Unmasking ‘panda diplomacy’

The star of the Beijing Winter Olympics wasn’t an athlete: it was Bing Dwen Dwen, the spacesuit-clad panda mascot. It was deployed to cover the harsher political edges of the games, and was romping around on the ice at the closing gala. Bing Dwen Dwen is only the latest example of China’s use of ‘panda diplomacy’, so successful over recent decades. The Chinese Communist party has long used them as envoys to potential partners. A bill now wending its way through the US Congress strikes at the heart of panda diplomacy. If it passes, it will keep American-born giant panda cubs in the US, which would break China’s monopoly on

Putin may yet resist a full-on invasion

The west is still in the dark on what Vladimir Putin will do next. The Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border continues but in televised meetings with Sergey Lavrov, his foreign minister, Putin was told that there is a case for ‘continuing and intensifying’ diplomatic discussions with the West. For Putin — who smarts at what he sees as the humiliation of the end of the Cold War and the decline of Soviet power — there is a satisfaction in watching the West scramble to respond to his actions. The Biden administration wanted to prioritise competition with China, but Putin is succeeding in forcing him to concentrate on European diplomacy

There is no Russia-China axis

You should be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it, so the old cliché goes. In diplomacy at the moment, it seems you should be careful of the threats you prepare for, because you may end up producing them. There is a growing trend in the West towards treating Russia and China as some single, threatening ‘Dragonbear’ (a reference to the two countries’ national animals). This underrates the very real tensions between Moscow and Beijing, but risks pushing them even closer together. The most recent case in point was Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s interview in the Financial Times, in which he criticised ‘this whole idea that we

Wrapped up in satire, a serious lesson about the fine line between success and scandal

Have you heard of champing? Neither had I. Turns out it’s camping in a field beside a deserted church. When it rains, you abandon your flimsy tent and instead bed down in the hushed aisles. At the beginning of Ferdinand Mount’s new novel, Making Nice, Dickie Pentecost and his wife Jane, together with their daughters Flo and Lucy, are doing just that. In the morning they meet fellow champer Ethel, short for Ethelbert, a bewitching man with stony eyes and sticking-up hair. ‘Ethel,’ says Dickie. ‘I suppose they could have shortened it to Bert instead.’ After losing his job as the diplomatic editor of a national newspaper (‘Who needs diplomatic

Britain’s golden diplomatic opportunity

‘The world’s changed quite a bit,’ was Domic Raab’s fitting, if somewhat understated, opening remark at the G7 meeting of foreign secretaries this week. The first in-person meeting of the alliance in two years saw masked dignitaries, elbow bumps and distanced discussions behind plexiglass screens. But two members of the Indian delegation still ended up testing positive for Covid. Beyond the immediate challenges of the current crisis, Raab’s words seemed prescient. Quite a bit has changed since the G7 last met in France in 2019. Britain has left the EU and is no longer paralysed by parliamentary deadlock. President Biden has replaced Donald Trump in the White House. German and

Alan Duncan rants about ‘idiot’ parliamentary colleagues and Britain’s waning influence

As a budding political apparatchik, my first job out of university was as a junior parliamentary assistant to Alan Duncan MP. Working for him was never taxing because it was never boring. Nicknamed ‘Hunky Dunky’, he was well known in the Tory fraternity. Too young to be a grandee and too old to be a rising star, he occupied a special space in the parliamentary party, never part of a clique yet consistently present during his 27 years in parliament. We’d often remark — to his annoyance — that he was the Chips Channon of his generation, since both often ended up on the wrong side of the winning team.

The Kremlin’s strategy to undermine Britain

The past week has seen the war in Ukraine, which has been simmering for the last seven years, once more come to the boil. According to Kiev, Russia has massed as many as 85,000 troops near its border, while Moscow has actively talked-up the possibility of full-scale war and warned that it ‘would mean the beginning of Ukraine’s end’. Is such a war likely? You can forgive Kiev for worrying so — Vladimir Putin is already getting his excuses ready. The Kremlin claims to have an obligation to protect the residents of the Donbass if tensions continue to rise (just like it claimed to have an obligation to the residents

War was never Sir Edward Grey’s métier

This meaty but easily digested biography pivots around the events either side of that fateful evening of 4 August 1914 when Britain’s ultimatum to Germany over Belgium ran out and Sir Edward Grey memorably remarked that the lamps were going out over Europe. As foreign secretary for almost a decade before that, Grey had deftly orchestrated a web of alliances designed to keep the peace in Europe, and Britain the dominant global power. But war and its attendant carnage unravelled his life’s work, leaving him a nervous wreck. He hung on in office until 1916 when the new prime minister David Lloyd George unceremoniously swept him out. Lloyd George later

The art of negotiation: Peace Talks, by Tim Finch, reviewed

Early on in Tim Finch’s hypnotic novel Peace Talks, the narrator — the diplomat Edvard Behrends, who facilitates international peace negotiations — reflects: ‘Peace talks settle into this repeating pattern after a while, a pattern like that of the floor carpets in places like this conference centre, in which a polygonal weave mesmerises the eye almost to a vanishing point.’ He is commenting on the lonely, relentless routine of the talks, walks, meals and drinks, as official negotiations inch forward, stall, reverse and proceed again over the course of months. Alongside the diplomatic conference, another type of peace talk is underway: the meandering, intimate prose of the novel’s first-person narrative

Disputes over Putin

These two refreshingly concise books address the same question from different angles: how should we deal with Russia? Mark Galeotti focuses on Vladimir Putin himself, his background, aims, tactics and strategy (if any).  Andrew Monaghan takes a wider approach, analysing Russia’s strengths and weaknesses, its self-image, its perceptions and misperceptions of us, ditto ours of it. Both argue that relations between Russia and the West suffer because we are sometimes prisoners of our own preconceptions. Monaghan describes what he calls the two-part security dilemma, a problem firstly of interpretation and secondly of response.  The interpretive problem is partly the automatic assumption that Russia is an expansionist threat, as evidenced by

Mean Girls and meaner trolls: the rise of Twitter diplomacy

You can tell a lot about a leader by the diplomats they choose to represent them. Brezhnev had Anatoly Dobrynin, Nixon had Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Netanyahu has Regina George. The queen bitch of North Shore High, fictional setting of the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls, is blunt, conniving and vicious with a mid-hallway putdown. Played by sweetness personified Rachel McAdams but scripted by the acid Tina Fey, Regina is not someone you’d like to encounter in double French — or at Camp David. That is no doubt why the Israelis selected her as the latest face of digital hasbara. Ayatollah Khamenei — probably not a connoisseur of high school

Rats in the ballroom

At first blush this looks like one of those run-of-the-mill coffee-table books published just for the Christmas market — expensively produced, replete with beautiful photographs, a text as undemanding as the tinkling notes of a cocktail-bar pianist, and the whole thing massively heavy. It is a beautiful — and heavy — book, with fine photographs by Luke White. But what distinguishes it is the skill and acuity with which James Stourton has written the commentary, making it a serious and engrossing work of history. His text takes the form of an introductory essay on the changing nature of diplomacy over the centuries, a model of elegant concision, followed by the

Letters | 19 October 2017

The great divider Sir: Niall Ferguson (‘Tech vs Trump’, 14 October) draws a parallel between the Reformation — powered by the printing press — and today’s social networks — powered by the internet — in their influence on the established hierarchy. Ferguson astutely observes that the consequence of the Reformation was not a hoped-for harmony but ‘polarisation and conflict’. The difference was then, and is now, between collectivism and individualism. Collectivists always saw the internet as a vehicle for the universal consciousness: the blending of minds. Individualists always saw the internet as an integrator: establishing facts using the principle of non-contradiction. The first is mystical. The second is a demonstration of

Charming old fox

Talleyrand was 76 when he took up the post of French ambassador in London in 1830. Linda Kelly deals only with the last phase of Talleyrand’s long and tumultuous career, but this short book brings him marvellously to life. He was not an impressive figure. Little over 5’3” in height, he walked with a limp —one leg was in an iron brace. ‘Always dress slowly when you are in a hurry,’ was one of his maxims, and each morning during his lengthy toilette his valet coiffed his long, straggly white locks with curling tongs. One wag described him as ‘a big packet of flannel enveloped in a blue coat and

No. 10 is learning how to deal with the Donald

Imagine if Donald Trump declared that Islam had ‘no place’ in his country, or proposed banning the burqa ‘wherever legally possible’. There wouldn’t be enough space in Trafalgar Square for all the protestors. British ministers would be forced to the Commons to make clear their disagreement with the President of the United States. And there would be millions more signatures on the petition demanding that his state visit invitation be rescinded. The Trump White House, of course, hasn’t said either of these things. They are the on-the-record positions of two heads of governments in the EU. Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, has declared that Islam has no place in

Ripeness is all

‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’ The line from Life of Brian is followed by: ‘It’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.’ In fact, cheese animates the Bible and — building on Job’s searing image of the womb — its coagulation became an emblem of the Immaculate Conception, endorsed by no less than Hildegard of Bingen. This is just one of innumerable thoughts prompted by this Oxford Companion’s elegant, double-columned, well-illustrated pages. Here is a strong, pleasingly ripe case for cheese’s global role in social, political and economic history. It all makes for many ‘cheese adventures’. That phrase — not here — was Boswell’s

Don’t knock ‘secret deals’. We’ll need one soon

As a founder member of the Guild of Blair-Bashers, someone who reacted strongly against him from our first encounter at dinner when he was only an opposition spokesman, as a commentator who railed against the invasion of Iraq the moment the idea was mooted and right through to the end, and as a journalist who throughout Tony Blair’s time at No. 10 beat my tiny fists against the imposter I always thought him to be, perhaps I may deserve your attention now, after Chilcot, that I have something to say in Mr Blair’s defence? I don’t believe that in any important way the former Prime Minister lied. And I don’t

Away with the fairies | 10 March 2016

As an erstwhile obituarist, I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy (and the subject of Bart Casey’s biography) — when he died, aged 59, in 1888. The first paragraph should (according to the well-seasoned formula) contain some characterising incident or achievement, giving the measure of the man, the impact he made on the world and those around him, and an indication of his interior life. The anecdote must — like cherry-picked quotations for a Shakespeare exam — inform more than one facet of a broader narrative. Any runner-up contenders can be dropped into paragraphs four,

The four men who averted the Apocalypse

In March 1987, as Professor Robert Service records in his new account of the end of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher visited Moscow. She had been reluctant to do so, largely out of fear that such a visit would only make it easier for a credulous Reagan — as she saw him — to offer Gorbachev even more concessions. She had also been worried that it would produce nothing for British interests. Her hesitation to travel to Russia, let alone, as her advisers had urged, solicit an invitation, was perhaps surprising. She and Gorbachev had got on famously — shoes off, in front of a blazing fire — when she

Charles Moore’s Notes: Who’d be a diplomat now?

The other day, a friend told me, he had been chatting to an old friend of his who has spent his life in diplomacy and international relations. The man, who will quite soon retire, has had a successful career, but he was full of gloom. Essentially, he said, the entire system of international relations has now been working very badly for 20 years, having worked much better in the previous 50 or so. No one — particularly no one in the West — can see a way through this, but the chancelleries and ministers are reluctant to confront this sad truth, and so a pointless merry-go-round of international conferences, bodies