Britain’s Diplomatic Funambulism

One of the joys, some might say frustrations, of monitoring diplomatic statements and interviews is the opportunity it gives one to explore rhetorical gymnastics. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London has traditionally schooled its rising stars in verbal dexterity and these silver tongued individuals spend much of their careers mastering their craft in such a way that in the end even they sometimes mistake artifice for the real thing. The current British Ambassador to Ethiopia is one of those consummate professionals whose utterances ought to be required reading by those eager to understand the mindset and training of the more intelligent modern diplomats.

Being an Ambassador in Ethiopia these days rarely requires candor. Here is a posting that in the eyes of many foreign ministries has increasing weight, not least because Addis Ababa is the Head Quarters of the Africa Union (AU). Addis Ababa has begun to luxuriate in its new found status of being the Strasbourg/Brussels of Africa. It is inevitable that those appointed to such a key posting will be ambitious individuals eager to play the diplomatic game with all the consummate skills of a chess grandmaster. If ever an African capital could claim to be a centre of intrigue it is Addis Ababa and thus those diplomats sent to such a posting are by their nature political animals. Ethiopia has taken on added importance in recent years and Britain has fallen over itself to ingratiate itself with the current regime. The UK government’s largess to Ethiopia in 2009, largely in the form of overseas aid, was some £220 million, the largest contribution made by Britain to any country in Africa. Where in former times the FCO might have sort to plough its own furrow, it is currently fixated with the need to keep in step with its EU partners, namely France and Germany. 

Norman Ling, the current British Ambassador, to Ethiopia has been in this plum posting now for over three years. His steely charm allows him to navigate the diplomatic cataracts relatively unscathed, no doubt earning him plaudits from his mentors and political masters in Whitehall. Ambassador Ling is a cut above many of the current generation of British diplomats, but even a man of his brilliance cannot fully mask the imperfections and weaknesses in British foreign policy in the region. Where once exceptional minds endeavoured to formulate policies, now existing protocols have become their shackles and straightjackets. The dogmatic stance taken by the AU on national borders is something that has long restricted any creative thinking. Whilst this suits diplomats on the one hand as it provides a convenient excuse to hide behind, it ensures that regional disputes and tensions fester. Post-2003 British Foreign Policy has become ever more fixated with a European consensus in foreign affairs; Britain is fearful of leading from the front less it might be seen as out of step with its European partners. It is precisely in the area of foreign relations that European nations should demonstrate a willingness for some individuality, not least because their own experience and historical relationships with certain countries and regions are so very different. Sadly, many of those formulating policy rather than being solutions and opportunities driven are wracked with post-colonial guilt and a desire for cost cutting. Historical associations are neglected, residual goodwill squandered or trampled upon and real opportunities for healthy engagement and business missed. Is it any wonder that China is sweeping the board.
Events in the Maghreb and the Middle East raise serious questions about those who file their bland communiqués. Many diplomats and those supposed to beating the drum for British industry have become quite comfortable with the status quo, whilst others have established cordiale relationships despotic elites. The new breed of career diplomats seem more terrified of change than ever before, forever trotting out the mantra of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.  In this post-colonial era, the current European “all things to all people” approach just will not do. Mature relationships require more honesty, pragmatism and date I say it, a good deal more daring. One of the reasons that Rwanda has been able to formulate a real vision of its future is that it has taken ownership of its problems. President Kigame plays a hard game, can be a prickly character and certainly has a turbulent relationship with some in the media, but he is a man who means business and respects those who have firm convictions. What is being achieved in Rwanda is in marked contrast to the poverty of vision that exists in the foreign ministries of Europe. British and European diplomats need to wake from their cosy slumber and recalibrate. 

Returning to Ambassador Ling, in his recent interview with Tamrat G. Giorgis, Managing Editor of the Ethiopian newspaper, Fortune (26/4/2011) he simultaneously managed to elucidate something of the towering majesty of British diplomacy and its fatal flaws. Here was a man who managed to walk a diplomatic tightrope with all the assurance of Blondin. The very nature of such interviews is that one gets a sense that the interviewer, the publication and the readers locally (and no doubt some jealous colleagues) are hoping that such a consummate performer will put a foot wrong. On the surface at least all appeared to go well, yet maybe his performance was rather too nuanced and contrived. When responding to questions related to water access and the Blue Nile, Ambassador Ling spoke of British policy; “...not being locked in history” yet that is has precisely what British policy has been when one looks at the African Union (AU). His answers were particularly telling of the mindset that is frustrating bold and imaginative steps with regard to Britain taking the lead in the recognition of Somaliland; “There were many people in Africa who would react badly if it was the former protecting power, in this case the UK, which was the first country to recognise Somaliland.” – such sensitivity appears to be an interesting example of sophistry from a government that has been in the vanguard of attacking the Gaddafi regime in Libya and riding roughshod over the United Nations in regard of Iraq. Those who have an understanding of British policy in the Horn of Africa will know that if it comes to doing the right thing for Somaliland or doing the wrong thing to keep in with the likes of Ethiopia and the Africa Union happy sadly the latter is more likely to be the case. Ling and his colleagues are well aware that recognition of Somaliland is only a matter of time, once other nations have come out formally Britain will then follow suit and assume a somewhat pained expression and claim it is doing so because circumstances have changed. 

Not surprisingly this same interview saw the thorny issue of Ogaden raised:

“Q: Is the Ogaden a great source of concern for your government?

We are concerned about any form of insecurity anywhere in the Horn of Africa. This is a very insecure area. Ethiopia as a country is perhaps the only one with a degree of stability, and anything that undermines stability in Ethiopia is clearly very serious.
In the Ogaden, the [Ogaden National Liberation Front] ONLF is a secessionist group and we deplore its terrorist activities. Yet, they and others have been prepared to negotiate with the government of Ethiopia. That is to be welcomed. There will be more negotiation if this was a slightly more democratic society.”

When it comes to issues such as Ogaden we gain even more insight by what is left out rather than what has been included. The Ambassador claims that Ethiopia is the only country with a degree of security, when in point of fact the de facto state of Somaliland is equally if not more secure. When discussing the ONLF he chooses to make no mention of the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian Government or the fact that the British Government had only reluctantly agreed to the ceding of the Ogaden region (of what was then Italian Somaliland) to Ethiopia under political from the United States of America.

Whilst it is inevitable that diplomats feel the need to play to the local gallery, a little more candor would not go amiss, especially when it comes to endeavouring to set things in context. Protocol and diplomatic niceties are all very well, but Britain’s smarm offensive is proving less and less effective. Seasoned observers of British Diplomacy throughout Africa feel there is a need for a fundamental overall of how the UK engages with the Continent, for at present those formulating and fronting policy may be bright but lack wisdom. The more uncharitable might claim that the Ambassador Ling’s of this world would appear to be not quite as bright as they think they are. As for those budding funambulists in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office they would do well to remember that there are plenty of countries eager to see the UK stumble. 


More by :  Mark T. Jones

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