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What’s Wrong with Diplomacy? The Future of Diplomacy and the Case of China and the UK

Despite the generality of its main title, the subject of this extended (20,000 word) essay is Sino-British relations, specifically its management (or mismanagement) in the 1980s and 1990s. This analysis is then employed to inform a finale devoted to remarks on the shape diplomacy should take once the mistakes of the (Sino-British) past are acknowledged. However, the frequency with which Brown adverts to his own experiences – his brief career in British diplomacy included service in Beijing – and the tartness of his remarks regarding various British diplomats of his acquaintance, suggest that the book is also partly autobiographical.

On the management of Sino-British relations, Brown finds that the senior British diplomats charged with that responsibility were wedded to a ‘Kremlinological’ or ‘Cold War’ approach to understanding China that was distorting and constricting and became increasingly irrelevant. While he does mention other episodes where this approach produced less than satisfactory results, he is particularly scathing of the conduct of the negotiations to relinquish Hong Kong, concluded in 1984.

While the record of British diplomacy is perhaps, as Brown suggests, far from glorious, it is not entirely clear why the methods that were employed in the past were entirely inappropriate. Kremlinology, whatever its failings, was developed as a means to analyse what was otherwise inscrutable. As Brown concedes, even today ‘no one really knows what happens when the doors of the Politburo slam shut and its members go into consultation’.

Brown laments the inability of embassies to open themselves to the many new sources of information and contact that have become extensive and commonplace as a consequence of the revolutions in communications and travel. Instead of aiming at ‘engagement’, Britain should aspire to ‘commitment’ to a coherent and comprehensive Sino-British relationship. Britain’s decline in power and prestige, relative to China, is one of Brown’s major preoccupations but it is less than clear whether a popularised diplomacy would reverse or accentuate that trend. Given the major role (acknowledged in the essay) now played by Chinese property buyers, students and investors in the UK, it might even be argued that the diversification of bilateral relations he recommends has already taken place.

On this basis, Brown then proposes a transformation of all diplomacy: in short, ‘diplomacy needs to be democratised’. Advocates of the popularising – or de-professionalising – of diplomacy have long formed a school, though Brown makes no reference to any of their works. A discussion of their views might have saved his argument from some of the unsolved puzzles that it exhibits. Embassies are currently the preserve of a closed order, they must be transformed into an institution resembling ‘a think tank ..that embraces original ideas and experimentation’. Nevertheless, Brown laments the absence of an ‘overarching vision’ in the bilateral relations he discusses. Brown does not address the obvious and interesting question of how coherence could be derived from a de-centred and popularised diplomacy. Moreover, even (or especially) in China and similar political systems, that approach entails particular limitations regarding sources and interlocutors. As Brown observes, accurately if rather disarmingly, ‘think tanks in China do everything except think’.

In addition, from acting as glorified travel agents for visiting national dignitaries, embassy officials must acquire new and challenging skills. Brown expresses the view, which seems absent of any obvious ironical intent, that ‘the true test for a diplomat in the twenty-first century is to transform a visiting politician into a philosopher’. While Australia receives only the most incidental of mentions in this work, it is as well to reflect on how difficult such a task might have been for the personnel of the Australian embassy in Beijing should they have been charged with its discharge during some very recent prime ministerial terms.

From managing the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Brown has now returned to the UK to manage a similar centre at King’s College, London. The reader of this book may ponder on the likely shape of future relations between King’s and the mandarins of King Charles Street.

Kerry Brown, What’s Wrong with Diplomacy? The Future of Diplomacy and the Case of China and the UK (London & Melbourne: Penguin, 2015)

Reviewed by Professor James Cotton FAIIA, University of New South Wales, ADFA, Canberra

Published March 8, 2016