Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Diplomacy But Were Afraid to Ask

...can be found in Satow's Guide to Diplomatic Practice, reviewed by Jeremy Greenstock in the current TLS:
Can a guide originally written in 1917 for a very different planet be relevant now, even with the radical revision which the new editor, Sir Ivor Roberts, decided was necessary? Is diplomacy itself the same profession it was ninety years ago, or indeed in 1969, when the present Satow editor and I sat at adjacent desks in the West African Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, raw recruits struggling with the complexities of the Nigerian civil war? The smell of sealing wax in the registries, the piles of crisp pink and green telegrams on the desks, and the hiss and rattle of Lamson Tubes dispatching papers to other parts of Whitehall now seem like features of a Dickensian novel.

Reading this new edition is a chance to take a salutary lesson. The past is closer to us than we like to imagine; the advice on how to be a good diplomat from a century or three centuries ago can still be spot-on; the well-tried rules of courteous and honourable exchange can cement the bricks of international order like nothing else. Diplomacy and war remain two sides of the same coin, with a lack of professionalism in the one liable to make the other loom all the larger. We need to know what constitutes good practice.

Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843–1929) was a member of the British Japan Consular Service who rose, through his linguistic and other diplomatic skills, to become Head of Mission in Tokyo and then Peking at the turn of the century. In 1907 he represented Britain at the Second Hague Conference on International Peace. He wrote extensively about Japan and is still warmly remembered there. In his retirement he distilled his experience into a diplomatic guide which remains the most widely used in embassies around the world.

This Sixth Edition of Satow’s Diplomatic Practice runs to 700 pages, a challenge for all but the most studious of international affairs enthusiasts, but well worth dipping into or keeping as a work of reference. It describes how diplomacy is structured and organized, how the international and regional institutions work (with much updating on the European Union), how states transact their collective business and how law works at the global level. Precedents and customs abound; and there are some engaging anecdotes. The guidance on how to write a Note Verbale or draw up a non-paper may seem abstruse in a world of emails, blogs and Twittering, but formal communications remain part of international exchange. To adhere to a standard formula, often during a tense situation, has a reassuringly businesslike quality to it. As with legal language, it sounds strange but it is effective.

To the layman, nevertheless, those are diplomatic niceties. The fundamental purpose of the book is serious: humans are a contentious and destructive species and so the opportunities for peaceful interaction must be maximized. Here is an essential aid to doing so at the highest levels of professional effectiveness. Nor is Satow relevant only for British, or even anglophone, practitioners: diplomats of any nationality can draw huge benefit from it. I particularly commend the section at the end on Advice to Diplomats: listen more than you talk; stay calm in every circumstance; don’t show off that you are privy to secrets. The same mistakes are made today as many generations ago; and no practising diplomat should feel too proud to be reminded of them.