January 28, 2008
The game of ‘diplomatic whispers’is a reversal of ‘Chinese whispers’ (see endnote). Diplomatic whispers begin with a given country’s embassy in Ruritania routinely sending to its foreign ministry ‘telegrams’ on the political, economic and social happenings and analyses of their implications. These reports are often written by diplomats who are relatively new to Ruritania, have little experience of its culture and do not speak the language. Thus contact with ‘real’ Ruritanians is limited. This situation is exacerbated by their movement being severely restricted due to security concerns.
How are these telegrams compiled? The knowledge is mainly acquired from an elitist, incestuous circle of government officials, diplomatic colleagues and journalists feeding each other. The resulting broad consensus becomes the received wisdom. Embassy telegrams are confidential and their contents cannot therefore be tested outside the foreign ministry. There is no reason to suppose that diplomatic analyses are likely to be more accurate than the expert reports from bodies such as the International Crisis Group and Open Society Institute.
The process is not helped by the foreign ministry treatment of the diplomatic analyses. Officials collate the various reports, extract what is considered germane and overall advice is then given to the minister, to be used as the basis of his/her reports to colleagues, parliament and the media. Clinical objectivity does not exist and official advice is inevitably influenced by the selection of the material to be used, risking the inclusion of what the compiler or indeed recipient of the reports wants to hear. Officials sometimes have their own agendas. Ministers come and go and there is frequently an absence of mutual trust between ministers and officials. Foreign ministers do not rely exclusively on this information and government action is rarely predicated on diplomatic whispers, but it is to be questioned whether this elitist, secretive approach is effective or cost-effective in today’s information society..
There is good reason for close collaboration on information-gathering and political analysis between the EU and Member State services. This aspect should be given serious discussions in the long term planning of the new EU External Action Service..
These reflections were inspired by reading the ‘Independent Diplomat’ by Carne Ross (ISBN 978 0 8014 4557 6). This short, easily readable book by a disillusioned, former British diplomat lays bare diplomacy for what it is.
The origin of the term ‘Chinese whispers’ is uncertain. One explanation derives from British soldiers believing that the Chinese were unable to follow instructions properly (unsurprising, as the instructions were given in English). If the Chinese had been giving the instructions, the game might have been called ‘English whispers’!Author : Stanley Crossick