On diplomacy, sovereignty and peacemaking

| October 16, 2021 | 0 Comments
Peter Westmacott's new book provides insights from a British envoy abroad. He served as British ambassador to France, Turkey and the U.S. (Photo: © Inge Hogenbijl | Dreamstime.com)

Peter Westmacott’s new book provides insights from a British envoy abroad. He served as British ambassador to France, Turkey and the U.S. (Photo: © Inge Hogenbijl | Dreamstime.com)

They Call It Diplomacy: Forty Years of Representing Britain Abroad
By Peter Westmacott
Head of Zeus, Apollo Books, 2021
368 pages
Kindle: $9.99

Soon after Peter Westmacott arrived in Turkey as British ambassador, a bomb razed Pera House, the British consulate general in Istanbul. Twelve consulate employees died in the 2003 attack, and three people in the vicinity. Had the timing been a few days earlier, when Westmacott and his wife were visiting the building, they would have been among the casualties.
It’s a reminder that the life of diplomats — though often perceived to be focused on pomp, protocol and pleasantries — can also be dangerous. It is not just superpower representatives (specifically Americans) who are the targets of protest and sometimes violence abroad.
Nor is it just the superpowers that have global interests and priorities, as Westmacott’s biography of a British envoy shows. Much of the focus of this book is on London’s herculean attempts over many years to resolve the festering tension in divided Cyprus and assist Turkey in joining the European Union — an effort that has so far failed (and is now more than a little ironic, given that Britons themselves have left the European fold).
Westmacott joined what was then the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1972, and served as British ambassador to Turkey, France and ultimately, the United States, with various other postings (including with royalty, as deputy secretary for the Prince of Wales). Along the way, he increasingly strongly believes in the role of professional diplomats, even as they are less and less appreciated by their governments in the modern age. Building relationships with the senior ranks of other nations is crucial, he believes, and his close ties to ministers and leaders seem to bear that out. Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan, for example, never accepted hospitality from foreign diplomats, but was happy to come for a meal at the rebuilt consulate.
Later, posted to the United States, Westmacott enjoyed time with his next-door neighbour, then-vice-president Joe Biden. “He was a people person. Genuinely interested in other human beings, and warm to the point of being more tactile than some people found comfortable, but which we found endearing, he understood that the secret to getting another person to do what you want is to gain their trust and understand their needs as well as your own,” writes Westmacott, surely alluding to what he thinks is unique about successful diplomats, too.

Peter Westmacott joined Britain’s foreign service in 1972 when it was called the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. (Photo: Arthur Jau)

Peter Westmacott joined Britain’s foreign service in 1972 when it was called the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. (Photo: Arthur Jau)

Westmacott’s insights include short, telling anecdotes. For instance, he was friendly with British prime minister Tony Blair, who came to Paris regularly even after he had left No. 10 Downing Street. In 2008, Blair, then out of office, was asked to give a speech to Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party in Paris. “He arrived on an overnight flight from the Middle East, suffering from an unpleasant throat infection. After putting the speech he had written on the plane into French with the help of his translator, he put on his suit, went to wash his hands in an elegant but vintage bathroom … and was promptly soaked by the overhead shower. Hairdryer to the rescue, we did our best to tidy him up and sent the former prime minister on his way with a throat so sore he was barely able to speak. None of the several thousand UMP [Union pour un Mouvement Populaire] supporters who heard him speak, powerfully and in excellent French, were any the wiser.”
Then there was Margaret Thatcher, whom Westmacott saw in action when he was a junior foreign officer. Travelling abroad, she liked to talk through the issues with her team the night before formal meetings, over a glass of whisky. On one occasion, she asked a technical question and no one could answer — except Westmacott, a lowly first secretary sitting on the floor. After he offered up the information she wanted, “the prime minister went round the room, wagging her finger and counting the number of cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries she had brought with her who had been so unable to answer her questions that she had had to get the answers from the first secretary kneeling at her feet.” It was a technique Thatcher, a woman operating in a man’s world, sometimes used to keep her people in their place.
In mid-career, Westmacott took a job as deputy private secretary to The Prince of Wales. Rumours swirled about the tattered relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana, yet his respect for both is clear. “On trips abroad, ambassadors wanted the prince to be given the keys of the city, attend receptions and shake lots of hands, while he — and the princess — wanted to make a difference, engage with businesspeople and cultural leaders, promote environmental projects and conservation, or set up local versions of volunteering. My role was to try to get others to understand what [his] agenda was, and to make my principals feel that their time was being well spent.”
He adds: “ … on a series of global issues like inequality, social cohesion, [corporate social responsibility,] the survival of endangered species and the future of our planet, the Prince of Wales was already years ahead of his time.”
Not included in this book, no doubt because it wasn’t directly part of Westmacott’s brief, is discussion of Britain’s role in the Commonwealth. Indeed, only one Canadian prime minister is even mentioned — Stephen Harper — during a brief segment describing a particularly busy day at the British Embassy in Paris. (This may speak to the relative importance accorded Canada by world powers).
For all the world events in which the author had a front-row seat — the Falklands invasion, the Gulf wars, the Arab Spring, the Obama years, for instance — Westmacott is also determined to describe the “soft” side of diplomacy. He is interested in and often describes the architecture of British embassies abroad. He plays tourist, and passes on his observations: “We skied at 4,000 metres in the Alburz Mountains just north of Tehran.” “It would have been a terrible waste to spend four years in France and not develop some appreciation of its wonderful wines” and so forth. Such travelogue paints a life of privilege, but it is also part of what diplomats do — aside from helping nationals in distress, pushing business and commercial interests, gathering and sharing intelligence with allies and trying, so genteelly, to influence policy in their host countries.
Freed in his retirement of the bonds of self-restraint, Westmacott has a few choice words about his country’s most significant global action in recent years: its decision to leave the European Union. To Westmacott, Brexit was a clear mistake that has diminished the U.K.’s standing in the world. If only the British government listened more closely to its diplomats.

Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim
By Peter H. Russell
UTP Insights, University of Toronto Press, 2021
192 pages
Kindle: $16.63
Hardcover: $29.65

Almost 50 years ago, professor Peter H. Russell was approached by members of the Dene Nation for help in dealing with the threat that a pipeline would be built in Canada’s North. Although he had been teaching political science since the late 1950s, Russell writes that he had never heard of the Dene. When its representatives asked him two specific questions —“What is sovereignty?” and “How did the Queen get it over us?” — he was at a loss to provide helpful answers.
Addressing these questions in the context of Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous population spurred his decades-long research into the nature of sovereignty — its history, evolution, advantages and pitfalls — and how it applies globally and to groups, such as Indigenous peoples, not subsumed by the Westphalian notion of sovereign states. He soon concluded that the Crown had acquired sovereignty over the Dene through “trickery” and “fraud.”
They’re powerful words from an academic. And while you’d think a book about sovereignty (and its relatives such as federalism and constitutionalism) might be dry reading, Russell moves this exposition along smartly, touring European history from Charlemagne to the Thirty Years’ War, through the French Revolution and into the age of imperial expansion, with nods along the way to Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Edmund Burke, Francisco de Vitoria and other thinkers.

Author Peter H. Russell moves his exposition on sovereignty along smoothly, exploring European history from Charlemagne through the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution, whose storming of the Bastille is pictured here.

Author Peter H. Russell moves his exposition on sovereignty along smoothly, exploring European history from Charlemagne through the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution, whose storming of the Bastille is pictured here.

Sovereignty, writes Russell, is a claim to be the highest source of legitimate power, but as a claim, “it can be resisted; a claim is only as good as its acceptance by others.” The European notion of sovereignty at first rested with the Christian God, then was channelled to the monarch, eventually passing during the revolutionary age between 1760 and 1800 to “the people.” Ideas about sovereign states had been strengthened over the centuries by Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press, which homogenized languages and helped spread nationalistic pride.
While the strengthening of sovereignty among nations lent coherence and identity, it also made it easier for European countries to start what Russell calls “the global scramble for wealth and power” — also known as expansionism and colonialism. Nations claimed new territories to prevent other sovereign states from reaping any of the benefits associated with them, and if those new lands happened to be populated prior to their “discovery,” well, European thinking held that “only civilized people were entitled to self-government.” A land could be claimed on any of three principles: “terra nullius” (the assertion that there was no one else there); conquest; or cession. Russell notes with dismay that these principles were applied to both North America and New Zealand in what he terms “fake history.” The lands weren’t devoid of people; no one was ever “conquered”; and Indigenous peoples certainly did not cede their land by any accepted definition of the term.
When Britain in the 1830s handed over to the Canadian colonial government responsibility for Indigenous peoples, their plight worsened, through “dishonest use of treaties,” the Indian Act and the introduction of residential schools. “No other settler country tried so systematically to force Indigenous peoples to assimilate with the dominant settler culture, or invested as many resources in that undertaking.”
How, in the modern world of nation states, might one respect the sovereignty of Canada’s first people? Here, Russell touts the virtues of federalism, in which entities within a country — provinces and territories, for example — are treated as equal political partners under a federal umbrella. “Treaty federalism,” he feels, can give the descendants of this country’s original peoples a large measure of self-rule.
Sovereignty, being a “claim,” is never an absolute, he reminds us. Globally, there are precedents for one state or a cluster of states to challenge the actions of others: the Genocide Convention, the World Bank and the WTO all were created with this need in mind. The European Union crowds into aspects of individual state sovereignty (at least in the eyes of the United Kingdom, which voted to leave it.) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presses its signatories to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and so forth.
There are also limits to sovereignty: Individual states cannot prevent nuclear war, solve the world’s growing migration and refugee crisis or perhaps even properly manage global pandemics. For this, nations must act in concert. Thus Russell ends his “biography of a claim” on a bit of a jarring note — a quick argument in favour of some sort of world government to counter “the incapacity of sovereign states.” This powerful world government would be “organized on a federal basis, one in which sovereign nation states maintain their self-rule over most matters of importance to their citizens, but at the same time join together to create a global government with its own independent authority to address grave issues of concern to all humankind.
“So I end my book by expressing the hope that the next step in the biography of the sovereignty claim is the consummation of a global marriage between sovereignty and federalism,” he writes.
High hopes. What would the Dene think?

Two Life & Peace Institute representatives conduct inter-community dialogue in Democratic Republic of Congo. Author Séverine Autesserre lauds the organization’s work in that country. (Photo: Life & Peace Institute)

Two Life & Peace Institute representatives conduct inter-community dialogue in Democratic Republic of Congo. Author Séverine Autesserre lauds the organization’s work in that country. (Photo: Life & Peace Institute)

The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World
By Séverine Autesserre
Oxford University Press, 2021
240 pages
Kindle: $15.12
Hardcover: $27.95

In the last five years, armed conflicts have flared in more than 50 regions around the world, affecting two billion people, costing at least US $10 trillion a year and sparking the worst global refugee crisis since the Second World War. The United Nations has 100,000 peacekeepers deployed and urgent peace or truce negotiations regularly take place between the top belligerents. Humanitarian and non-governmental organizations rush to war zones to provide aid to victims.
With so much at stake, you’d think the experts would by now have developed more effective ways to quell the violence that devastates lives decade after decade. Instead, asserts researcher Séverine Autesserre, these high-level élites often end up fooling themselves: an agreement is signed; foreign workers and aid money pour in — all looks good on paper. Yet the misery continues. Why? Can it be fixed?
In some of the least likely places on the planet, local people are answering in the affirmative, showing that there is a better path forward than relying solely on “Peace Inc.,” which is Autesserre’s term for the conventional methods, culture and approach of the UN-NGO-diplomatic community. A 20-year veteran of on-the-ground peacebuilding projects in war zones, she has the examples to prove it.
The sprawling Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of these unlikely places. Since independence from Belgium in 1960, Congo has been pummelled at various times by ethnic and social clashes, corrupt and dictatorial government, civil war, rebel infiltrations and brutal regional conflicts involving its nine neighbouring nations. It is the 11th least-developed country on Earth. Drawn-out, high-level peace talks have been hit-and-miss in terms of making people’s lives safer.
Yet during her years there, Autesserre discovered grassroots peace projects that worked extraordinarily well in specific regions. One was on the island of Idjwi on Lake Kivu, which borders Rwanda. While Idjwi has its share of crime — domestic assaults, public brawls, prejudice between tribes, etc. — it is a “haven of peace” compared to neighbouring provinces. Its own citizens have long fostered this culture. And they have done it without the assistance of national governments or big humanitarian programs.
“When there is a conflict that individuals or families cannot resolve by themselves, instead of calling the police or the army or resorting to violence, people reach out to religious networks, traditional institutions, youth groups, elders’ groups, women’s groups, and so on,” she writes. “Village elders, along with the village chiefs, have historically helped to assuage local tensions … In recent years, everyday citizens have also formed dozens of small clubs and community organizations, and they have done so without any funding.”
Local superstitions and beliefs help, too: In the case of Idjwi, there is a strong tradition of blood pacts between families, and there is a widely held belief that the guardians of ancestral power live there. Both do wonders for discouraging bloodshed.
Outsiders generally don’t learn how these kinds of characteristics can buttress peace in a given community unless they take time — often years — to listen and learn, slowly earning local trust. In another example Autesserre cites, residents of a rural part of South Kivu province were facing a sharp increase in kidnappings, murders, rape and torture. About 100,000 people in more than 50 villages were affected. The local farmers’ association approached Life & Peace Institute (a rare NGO that was doing things right) for support, then spent huge periods of time talking to kidnapping and other victims about the perpetrators, who were apparently rebels from neighbouring Rwanda. They were consistently told there were 10,000 or perhaps 100,000 insurgents.
To the local people researching this, the number sounded odd. So they kept patiently asking questions, and eventually discovered that these figures were used because the perpetrators had told people to use them. “In fact,” a farmers’ association leader told the author, “they are no more than 15 people, and they are not from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, they are a dissident group called Rasta.” This was the sort of information, he noted, that “foreigners could never get.”
But using it, Congolese troops were able to kill a handful of the Rasta gang and scare the others away. The villages slowly re-established ties to each other, and rebuilt their once-terrorized communities.
Autesserre offers lots of other examples of localized peace initiatives that have worked — from Liberia to Somaliland, to Timor-Leste to local Israel/Palestinian pacts (yes, even there) — but she is careful not to present them as utopian fixes or, in many cases, permanent solutions. Nor does she shut out conventional notions of peace-building. What she is emphasizing is that leaders negotiating at high levels often have no accurate sense of what is happening on the ground; and on-the-ground conflicts, while sometimes tied to or exacerbated by national geo-politics, are often focused on specific local tensions that can be resolved regardless of who’s sitting down for dinner with whom at the UN.
The work can also often be done cheaply, but the key is taking the lead from the people who are themselves most affected by the violence, those whose voices are often least likely to be heard. They have the most at stake for resolving conflict, and quite probably the most realistic notions of how it can be done.
And they are willing to work at it over the long-term; unlike the “Peacelanders” in foreign NGOs or political and diplomatic circles, they can’t board a plane and leave.

Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-science
By Peter J. Hotez
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021
208 pages
Hardcover: $35.30
Kindle: $27.49

“Infectious and tropical diseases are now abruptly arising in multiple hot spot areas across the globe,” writes Peter J. Hotez. And it’s mostly because of 21st-Century forces: war, poverty, climate change, urbanization and anti-science views. COVID-19 is but one example. Hotez argues that a concerted focus on “vaccine diplomacy” might be part of the solution.
As a one-time U.S. science envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, Hotez describes the concept as “simultaneous scientific and diplomatic opportunities between nations, with an overriding objective to jointly develop and test vaccines as a means to promote health, security, and peace.” The author then cites examples of how this has worked and can in future. Well and good, but Canada’s recent experience attempting to develop a COVID vaccine in concert with China might give one pause.

The Heartbeat of Iran: Real Voices of a Country and Its People
By Tara Kangarlou
Ig Publishing, New York, 2021
288 pages
Kindle: $14.07
Paperback: $28.56

An American-Iranian dual national who spent her childhood in Tehran, then her high school and college years in the United States, journalist Tara Kangarlou quickly realized the one-dimensional views Westerners, and Americans in particular, have of Iran. As a journalist and a “daughter of Persia,” she aims to change this, with a series of detailed, absorbing portraits of everyday Iranians.
While her book also provides a useful lay person’s history of Iran, it is not, she stresses, a political book. Indeed, through the people she interviews and portrays, she wants readers to conclude “there is so much more that connects us as human beings than what divides us on the global stage.”

The Peaceable Kingdom?
A History of Terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the Present
Phil Gurski
Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd., 2021
242 pages
Paperback: $25

This year is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and it is hard to remember that before them, terrorism was seen in the West mostly as a “niche phenomenon, something that happened ‘over there’,” Phil Gurksi writes. It didn’t seem like part of our own lives. Public perception has changed vastly since then; these days, it is rare for news media not to mention incidents or threats of some sort. Still, in the West, terrorism is not an existential threat as it is in many countries (the Taliban having just illustrated this in Afghanistan.)
But it is still important — often front and centre in our psyche — and this book from Gurski, who spent more than 30 years working in Canada’s security intelligence community, is a useful introduction to how our government thinks and approaches those episodes when this is not a “peaceable kingdom.”

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She has a master’s in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and is a past winner of a National Newspaper Award for international reporting.

Be Sociable, Share!


Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She holds a master's in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *