The world and his wife have been enjoying this week’s revelations, courtesy of WikiLeaks, of what American diplomats actually think about – more or less everyone in the world, actually. I’m almost surprised that those busy bees in the American Embassy in London haven’t yet got around to critiquing this blog (“I wasted half an hour of my life reading James’s space, but concluded that said space is largely between that jerkass’ ears. He poses a threat to US interests only if those are considered to include the protection from consumption of the world supply of pork pies.”). Joking aside, there are two conclusions that seem inevitable from the material made available so far – that getting diplomats to report back on the country they are stationed in is largely a waste of time and money and that the vanity of powerful people knows no bounds.
On the first point, here is some of the hot news that American diplomats reported home. The Governor of the Bank of England was concerned that David Cameron and George Osborne lacked experience and tended to think about issues only in terms of politics (The shame of it! And them being politicians, too). The Pakistani Intelligence Service has ties with Muslim extremists. Nicolas Sarkozy is self-absorbed, thin-skinned and erratic, not to mention tactless. Silvio Berlusconi is a womanising prat. Afghan politicians are frequently corrupt and have a massive capacity for re-directing aid money into their own pockets . To which anyone who’s been following the news much over the last few years can only respond – “No shit.” Basically, the US Government could probably have worked out most of what it was being told by its diplomats simply from reading the world press. Maybe the US Diplomatic Service should now adopt as its emblem that well-known American superhero, Captain Obvious.
In fairness to the diplomats, the leaks have apparently not included the most highly classified information, so there is undoubtedly more juicy stuff to which we have not been made privy, although presumably a lot of this would have been gathered through espionage of some kind rather than regular diplomatic activity. It’s difficult not to conclude that whilst getting your ambassador to send back dispatches on the general goings-on in the country they’re stationed in probably made sense in the sixteenth century, when there were few other reliable sources of information, it rather wastes his time now. It’s not as if diplomats don’t have other things to do – liasing with the foreign government, negotiating treaties and agreements, helping people who’ve had their passports stolen. Acting as a conduit for this kind of information only really makes sense in states which are so repressive that the media can’t report freely – Burma or North Korea – and, guess what, those are exactly the kind of states who’ll do their utmost to stop diplomats finding anything out as well.
As for my second point; look, even if they run the kind of regimes that try and stop their own citizens getting access to the truth, politicians generally know the score about how they are perceived by others. Osborne and Cameron know perfectly well that in Opposition, they were criticised for being inexperienced and concerned only with winning the election. The Pakistani Intelligence Service know many people think they fund terrorist groups. Nicolas Sarkozy and even, on some level, the monumentally un-self-aware Silvio Berlusconi, probably know what others think they are like. They would all either deny that the perceptions are correct or, perhaps, why they are correct but it doesn’t matter (one can imagine an Afghan politician explaining why bribes are just the Afghan way of doing things). So why the big fuss when something comes out confirming what was widely believed anyway? A lot of it must be down to the pricked vanity of self-important people. Clearly, it isn’t just the A-Team who will do anything to save Face.
On a lighter note, the use of “super” as an intensifier on adjectives by Americans is clearly not limited to members of Paramore (see earlier post). One diplomat describes Labour politician Ed Balls in a report as “super bright”. Usage by diplomats, however, conclusively confirms that this is Not Punk, Dude. I mean, whoever heard of Punk Diplomacy?