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The Dark Side of Diplomacy

Published on 16 June 2008
Updated on 05 April 2024

Reading books on diplomacy (and even history books on the subject) one might be misled into believing that it is akin to engineering – a matter of precise calculation of advantages and costs. Of course, in practice building bridges is different than drawing plans in an air-conditioned office, so one may expect to get one’s feet dirty, but not one’s hands. The same applies to diplomacy – so the textbooks; nowhere is the ‘dark side of diplomacy’ ever mentioned.

In the years leading up to 1282 Michael VIII Paleologus, Eastern Roman Emperor, was beset by Charles I of Sicily, then the most powerful monarch in Western Europe. To stave off the threat Michael allied himself with Peter III, king of Aragon (Spain). He got Pope Nicholas III to be more than neutral, and bribery was spread around the Papal Court. Giovanni da Procida was sent to Sicily to rally the discontented Sicilians. On 30th March 1282 Palermo rose, killed the French garrison, and declared the island’s independence. The Sicilian Vespers[i] broke King Charles’ power; but also that of the Papacy. The Avignon exile ensued, and consequently, the Reformation – the Sicilian Vespers were not just a local revolt, they were a pivotal event in European history.

According to the textbooks diplomacy was invented a century or so later – whatever. This bit of history to me shows diplomacy at its fullest if not its ethical best. We see alliances between far-flung kingdoms, bribery, corruption, and surreptitious meddling in another country’s affairs – this is the darker side of diplomacy.

The Venetian Ambassadors to the Sublime Porte were masters in manipulation of the serail. Gifts were spread among the wizirs and beys, often with great effect. Merchants were expected to report home on anything of political and economic interest they’d seen. The debriefings were thorough and much assisted the Republic in surviving the onslaught of the Turks.

Mazarin employed the ruthless Père Joseph to manipulate everyone in and outside France. The ‘secret du roi’ – the precursor of the Deuxième Bureau – was a key instrument of diplomacy, then and later.

Fast-forwarding to today, the UN is routinely spied upon by the Great Powers. Journalists and organisations front for foreign interests. American diplomats are spotted around the Caspian Sea with suitcases full of cash. The US ‘intelligence’ budget is estimated at over 70 billions – 70% of it is outsourced, thus blurring the line between private and public activity. The Vatican blatantly manipulates a mass meeting at the beginning of this year to bring down the centre-left coalition across the Tiber. New elections are called, and the right wins. Benedict XVI publicly expresses his ‘joy’ at the electoral outcome.

I’d say little has changed as far as the ‘dark side of diplomacy’ is concerned – it has just gotten more complex and technical. Yet the diplomacy textbooks blithely ignore it, except for recommending prudence and secrecy as one goes about one’s daily diplomatic business. In a world where there are no spies, bribes or manipulations, one wonders where the dangers come from.

No government will refrain from using ‘the darker side of diplomacy’ if it suits its interests and it is able to use it. The only rule is – don’t get caught; unless it wants to be seen as powerful enough to dictate the outcome. Some governments have moral guidelines – killing may be considered unseemly (until the deed is upgraded to ‘vital interest’). Overuse will blunt the instrument – too many plots on too many fronts are a recipe for ‘blowback’.

For the discerning diplomat this opens up the archane world of ‘conspiracy’ theories. The problem with them all is that – once one accepts the possibility of a conspiracy – their number is infinite, and all more or less equally improbable. Skepticism should be the lens through which she views the diplomatic and political world. It is a wise attitude to take in any case.

As for the teaching of diplomacy – it better confront the fact that ‘the darker side of diplomacy’ is not irrelevant ‘noise’ to be safely ignored when going about the business of teaching the ‘regularities’ of diplomacy and constructing ‘general theories’. Robust, unsanitized teaching, based on ‘case studies’, should be fostered – and damn the emasculated theories. Where to begin? I’d suggest the 1953 US-led coup in Iran against Mossadeq: it still casts a long shadow on the relations between the two countries.

[i] Steven RUNCIMAN (1992): The Sicilian Vespers. A history of the Mediterranean world in the later thirteenth century. Canto, Cambridge University Press; xi + 356 pp.

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