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Dealing With Foreigners ...
Is more complicated than you might think.
I was going to write about something quite different this week, but I got distracted by a number of stories criticising the diplomacy of the US and the EU, especially towards China. I was also struck by several people expressing scepticism about my comment that in 2014 Merkel and Hollande could have thought that they were doing something useful and stabilising in rearming Ukraine after the Minsk accords. So I thought that this might be a suitable time to write a few words on the actual mechanics of relations between states, and between states and international organisations, and why they are often different from what we see in the media, or read in textbooks on international relations. In particular, I want to explain how relations between governments go far further and deeper than formal foreign policy, although that side of life gets all the publicity.
This is a subject where I can’t claim to be a deep expert, but I have been lucky enough to watch the foreign policy sausage being made in a number of countries over many years, and even to have contributed a few humble sweepings from the floor myself. It won’t surprise you to learn both that the relations states have with each other vary enormously in scope, content and nature, and that the US system, always taken to be paradigmatic, is in fact extremely unusual, if not actually unique.
To begin with, states have all kinds of relations with each other, and with international institutions, and what we think of as classic “foreign policy” is by no means the extent of them. Indeed, what you might describe as “pure” foreign policy is often only a small part. By “pure” I mean the nation’s political status internationally, regionally and bilaterally, and attempts to enhance it, and increase the state’s influence. Even here, though, there is usually some pragmatic content: influence is seldom if ever purely existential. So states may successfully host international sporting events or international conferences. They may stand for, and be elected to, non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. They may succeed in getting their nationals nominated to important posts in international organisations, or being invited as observers or even participants to important international meetings.
This can have good or bad results. The fact that the South Africans hosted (and won) the Rugby World Cup in 1995, was an important step in the country’s exit from international isolation under a new government. Nearly a decade later, the then Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, invited George Bush and Anthony Blair to a meeting about Iraq in April 2003, just before the war. It must have seemed a clever piece of political grandstanding. But the war was not popular in Spain, and Aznar’s political career effectively came to an end at that point.
In reality, most foreign relations are about something, which means that they are either conducted by, or are supported by, experts in the right subjects. Diplomats of course should have certain special professional skills, such as languages, personal skills for surviving and cultivating contacts in other cultures, and a whole host of written, oral and managerial capacities for getting, as far as possible, what your government wants, sometimes tempered by what you think you can realistically obtain. Diplomats often specialise in regions and languages, either because they are difficult and require years of study (Japanese is a good example) or because they are widely usable (Spanish is an example.) Some may also specialise in thematic issues—security policy is a particular case. But ultimately, whether it’s negotiating fishing quotas, levels of armaments or budgets for overseas aid, diplomats will generally have experts on the subject sitting behind or next to them, ready to advise on technical issues. In fact, it’s fair to say that the better a country succeeds in integrating the technical advice of experts with the negotiating skills of diplomats, the more successful it will be in getting what to wants.
Naturally enough of course, experts from various government departments will themselves have frequent dealings with their opposite numbers from abroad. Doctors will talk to doctors, policemen to policemen, safety experts to safety experts, trade experts to trade experts and so on, across the whole field of government. (The Internet has massively facilitated these contacts.) In turn, this generates a whole stack of agreements and understandings, although, through a quirk of history perhaps, only foreign ministries can actually negotiate formal treaties: they tend to guard their prerogatives fiercely, and like to be informed about other kinds of agreements. All this has a number of consequences.
One is that a foreign ministry is only one player in the totality of government relations between states. In most cases it is the most powerful, but this depends very much on the particular government system and on the subject. An extreme case was Turkey during the Cold War and after, where the Turkish General Staff, and not the Foreign Ministry, had the final say on negotiating positions on security issues. But even in a classic democracy, the foreign ministry will seldom have the ability or the right to set negotiating positions unilaterally, and indeed it would be silly to try to do so. What diplomats should have though, is a sense of how the negotiations are going, what others want and what is likely to be generally acceptable. From time to time a diplomat will pronounce the dreaded words “non-negotiable”, meaning that, however sensible and logical your proposal is, it won’t attract enough support to be accepted. And they’ll then say that it’s not worth wasting “negotiating capital” on it, when there’re other things you could try instead.
But accepting that you have to leave diplomats to judge such things, there’s also the question of what they should say substantively, not just in negotiations, but in everyday dealings and high-level visits. Here, the situation is much more complicated. Although the foreign ministry is the executive agency responsible for achieving results, it does so on behalf of the country and the government as a whole, and so there has to be a solid consensus behind what it proposes. This often isn’t easy, for two reasons.
First, and more banally, the foreign ministry deals with foreigners all the time. Other things being equal, it wants a quiet life, and to avoid needless arguments as far as possible. Governments continually do each other favours and routine accommodations that pass below the radar, and foreign ministries don’t want to put in jeopardy something like the issue of visas, or consular access, for the sake of making a transitory political point. So a foreign ministry, which has to consider the whole spectrum of relations with a foreign power, may be reluctant to push too hard on a given subject, even although home departments may want to be much more forceful. This happens particularly with the Embassy on the ground, which may be particularly reluctant to take too tough a line: a familiar situation for anyone who has ever had an operational job abroad, or one that takes them out into the field a lot. Those idiots back at home, you think, with their hopeless expectations, they don’t really understand what’s going on on the ground. And then you move to a home-based job, and you start to see your representatives overseas as having “gone native” and not taking enough account of the interests of their own country or organisation. Both can actually be true, depending on the circumstances.
Likewise, you join the public service in general because you have a problem-solving mentality: otherwise you would be a journalist or an academic or an NGO worker. So your first question when confronted by problem is, How do we fix this? Diplomats are particularly prone to feel like that, since much of their work is process-oriented, and their colleagues sometimes accuse them, and sometimes fairly, of wanting an agreement at any price, and seeing the issue of a communiqué, for example, as an end in itself, irrespective of what it says. The fact is that it’s hard to finish an international meeting without a communiqué, or a high-level visit without an agreement of some kind, and foreign ministries will often push for something, anything, that can be chalked up as an outcome.
Secondly and more importantly, though, relations between countries are always complex and necessarily cover a range of subjects. This would be less of a problem if all of the imperatives pointed in the same direction, but they rarely do, and so any policy towards a foreign country has in effect to be a compromise, where the bits don’t always go together very well. In spite of attempts at “better coordination” (or as the British used to say “joined-up government”) the reality is that the problem can be managed, but is fundamentally insoluble. Something like the following would be typical. You are dealing with a country which is a major power in a particular unstable region, and so you try to encourage them to use this power positively. You know you are supporting a government which is corrupt, but you judge that any other foreseeable government would be as bad if not worse. Under the pressure of your country and others, it is winding down its support for a dissident faction in a civil war next door, but for political reasons has yet to announce this. It is a major producer of certain oil-based products, and is seeking your assistance in securing its supply lines against sabotage. A contract to manage the country’s principal port, won by one of your companies ten years ago, will soon becoming up for renewal. Although the country is a theoretical democracy, the ruling party militia has taken to attacking political opponents. The country has a crime problem that it cannot solve and is seeking professional training for its police forces. There are (unsubstantiated) allegations that some of these policemen are also members of various political militias. The country has a thriving drugs trade and there are accusations (but again no proof) that family members of the political and military elites are involved. There is an active opposition outside the country, many of whose leaders are western educated, and they are popular with the media, human rights groups and countries with which you try to coordinate foreign policy.
So in the space of a week, the Foreign Minister might be lobbied about human rights in the country by a senior figure from the UN, receive a letter from the Trade Minister urging stronger support in the country for renewal of the port contract, read a media report alleging that policemen trained in your country have been accused by opposition figures of possible involvement in alleged political killings, receive a delegation of regional leaders urging your country’s continued involvement in the local peace process and continued pressure on the government concerned, be lobbied by the EU to introduce sanctions against the same government because of its support for the dissident faction, and finally have to decide whether to receive exiled opposition leaders who are on a tour to gather political support. Obviously, half-a-dozen departments of government will have opinions on what should be done. Now true, there are bilateral relationships which are easier than this to manage (Australia and New Zealand perhaps come to mind) but there are also others which are significantly more difficult. After all, between your Interior Ministry arguing for cultivating closer links with the country’s Police to fight drug trafficking, and your Finance Ministry wanting to target potentially corrupt individuals in government and law enforcement there to fight money-laundering, it’s not possible to find a solution that will please everybody. So in practice, different elements get emphasised on different occasions.
The larger a government and the wider your span of interest, obviously, the more complex is the problem; and the structure of your government and the way it works also play a role. It’s virtually inevitable that you will have an overall policy which is incoherent in some respects, and the larger and more powerful the individual actors in government are, the more likely this is. It applies on the ground as well. Many countries have representatives of other departments of government working in their Embassies, who are responsible to the Ambassador but also responsible to their Ministries back home. The oldest example of this is that of Defence Attachés, who were historically the personal representatives of the Sovereign in his or her guise as head of the Armed Forces. Things have changed a little since, but it remains the case that such officers do have a line of reporting back to their capitals which is additional to that of the foreign ministry. Depending on the country, representatives of the trade, development, technology or interior ministries may be present, as well, for example, as police liaison officers. It’s not uncommon for such people to manage large and prestigious programmes of their own, over which the foreign ministry has no control. As a result, locals may get slightly (or even very) different answers from an Embassy depending on who they talk to.
The larger and more divided a government system is, the more incoherent its relations with other states will be. (We’ll come to the US example in a minute, I promise.) But first of all, much depends on the degree of central control that can be exerted within a system. This isn’t just a question of struggle and dominance, it’s also, and perhaps mainly, a question of culture. In many countries, governments have a culture of consensus between departments, in others a culture of conflict and competition. The more personalised and politicised the government machine is, the more difficult a partial or total consensus is to find. Strong Presidential systems can alleviate this to some extent, but of course Presidents and their immediate staff cannot manage foreign policy day to day. In France, where the Presidency has, by tradition, considerable influence over foreign policy, the President is often described as an “arbitrator” between the various contending actors, in that domain as in others. After that, much depends on the balance of power within the government itself. In France and Germany, for different historical reasons, the foreign ministry is extremely powerful on security questions, and the defence ministry has been historically weak. (In Germany, indeed, the “ministry” is really just an armed forces HQ with a political crust on top.) A combination of a powerful foreign ministry and a President who has historically taken a close interest in foreign policy meant that historically French policy was quite well focused (less so recently for reasons there isn’t space to go into here.) So for any given question, in any given country, you have to first look to see how powerful and influential the person who made a particular statement or proposal is, recognising that power is based to some degree on personal status. A development minister who is the head of a party in the governing coalition may be politically stronger than the foreign minister, a young protégé of the President, since he or she can bring the government down at any time.
In relatively collegiate political systems (as the British historically was) the inevitable frictions and disagreements can usually be ironed out by discussion and compromise. In others, foreign policy, like many other areas of government is essentially an area of struggle for influence and money. It will be clear by now, I think, why the foreign dealings of the United States (rather than just “foreign policy” as studied in universities) are so complicated and confusing, and often so ineffective. People are often surprised to discover, for example, that the State Department is only one actor in international relations, and not always the most powerful. The enormous publicity that some political appointees in that Department have garnered for themselves has not necessarily translated into actual power, or the ability to achieve specific things, because they generally do not control the resources needed to make them happen. Put simply, the State Department has no military capability, it has to compete with the Pentagon and various intelligence agencies for influence with foreign governments, and it has no intelligence-gathering capability of its own. Even in foreign policy it has to reckon with the power and influence of the National Security Adviser and his staff, as well as organisations like the Pentagon, USAID and the CIA which effectively have foreign policies of their own.
As a result, a foreign trip (such as that by Mr Blinken recently to China), is preceded by a battle between all those players in Washington who think they have an interest, to determine what the visitor’s objectives should be, and what he or she is going to say. The number of potential players (often individuals rather than just departments) and the number of areas of bilateral interaction are such that a visitor is frequently loaded down with a mass of incompatible objectives and lines to take. And rather than looking for compromise, the tendency is just to add more and more words and qualifications to what exists already. So if Mr. Blinken was criticised for his statements on Taiwan, it is because US policy itself is contradictory, both accepting the “One China”policy, and selling arms to Taiwan. Each policy is supported by different groups to different degrees, and any overall statement of policy has to refer to them both, otherwise, someone will get angry. (I’m sure the Chinese realise this.)
Ironically, the result is to weaken the US position on many issues, as well as to make other states question the wisdom of negotiating with that country at all. The US position on many issues, reached after lengthy struggles, is often highly inflexible and inconsistent (most countries have this problem, but to a much lesser degree.) This can make the lives of State Department professionals very difficult in negotiation, because they have almost no freedom of manoeuvre. One good old trick in negotiations when you want to show how little flexibility you have is to show others your instructions. On the occasions when I have seen US instructions on controversial issues, they go on for pages. And pages. In many cases, it would require four-dimensional acrobatics to implement them all.
And even when something is signed, you can’t necessarily bank on it producing results. One of the strangest things about the US government system (we’ll come to the politics in a moment) is that agreements signed will not necessarily be implemented, if someone, somewhere, decides they should have been consulted, and is displeased, or if an organisation is effectively able to stop things from actually happening. The Pentagon, for example, is obdurately opposed to anything other than what it describes as “war-fighting” operations, and tries to sabotage attempts to make US forces do anything else. So in the days of the NATO deployment in Bosnia after 1995, the Pentagon was doing its best to get out, by briefing the media and the Congress about how expensive and pointless it all was. Likewise, just before the negotiations began for the Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a team of military lawyers around NATO countries to try to persuade NATO military authorities to lobby their governments not to sign the Treaty, although it was the policy of all of these governments (including that of the US) that they would. And so on.
No country, not even the United States, makes its foreign policy in a vacuum, and few countries actually have an autarkic foreign policy ignoring the interests and concerns of others. Even large states, and even the US, cannot act as though the rest of the world did not matter, whatever some posturing politicians may think. Nations need the practical cooperation of others to get things done. But more than that, it is notoriously the case that big countries do not always get their own way, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the tail from the dog. Small countries can manipulate larger ones in a variety of ways, one of which is by providing intelligence and political analysis about their neighbours. It has been plausibly suggested, for example, that most of the intelligence that the US has on Arab states and Iran comes from Israel, and most of the intelligence on North Korea comes from the South. Given the difficulty of the languages and cultures involved and the fact that no country has unlimited resources, this may well be true and, to the extent that it is, obviously opens many possibilities for manipulation.
More generally, actual working relationships between large and small states are always more complex than they appear: the influence of Israel over the United States is a case in point, but not unique. A good example is Saudi Arabia, which has historically depended on western powers for its security, and has purchased western weapons. But such weapons, as well as its armed forces, have to be supported by a huge number of western expatriates, who are effectively hostages and human shields. A consequence of this kind of arrangement is that large powers often wind up defending and excusing the behaviour of smaller ones, as indeed was the case with the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
For nations that are members of formal groupings such as NATO or the EU with a strong political profile, remaining in step with other members (or at least not having pointless arguments) is often a priority. This also applies to informal groupings, such as the Nordic states, the Benelux countries or the African countries of ECOWAS, where the tendency is to avoid dissent where possible. Sometimes also, nations are effective hostages to their own pasts, and to the many and complex relationships they have forged through decades and even centuries. Ironically, previously-imperial powers often find it hard to put the past behind them: the British and French are always overwhelmed with private demands for help and assistance from former colonies, even as the governments seeking that help still feel obliged to complain publicly about “neo-imperialism” for domestic political reasons. Both the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, and the subsequent French intervention in Mali, for example, were at the urgent request of governments in the region, and against the instincts of the Europeans themselves.
To the above, we need to add two important factors which are generally overlooked in foreign policy discussions: the influence of the domestic political process and the influence of the media/NGO complex. Yet in fact both can be profound. Foreign policy, after all, is no longer just the sport of Kings: it should be intended to bring concrete benefits to a country’s population, or at a minimum keep them from harm. (Although idealists who believe that governments should subordinate the interests of their populations to those of other populations are nonetheless surprisingly influential.) The first way in which this happens is through the domestic political system which, in some cases, can actually determine foreign policy.
The classic modern example is probably Brexit, which began as a half-thought-out proposal for a referendum that would solve some of the domestic political problems of the Conservative Party, morphed into a completely unexpected and incoherent foreign policy initiative, and finished as the desperate search for an agreement, any agreement, that would keep the extremists in the Conservative Party quiet, and also pacify the Ulster Unionists, upon whom the government’s majority depended. (I wondered at the time what neorealist academics made of such behaviour, driven as it was almost exclusively by ignorance and panic.) But another good example is immigration. In Europe, for example, the PMC has long enshrined “freedom of movement” (better expressed as “freedom to be moved”) as a humanitarian principle, so long as those being moved are kept discreetly out of their sight. But no-one thought to ask the populations of western Europe what they thought of this wonderful foreign policy initiative, and we have seen the consequences of that omission.
The domestic political process is also a much greater influence on foreign relations than is often realised. Governments have to explain and justify their foreign policies like any others, but in addition certain proposals might need an affirmative vote in Parliament, an enabling law or even a referendum. The last is normally a relative formality but it can go disastrously wrong, as did the French 2005 referendum on the revised Political Union Treaty, whose result inflicted scars on the European political class that have yet to heal. But it is perhaps in the United States, whose Congress sees itself an alternative government, that this influence is greatest. Leaving aside the question of politicians owned by foreign governments, there is also politicking over the ratification of treaties, where opponents may well try to hold up or even stop the process, either because they object to something, or simply to cause trouble for the other party. One of the consequences of this is that it’s impossible to know whether treaty signed by the US is actually worth anything: it may be rejected by Congress, or it may simply never be presented for ratification, as was the case with the Rome Statute of the ICC whose text was enormously massaged to meet US concerns, only for Clinton to chicken out of presenting it to Congress. Anyone who has been involved in negotiations with the US is used to the refrain “Congress won’t accept this.” As one European diplomat acidly replied in my hearing “send Congress to negotiate, then.”
The final area of confusion and complexity is what can be described concisely as the Media/NGO Industrial Complex, and particularly its “human rights” subdivision. Both the media and the human rights industry are brutally competitive fields these days, and individuals and institutions in them are dependent on public visibility for their funding and careers . Unfortunately, the kind of thoughtful, informed commentary on foreign affairs that would actually be helpful doesn’t get clicks, and gives way to a kind of sensationalism that used to be associated with the tabloid press. Because the actual problems (wars, crises, famines) are a long way away, and the people we hold responsible are beyond our reach, we behave as children do, taking out our anger on those nearest at hand: usually our government Reports or media stories will typically emerge, full of phrases like “alleged,” “suspected,” “unconfirmed” or “said to be linked to,” leaving the reader with no real information, but a vague sense that something terrible is happening, and their own government is somehow to blame. Even when there are undisputed links with other countries, the media habitually insist on viewing events abroad simply as extensions of politics at home: some of the western media was deluded enough to believe that the US could “stop” the war in Yemen in some unspecified fashion, for example.
The sum total of political, media and NGO instrumentalisation of events overseas can be to create a kind of alternative reality, usually less nuanced and painted in brighter colours than the actual situation. This isn’t new: the US media and NGO community created what has justly been called a “fantasy Bosnia” during the 1992-95 crisis, and the US government was constrained to act, in many cases, as though this fantasy was the reality. Much the same happened with the Rwandan crisis, and more recently we have seen the wholesale creation of imaginary countries loosely resembling Iraq, Afghanistan, and of course Ukraine. In the latter case, the relationship between the media/NGO complex and the political system is so complex as to be almost undecipherable.
For all these many reasons, there is a limit to the complexity and detail that a foreign policy can actually incorporate, without imploding under stress. The sheer number of actors and issues, the weight of history and precedent, and the interconnected nature of problems, means that most “foreign policy” is in practice crisis management, or attempted management. Nations cannot be treated as unitary “actors”: at best there are temporary and changing coalitions within them prepared to go along with policies for different reasons. Obviously nations can have reasonably consistent broad policies or long-term aims, but they tend to be very general and very high-level. So the French, for example, have pursed strategic autonomy and maintenance of great power status since the 1950s, but the “strategic plan” for this would probably fit onto half a side of paper, and amounts to little more, in practice, than an elite consensus on very general principles.
So it’s always wise to be sceptical about allegations of long-term hidden political strategies: they have their conceptual origins in medieval fantasies of secret Jewish plans for world domination, and more recently allegations made during the Cold War of a generations-long Communist conspiracy to dominate every part of the world. The classic example is the allegations of the former KGB officer and defector Anatoly Golitsyn, who claimed that not only the Sino-Soviet split, but the 1956 Hungarian rising, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, and even the fall of the Berlin Wall were all part of a long-term deception strategy to weaken the West and ensure the triumph of Moscow. His ravings convinced a lot of highly-placed people in the West, including James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s Head of Counter-Intelligence, who turned that organisation upside down trying to find the spies Golitsyn alleged infested it.
Yet human beings are pattern-making animals, and if we have to choose, we prefer the idea of conspiracy to the idea of chaos. This is why there have been many post hoc attempts to construct a coherent secret plan for a war with Russia from statements and writings by a whole variety of western figures, some influential, some not. But the problem is not that there were secret long-term plans being drawn up in NATO involving thousands of people in dozens of countries over a decade or more as governments came and went. As I hope will now be clear, these kinds of things don’t happen in real life, any more than Golitsyn’s fantasies did. The real problem is that NATO and EU policy towards Russia was conceived and implemented much as discussed in this essay, in fits and starts, with compromises, different understandings and different levels of interest, and without asking the most basic foreign policy question of all: what will the other side think? In all the meetings where harried decision-makers, worrying mainly about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, refugees, Islamic State terrorism and a dozen other topics, finally got around to Russia, there was perhaps a single individual at the end of the table trying to get attention, to say that maybe the Russians would perceive the rearmament of Ukraine as an aggressive act, even if that wasn’t the intention. (It can be uncomfortable to be that individual.) But there was no time to get into things like that now. We’ll deal with that later. Possibly.
But that’s how the sausage is made. As I pointed out last week, the very incoherence of the western approach to Russia and Ukraine, the lack of any real long-term plan, the overlapping and conflicting motivations of the main actors, all mean that the response to Russian success is going to be confused and chaotic. A lot of the time, mistakes in foreign policy brought about by the way it’s made are recoverable. This time, I’m not so sure.