Sunday 18 August 2019

Michael O'Sullivan: 'Johnson signals the decline of diplomacy as an old alliance fades'

In the uncertain era of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the skills of our diplomats may be more vital than ever

Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Michael O'Sullivan

Boris Johnson's elevation to the position of UK prime minister by the members of the Tory Party has many implications - for the state of politics, the future of the UK as an economic power and, importantly, for diplomacy.

Brexit and the associated rise of Johnson have occurred at the expense of diplomacy, most recently in the departure of Sir Kim Darroch as ambassador to Washington.

His ''sin'' was to tell the truth about the court of Donald Trump, thereby failing to heed the advice of Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th Century British diplomat, writer and politician who held that an ambassador should be ''an honest (wo)man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country''.

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At least the outgoing, flamboyant French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, waited until he had retired to speak his mind (''unpredictable'', ''uninformed'', ''America Alone'').

Darroch's resignation, in diplomatically unusual circumstances following the US president's decision to boycott him, tells us much about the conduct of diplomacy today.

Historically, since the foundation of nation states and the rise of the idea of the balance of power, the role of the diplomat emerged in the middle of the 17th Century, with Venice as a particular centre of power.

Then, diplomats were a mixture of spies, messengers, entertainers and persuaders and many still are today. Comfortingly, commentary on Kim Darroch reveals that holding decent parties is still a prerequisite for the job.

In the recent past, some diplomats have been instrumental in setting foreign policy as well as negotiating it. One example that comes to mind, having just read George Packer's excellent book Our Man, is Richard Holbrooke of the US. The book tracks Holbrooke's career and illustrates how his ambition and intensity were both his strengths and failings.

Holbrooke was far more forceful and cutting in his views than most other diplomats, but in the end his career too was cut short by a president (Obama). There are relatively few characters like Holbrooke in world diplomacy today. Financial crises, social media, cyber espionage and the cult of the political personality have made the job of the diplomat more difficult and arguably more important.

Against this backdrop, Boris Johnson's arrival in Downing Street will lead some to herald a revival of the so-called special relationship between London and Washington.

With the UK already diplomatically cut adrift from Brussels thanks in no little part to Johnson's insults of the French, the idea of the ''special relationship'' will be attractive to many in Westminster.

The UK should take care here because the Trump administration may well force it into very risky diplomatic stances on issues like Iran, Hong Kong and the EU, with few visible returns.

The ''special relationship'' will ultimately disappoint many in the UK in that it will not prove an avenue to a more distinctive post-Brexit role for Britain in world affairs.

The reality is that the resignation of Kim Darroch destroys once and for all the notion of the ''special relationship'' and confirms that what ails Britain is not Brexit per se but a national identity crisis in the context of a decline in power. Britain and its political class need to urgently open up a debate as to what its place in the world is, and how realistically it can remake and reposition itself diplomatically.

However, in the coming weeks much will be made of the potential personal relationship between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. In reality, many of the other elements of the special relationship between the US and the UK are ebbing.

France is now arguably a more relevant partner for the US than the UK on defence and security - and culturally the Spanish-speaking world is a rising force in American politics.

The impending departure of the UK from the EU raises an important question for Irish diplomacy with regard to the US. Though it is not spoken about as such, Ireland is one of the very few countries to be able to claim a bona fide ''special relationship'' with the US in terms of its cultural ties, the power of the Irish-American lobby and the role of US companies in the Irish economy.

Ireland is also interesting in the sense that while other countries have seen diplomacy take second place to raw politics, Irish diplomacy has been a relatively low-key but powerful performer in recent years.

Influencing the EU's response to Brexit, the spreading of ties across Europe and the binding of the EU to Ireland's cause on the issue of the Border are very solid diplomatic successes, as is the broad effort to restore Ireland's reputation in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

This is reinforced by the opening up of new consulates and embassies in Asia and in countries like Colombia as part of the State's ''Global Ireland'' policy which aims to double Ireland's diplomatic footprint by 2025.

There is also a very active ongoing campaign to win a UN Security Council seat for Ireland.

The awkward question for Irish diplomacy, in the light of what happened to Kim Darroch, is how to ''play'' America. Diplomatically, the US is losing its soft power, and internally the State Department has been denuded of talent and expertise under the current administration, and its budget curtailed to such a degree that it has needed the helping fiscal hand of the Pentagon.

In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger wrote that America was the first country to adopt a values-based approach to foreign policy and that in this context there were two schools of thought as to how to prosecute this - either America would simply be a beacon of democracy that would inspire others, or that it would be an active crusader for democracy abroad. Sadly, neither one is the case today.

This makes America a challenging ally to have, though it also hastens the need to heighten dialogue with America's corporate leaders, diplomats and members of the House of Representatives on the dangers of isolationism. In particular, one role Ireland can play is to ''translate'' and communicate what is happening in the EU politically, and how and where common ground can be found.

Michael O'Sullivan is author of 'The Levelling' (PublicAffairs), and writes at

Sunday Independent

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