the most authoritative member of Trump’s national security team. That veteran black belt Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, continues to hone his dark arts. The European Union Brexit negotiating team has a strong line-up, led by Michel Barnier and his deputy, Sabine Weyand, one of the Commission’s brightest and best. True masters, however, are largely absent. Where are the Metternichs, Castlereaghs or Talleyrands of our age? Or even the Albrights, Powells, Hurds and Hagues?

Around Turtle Bay in New York, the home of the UN, some of the finer foreign policy brains have taken up residence nearby – but are no longer involved in front-line politics. A few blocks down 42nd Street, David Miliband leads the International Rescue Committee. The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who now leads the Asia Society Policy Institute, also lives close by.

A generational shift has compounded the problem. US diplomacy suffered when the Second World War generation was supplanted by the baby boomers. Wily old warhorses, such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, who were instrumental in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion, left the stage. Worthy successors, such as Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the 1995 Bosnian peace agreement, and George Mitchell, who so astutely negotiated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, are no longer on the circuit either.

Nor is the talent pool being replenished. In the US, the number of applicants sitting the foreign service exam has fallen to the lowest level in a decade. For young citizens of the world, NGOs and major foundations, which are more issue-oriented and less nationalistic, frequently offer a more attractive alternative.

Is the new generation of diplomats as committed to traditional forms of statecraft: patient negotiation, coalition-building, strategic vision? Is it even doing its basic homework?

“I do wonder if the Foreign Secretary has a taste for the necessary application,” wrote Lord Kerr, a former British ambassador to Washington, of Boris Johnson. Such has been the fetishisation of digital diplomacy that high-flyers have been encouraged to believe that their most eye-catching work should come on Twitter.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, the Cannes or the Oscars of diplomacy, it was Donald Trump who monopolised attention. The world’s diplomatic corps can no longer muster much star power to rival him.

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York correspondent

This article appears in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left