The Diplomat

Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said: “I can resist everything except temptation”.  I, however, have resisted the temptation to begin this piece with Sir Henry Wooton’s famous quotation about diplomats and instead offer Edmund Burke’s “Nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality and the total want of consideration of what others will naturally hope or fear.”  Of course, the reverse is also the case as is readily apparent to anybody who has watched in horror as successive UK governments have demonstrated how to dissipate the treasure and national advantage to the benefit of all except the nation.  Be that as it may, the Polish Institute of Diplomacy, whose new training centre for diplomats was opened in this week in Warsaw, could do worse than reflect on Edmund Burke’s words which still offer a sound basis for effective diplomacy.

Opening the new training centre, Foreign Minister Sikorski said that he expected the Institute to create a world-class system of foreign-service education.  And, as the only man in the Polish government who was actually taught at university how to think – the Oxford tutorial system being without equal in this regard – not only does Radek Sikorski know a thing or two about world class education but he will doubtless be familiar with Edmund Burke from his PPE studies. (David Cameron, the British prime minister and William Hague the foreign secretary to name but two from amongst the many in the government and opposition who also read PPE at Oxford).  Reflecting on the importance of sound training, Minister Sikorski said that while Poland’s membership of the EU gives the country a louder voice, it also involves new challenges and tasks such as securing the international position.  “Democratic transformation and effective use of soft power are Poland’s hallmarks.  Today’s diplomats need such skills, too, and this is where the institute has a role to play,” he said.  The institute, headed by a former ambassador to Brazil and Portugal was launched in October last year and it has already trained a thousand diplomatic hopefuls.  However, as we saw last week (in Black Rock) softness is all very well but it does not do to forget the big stick and this week also saw the Polish government adopt a programme of army modernization on which it intends to spend PLN 91.5 billion between 2014 and 2022 of which PLN 16 billion will be spent in 2014-2016.

Recent events in Syria have demonstrated the importance of good diplomacy.  War – at least for the time being – seems to have been averted and although the diplomatic triumph may have been Russia’s in buying more time for President Assad, the importance of having a big stick, albeit being reluctant to use it, has been demonstrated.  It seems unlikely that without the threat of action by the United States the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons would be now being discussed.  And, I suggested (please see Thief of Damascus) the Iranians are being brought slowly into the diplomatic effort.  Chatting to the British ambassador here this week it was clear that the events in Syria meant something had to be done, not least to reduce the risk of these weapons finding their way into the hands of terrorists.  Or, as Burke would have put it, for evil to triumph it is sufficient for one good man to do nothing.

Being able to operate effectively at this level and being able to shape, rather than being shaped by, events is what training diplomats should be about and is clearly a powerful influence in Polish strategy.  Given proper training future Polish diplomats should be able to perform far better than Poland’s pre-war foreign minister Jozef Beck who was so widely disliked and distrusted by other governments that they refused to cooperate with him, something of a failing in a diplomat you might have thought.  To be fair, he did have a weak hand but he played it badly – supporting German claims against Czechoslovakia and going so far as to invade Cieszyn was bound to end in tears, as indeed it did months later when the Germany made claims against Poland.

The training of diplomats is shaped a by a country’s history, size and place in the world.  A former foreign minister (and ambassador) of Benin told me, during a visit to West Africa last autumn that he had suggested that Benin’s diplomats be sent to London rather than Paris for training (Benin was formerly a French colony) because he thought British diplomacy was the best in the world.  Ironically, at the same time, British diplomats were being told to learn lessons from the French following advice from an external panel of advisers who told the foreign office that France was best at pushing its national interest, particularly when it came to supporting its economic and commercial interests.  William Hague then set a target is to make British diplomacy the best in the world by 2015 (it came second according the panel) and this, in the words of the head of the diplomatic service requires the FCO to make its policies “more hard headed and focused on delivering the national interest….whilst also pursuing the other things such as our values agenda, human rights and those other issues.” Quite.  Of course the continual shortening of the UK’s big stick doesn’t help but there are encouraging signs on trade diplomacy front.

Interesting times, then, in which to be a diplomat and Poland is working to rise to the challenge.  Of course, as we saw in I Dreamed of Africa Poland this is yet another area in which Poland will have an uphill struggle in beating the United Kingdom and France.

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