The crisis of diplomacy in the era of Trump

Saturday 13 October, 10:0011:30, Pit TheatreEye on the World

In July this year, President Trump used his arrival at a NATO summit in Brussels to lambast Germany’s relationship with Russia. ‘We are protecting Germany, we are protecting France, we are protecting all of these countries and then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they are paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia. I think that is very inappropriate.’ NATO’s secretary-general squirmed in his seat. Trump used the same trip to Europe to take a dig at Theresa May’s Brexit strategy and seemingly side with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, against America’s own intelligence agencies. But while Trump has developed a reputation for rather undiplomatic language, he is not alone.

The UK’s former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has famously made numerous diplomatic gaffes. He likened the former French president, Francois Hollande, to a Nazi prison guard, accusing him of meting out ‘punishment beatings . . . in the manner of some World War Two movie’, called President Erdogan of Turkey ‘the wankerer from Ankara’ and described the African continent as ‘that country’ replete with ‘picaninnies’.

But for many commentators, the problems of modern diplomacy go far deeper than such crass language. Once, diplomacy was regarded as a careful art, furthering national interests through back-channels and coded language, and pursued by highly educated diplomats. But in recent years politicians have seemed keener to make loud public statements at the expense of cool negotiation, while the UK Foreign Office, some have argued, seems to have suffered a decline in the quality and training of its personnel.

One example was the UK’s reaction to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, in which government ministers quickly claimed they were sure it was the work of the Russian state rather than waiting for the evidence. The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, responded to rumours that British diplomats would be expelled from Moscow by saying: ‘Frankly, Russia should go away, it should shut up – but if they do respond to the action that we have taken we will consider it carefully and we will look at our options.’ A former UK ambassador to Russia, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, commented: ‘Whether you like Russia or not, it is a big country, which now has rather a lot of influence in the world – whether you like it or not. To tell it to go away and shut up is not very serious, in my view.’

Could the decline of diplomacy create dangers in the future, such as increasing the risk of war? Is it better that politicians pursue policy objectives openly, even if that means treading on toes, rather than behind closed doors away from the public’s gaze? Has the loss of a concept of the ‘national interest’ led politicians to respond to events ‘on the hoof’ rather than pursuing a long-term strategy?