Charles Crawford, formerly Our Man in Warsaw, Sarajevo and Belgrade, thinks we should have told the Saudis to hop off and let the BAE corruption trial proceed. Not because anti-corruption investigations are good in themselves but because it would have been a demonstration of toughness. In the longer term, then, the national interest would have been better served by exposing the Saudis. But that's not our style...
The Russians too are outstanding negotiators, but in a different sense. They are taught negotiating technique in a way which is quite foreign to British and European methods.
Russian diplomats' First Rule of Negotiating is simple and profound: "Never move position, even when you agree with someone, without trying to extract something first."
This attitude gives them all sorts of advantages. Above all they usually convey the impression (a) that they are tough, and (b) that they move only on their terms. Plus they come over as (c) ready to take considerable pain in defending their principles, while (d) being ready, nay keen, to hit you harder (and if possible below the belt) than you hit them.
Which is why Russian diplomats are rarely kidnapped or humiliated. Even the dimmest terrorist out there knows that if he does something bad to the Russians, they will not hesitate to something Very Bad, and preferably very personal, to him - and his family.
Our British problem is that we (maybe especially in the FCO?) in a baffling post-modern way are increasingly uncomfortable if not embarrassed with any talk of 'power' (theirs or ours). We seem to be drifting into a hazy miasma of collective ineffectualness. Psychological and practical 'safety' is all. Confrontation necessarily is aggressive (and therefore bad). Winning is undesirable if it means someone loses.
It is hard to know where all this rubbish comes from explicitly. Part of it is the fact that at the national level we find ourselves sucked in to a 'European' style of negotiating, a restless but incoherent striving for 'middle ground'. The default instinct when confronted with a new demand is not to say loudly "get lost", but rather to sigh "oh dear, they want something again - what might we offer them this time?"
In short, we can come across not as Powerfully Purposeful, but Lamely Malleable. When in fact we aren't, or at least do not need to be.
Indeed. I'd also suggest that this is what happened in Northern Ireland too. London wanted a deal so badly that, in the end, the actual details of an agreement were less important than the existence of a piece of paper everyone could sign. Knowing this, Sinn Fein and the IRA had an enormous advantage in the negotiating process (boosted by the awareness that Washington would bat for the "Green" side of the argument every time). When the Republicans said "No" they were rewarded, when Unionists pointed out their concerns London was likely to see them as an obstacle to be overcome. In the end, the most unreasonable people in the room did best while the reasonable parties were eclipsed.