These, however, are parsimonious days… The telegraph has made a difference in the position of Ambassadors. When men can and do receive instructions hourly about the smallest details, and, indeed, ask for them as if anxious to escape responsibility, it is easy to conceive that the Foreign Office will not again insist on the Treasury behaving with boundless liberality.
“The Times”, reporting on the debate about rebuilding Pera House, British Embassy in Istanbul, after the fire of 1870.
Diplomacy has been in flux for centuries. Are diplomats and their tradecraft redundant in today’s world? Or are they more vital than ever for humanity’s survival?
When I started this book, the simmering Russia-Ukraine conflict, launched in 2014 by President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Russia’s peaceful neighbour, had already claimed 14,000 lives. Yet it seemed remote and obscure to many in Britain, the European Union, and the United States. Putin’s decision in February 2022 to launch a full-scale war of annihilation against a sovereign country larger than France with a pre-war population of over forty million transformed the world and upended diplomacy.
In Istanbul, 2015
This book explores the background to the conflict: what the world did wrong, what it did right and what Vladimir Putin does not understand. It puts twenty-first century diplomacy in context by digging into the Berlin Wall, the rusting of the iron curtain, terrorism, espionage, women in diplomacy and how British politics prepared for Brexit – from 1987 onwards.
How, where and why does diplomacy happen, and what can it teach the rest of us? What can Jonathan the tortoise on Saint Helena tell us about institutional stability? Why is diplomatic immunity a necessary evil? I explain why you can’t cure international terrorism; how unknown enemies are scariest; and why you should never over-estimate authoritarian leaders, from Putin to Saddam Hussein. On the way, we meet extraordinary people, from The Queen, Vivienne Westwood and Jane Goodall through Paul McCartney and the wisdom of Deep Purple to US former C-17 pilot Brigadier General Lyn Sherlock – and Satan, whom I met one night in Moscow. More on him later.
On Sunday 3 October 1993, a group of expats gathered at the British embassy dacha in north-west Moscow for a child’s fifth birthday party. Families huddled around tables in a garden of pale autumn sunshine, sipping Tuborg and munching crisps. Well-wrapped toddlers stuffed with jelly, scones and chocolate cake played hide and seek.
I was helping the birthday boy and his friends assemble a pirate ship when a diplomatic colleague strode up. Shooting had broken out at the Russian Parliament, where riot police had for days hemmed in armed rebels seeking the overthrow of President Yeltsin. Our party included journalists and diplomats. As children played football and ate more cake, adults agonised about what to do.
Reports grew of killings, militias heading for the TV centre at Ostankino, and armoured vehicles joining the demonstrators. We decided to form a convoy, led by the flag car of a Latin American ambassador, and drive into town. If we saw violence or crowds, we would turn back…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy – Wie Diplomatie die Welt Erklärt will be published in German by Czernin Verlag, Vienna, on 12 April 2023.
With Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Vienna, 2016
1993: my Russian driving licence. Soviet photographers tended to make subjects look… a bit Soviet
1986: photobombing The Princess of Wales
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2010: the Ukrainian Strategic Missile Forces Museum
Something to read today
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