Interpretation of the word ‘Diplomacy’ in my humble personal view: The art or professional activity or use of specialist acquired skills for the handling and managing of international relations – the art of dealing with people and sensitive situations and in finding solutions that may be acceptable – using one’s discretion politically – the art and practice of conducting negotiations. So just what is it that the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson does not yet understand in respect of what diplomacy really means?
First and foremost, diplomacy requires that the person charged with responsibility for conducting negotiations or speaking on issues with those who he may be in negotiation with or to press and media is always on their guard. That is something that I fear that our Foreign Secretary just does not get.
Overnight, listening to BBC World Service as I regularly do, I learned to my horror that the UK’s Guardian newspaper had picked up and reported on what I suspect was yet another of the Foreign Secretary’s unguarded moments on being heard to say that ‘Saudi Arabia and Iran were “puppeteering” because of a lack of strong leadership in the region’. As if to make matters even worse and show a complete lack of understanding of what diplomacy really means and of how he should be expected to conduct himself as Foreign Secretary was not bad enough, by allowed himself to fall prey to what I assume may have been in part a private conversation, I am left to conclude that Mr Johnson has brought the Foreign Office into disrepute.
In more detail and if I have this right, I understand that whilst attending the Med 2 Conference in Rome last week the Foreign Secretary claimed that there was a lack of “big characters” in the Middle East region who were willing to “reach out beyond their Sunni or Shia” group and bring people together. Mr. Johnson is reported to have added “that’s why you’ve got the Saudi’s, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” The BBC report of event this morning adds that he suggested “there are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives and that this is one of the biggest political problems in the whole region” adding that “this is the tragedy for me – and that’s why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area – there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.”
Given that the Prime Minister has been in the Gulf Region this week where, as I mentioned on Monday, she has been meeting leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, I can say that although the reported remarks made by Mr. Johnson occurred before her visit, the outburst reported today will have clearly embarrassed No 10 just as it will a great many others who work so hard striving to ensure Britain’s respected diplomatic voice is properly heard in the region. I doubt that the remarks will have had that much impact on the leaders of Iran or Saudi Arabia but from a diplomatic point of view they will not have assisted in building strong relations with Britain
It is disappointing too that, again as I mentioned on Monday, that the Red Arrows had only this past weekend returned from what has been a very successful tour of the Asia/Pacific region including many countries in the Gulf and one that I hazard to estimate that at a cost to the taxpayer of around £2 million will see billions – yes I really do mean billions, perhaps as much as £50 billion over the ten years benefits of this coming to the UK economy. That, Mr. Johnson, is why the first and foremost duty of a Foreign Secretary is to learn what diplomacy really means and remember that most of the time things that YOU might have thought when you were a professional journalist, are better not said out loud.
“Diplomacy is”, as Bo Bennett said, “more than saying or doing the right things at the right time, it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time”. It seems that Mr. Johnsons’ understanding of diplomacy is to say the nastiest things about your allies or those that you might be trying to better embrace in the nastiest and loudest possible manner whilst at the same time, hoping that no-one will notice!
As yet, the only response that I have seen to Mr. Johnson’s untimely and unnecessary intervention into a subject matter that as yet he appears to have little idea how to handle comes from a Foreign Office spokesperson who is reported to have said that “Saudi Arabia was an ally and the UK supported its efforts to secure its borders and their people”.
Just in case there are those that do not know what a proxy war is let me point out that it is considered as a conflict between two states or none state actors whether neither entity engages directly with the other.
Outside of our support for establishing peace and stability in Iraq and Syria and in supporting the work of UK military supporting our allies in the battle against ISIL, Mr. Johnson’s business in the Gulf Region should be based on supporting British interests. Mr. Johnson is not a diplomat – neither is he a John Kerry and with little understanding and appreciation of how to handle himself on the international stage, he should not be making critical remarks the result of which can only damage British national interest. It seems to me that Mr. Johnson is quite the opposite too what is oft termed as being diplomacy without power. The days when the UK Foreign Office commanded universal respect and when Britain could led in terms of international diplomacy effort are sadly long gone.
Thousands of UK jobs are reliant on our having strong relations with Gulf Region states. It is these interest and the benefits of what these bring to the UK economy and of what our allies in the Gulf region bring to the UK in terms of intelligence that they provide that are the most relevant points that should always be on the Foreign Secretary’s mind.
CHW (London – 8th December 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785