(This column was published in DNA edition dated December 3, 2010.)
A couple of months ago, Sha Zukang, one of China’s top UN diplomats, made sensational news when, in a fit of alcohol-induced garrulousness, he told his boss and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to his face exactly what he thought of him. “I know you never liked me,” Sha told Ban at a public reception during a retreat at an Austrian ski resort. “Well, I never liked you, either.”
Sha’s 15-minute hyperventilation, during the course of which he also made clear that he intensely disliked Americans, was of course seen as an undiplomatic outburst that was unworthy of a member of that exalted club of diplomats; and, when the effect of the alcohol had worn off, Sha felt compelled to offer an apology. Yet, for all its indecorousness, it showed up an all-too-rare moment of brutal honesty in the anodyne – even mind-numbingly boring – world of international diplomacy.
This wasn’t, of course, the first time that the language of Chinese diplomacy has shown itself to be more than ordinary colourful. In the late 1990s, just before then British colony Hong Kong returned to China, British Governor Chris Patten found himself at the receiving end of foul-mouthed Chinese invectives that more closely resembled the exertions of a sailor on shore leave. Patten was called, among other things, “an old whore”, a “sinner of a thousand generations”, a “serpent” – and, somewhat incomprehensibly, a “tango dancer”.
Sadly, those days of robust diplomatic hectoring in public are over. Which is why the revelations in the avalanche of WikiLeak documents that came to light last week – which expose the inner workings of the secretive world of international diplomacy – come as a refreshing change for anyone looking for symptoms that the camouflaged world of international relations isn’t populated by automatons.
The 16th century British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton once famously defined an Ambassador as a “man of virtue sent to lie abroad for the good of the country.” After the WikiLeaks exposures, Sir Henry’s pun-laced pronouncement on the artifice that characterises careers in the foreign service stands resoundingly validated. So extreme is the degree of variance between some governments’ publicly articulated positions on issues of geopolitical interest and their representatives’ interlocutions in (what they believed were) confidential conversations that it’s fair to say that “diplomatic niceties”, such as they are, will forever and ever more be seen for the blather that it really is.
Popular literature abounds in depictions of foreign service bureaucrats as artless bumblers who muddle through in their conduct of international relations – or cynical manipulators weaving intricate webs of intrigue. Novelist Lawrence Durrell’s Antrobus series recounts the droll narratives of the eponymous Antrobus as he “lies abroad” in various foreign capitals in the service of the British Empire. And the British sitcom and political satire series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister showcase the crafty guiles of the Whitehall bureaucracy and their supercilious disdain for political leaders and foreign policy mandarins.
Similarly, the sampling of WikiLeaks documents that have so far made it into the public domain offer a rare peep into the world of diplomatic wheeler-dealers operating behind closed doors in world capitals to bend the arc of world history in their country’s favour – and, alternatively, the bumbling efforts of less-skilled operators who, on occasion, get strung along in alien lands where they are hopelessly out of their depths.
There has been much agonising about the implications of the release of confidential transactions between top-level representatives of countries. The concern that the revelations could imperil the security of some of those interlocutors is not without legitimacy. In other instances, the leaked diplomatic cables have the potential to embarrass leaders of some countries who may have reason to not want their privately shared thoughts reproduced in public. Given the unflattering portrayals of some of the world leaders by US diplomats, the next meeting of these leaders is certain to be extraordinarily feisty.
One of the more remarkable side stories from the WikiLeaks expose is its chronicling of the dramatic transformation in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi over the past 25 years. In the mid 1980s, he was the original terror-exporting jihadi; US President Ronald Reagan branded him the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’ and tried to have him killed. Today, Gaddafi is much less venomous, evidently having been calmed by the tender nursing care of a voluptuous Ukrainian blonde. Which leads to the interesting proposition that perhaps the world would be a safer place if more jihadi-minded leaders had enemas administered to them by busty Ukrainian blonde nurses…